Commentary

Joe Morrone: Soccer's Determined Pioneer

By Paul Gardner

Joe Morrone (1935-2015). I have quite a few memories of Joe, all of them pleasant and friendly. Which is quite surprising when you consider that he and I strongly disagreed on almost everything relating to soccer.

I suppose that made us adversaries, but our relationship never featured any animosity, and for that, I can thank Joe. He was a man I found it impossible to dislike, a courteous presence, solid and firm in his opinions ... firm, because he so obviously, sincerely, believed in what he was doing.

Back in the 1970s what he was doing, what he was trying to do at UConn, was to give importance to soccer. In those days that meant you had to be prepared to rock the boat, the smooth-sailing boat of NCAA sports, which were (and still are) dominated by football people and the football mentality.

Soccer, thanks to the activities of the old NASL, was beginning to make its presence felt, particularly at the youth level. At that level, it was in the process of becoming a big deal in Connecticut.

Plenty of colleges had soccer teams, but in most of them the sport languished as a minor activity, treated with disdain or outright dislike. Morrone would not accept that soccer had to be a second class sport. Rather than settle for a quiet life of compliance, he chose to challenge the status quo, to butt heads with authority, to demand the best for his players, to ensure that UConn paid attention to soccer and, of course, to increase the funding for the program.

That could not have been easy. I cannot imagine it was accomplished without a good deal of strenuous arguing and plenty of mulish stubbornness. Morrone would stick to his guns, for sure. Maybe, during those arguments, he even shouted -- I can’t envisage that, not the Morrone that I knew. But I have no doubt that Joe knew how to be forceful when he had to be.

After a decade of head-butting and team-building, Morrone had, by the early 1980s turned UConn into a national power. I had followed the team’s progress, occasionally getting up to Storrs to watch a game. I wasn’t particularly impressed, I didn’t like the style of play, and in particular I found Morrone’s promiscuous use of substitutes a virtual mockery of the game.

The full absurdity of the situation was brought home to me at a UConn game in 1982. Maybe there was no press box in those days, and I found myself sitting in the front row, down near the halfway line. At some point in the second half, I looked up from my scribbling to find that I could not see the field of play at all. My line of vision was completely blocked by a line of five (maybe even six) UConn substitutes standing on the touch line, right in front of me, all ready to swoop into the game at the same moment.

This was soccer? So, after the game, I asked a scathing question or two about this. My scorn simply bounced of Morrone. Totally unperturbed, Joe calmly replied, “This is what the rules of our sport allow. If I think those rules can help me win, I’d be stupid not to use them.”

Yes, but ... Forget it. There were no “Yes, buts” with Morrone. I wanted, of course, to point out that his players were not playing according to FIFA rules, that this meant they were learning a distorted version of the sport, and that this would inevitably make difficulties for them if they wanted to continue playing, maybe even as a pro.

But this was deja vu time. I had been through all of this ten years earlier with Cliff Stevenson, the coach at Brown University -- and another of the early college soccer pioneers. When I ranted on to Stevenson, he merely told me “No one told me it was my job to produce pro players.” Which was unanswerable then, unanswerable in Morrone’s time, and remains unanswerable today. It is a statement that lies at the heart of the problems caused by the college game.

Morrone played by the college rules and in 1981 he got the reward for all his stubborn hard-work when UConn won the NCAA’s Division 1 championship.

By then, things were changing, rapidly and deeply. Morrone, I was told by some of his players and former players, ran his team with marine-like discipline. One of them assured me that when UConn took the field, each player holding a ball, they had to make sure the valve was facing downward -- a martinettish approach that was going out of style.

There was also the matter of the flying clip boards. Morrone was notorious for sideline tantrums, and for slamming his clip board into the turf. To me, these explosions always looked like theater - comedic Chaplinesque moments, but I suppose I was simply trying to fit them into my personal experience of a much calmer Morrone.

I crossed swords again with Morrone in 1996 (and, again, my sword was quickly blunted), when the Federation and MLS announced Project-40, a program of youth development which, in effect, was aimed at steering top young players away from college. Addressing a gathering of top college coaches, Morrone argued that Project-40 was not entitled to interfere, and made the extraordinary (to me) statement that “these are our players.”

But my protests to Morrone fell on the now familiar stony, unyielding ground. Because, once again, Morrone really did believe in college soccer, almost as though it was a natural life-stage in the development of young players.

Nothing I said was going to alter Morrone’s deep conviction.

Yet, to my astonishment, Morrone had told me, a year earlier, that he would consider recruiting foreign players “if that’s what it takes.” I don’t think he had time to get around to it. Because 1996 was the year that Morrone lost his job at UConn - “asked to step down” was what people said. His team wasn’t winning, other more successful colleges were importing key foreigners. Morrone’s steadfast devotion to American players was now backfiring as it was precisely the young Americans -- the targets of Morrone’s recruitment -- who were most turned off by his disciplinarian approach.

The marginalization of Morrone was not something I could feel happy about. Because I liked the guy. And I admired him, because he had clearly defined beliefs, and he stood by them. I found him believable and genuine. And wrong, of course -- but that ceased to matter as the years rolled on and, sadly, began to leave Morrone behind.

But he leaves a massive legacy. He did a tremendous amount of work for the sport -- not only within the college game (which I had come to see as a dead end) -- but also, and more significantly I think, he played a vital role in the development of youth soccer in Connecticut. But maybe his true importance was that, at a time when soccer was struggling for acceptance as a major sport, he fervently promoted the sport, made sure people paid attention, would not accept the view of soccer as a minor sport.

An influential pioneer, for sure -- and a brave, honest man. Joe Morrone.

6 comments about "Joe Morrone: Soccer's Determined Pioneer".
  1. John Polis, September 25, 2015 at 1:34 p.m.

    Nice piece, Paul, on one of the true memorable personalities of the college game in the United States. As you said, when the game was struggling for attention, he "willed" it into existence at UConn, which in turn helped other schools grow the game.

  2. Spence Millen, September 25, 2015 at 3:07 p.m.

    Paul, I really liked your piece about Coach Morrone. In all my time in college soccer I never met anyone like him. I, too, found his commitment to his principles to be admirable. Guys like him had no artifice whatsoever. He was a straightforward as they come. Quite a contrast to a few coaches I met along the way who would bottle up just about anything and sell it as a wonder elixir.

  3. Kent James, September 29, 2015 at 9:36 a.m.

    Good article; it's nice that you can be so respectful of someone whose view of the game is obviously diametrically opposed to yours. While I never met Morrone, anyone aware of soccer in the 1980s in the US knew who he was, because he was so important to college soccer becoming significant, and for some time during the 1980s, there was no real pro league (after the demise of the NASL). Morrone was certainly one of the great builders of American soccer, and the prominence of college soccer today owes much to the man.

  4. Tim Schum, September 29, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.

    Paul: Very fair assessment of Joe. He was one of a kind.

    Related to your comments was Joe's contention that while you (and others) believed that college soccer did not have a role to play in producing players for our national teams, a survey of our men's roster in Brazil revealed that, even now, a good majority of those players had spent some time on college rosters.

    It might be worthwhile for Klinsman and US Soccer to spend some time (and a portion of its monies) to study how he and it could work with the collegiate soccer coaching community to elevate even further a mutual player development strategy.

    Much of progress (new college stadiums and soccer-related facilities) are modeled after what Joe Morrone first produced at UConn.

    Why is it that MLS and US Soccer have never tried in serious fashion to work with the collegiate community to enhance rather than dismiss its potential to aid in the player development area?

    For instance, there is a movement to institute a two-seasonal calendar into collegiate soccer. That approach would allow for more practice (development) time and also encourage a more meaningful national championship(s) each spring.

    There are plenty of worthy collegiate coaches who could work in concert with national staff to produce players who will eventually emerge on national team rosters. Not by happenstance, but by design.

    In his day, Joe Morrone proved that that the collegiate model could work both to grow the sport and produce players.

    At this point in time, why is the collegiate model not embraced instead of being allowed to survive as best it can versus entrenched political interests such as the NCAA and others.

    When today there is a strong push back against football participation due to the threat of long term injury, it might be the time for all of the soccer community to unite politically to ensure that it make effective utilization of all of its resources to further the continued growth of the game.

    But such an initiative will need persons with the foresight and ambition of Joe Morrone spearheading it.

  5. Kent James replied, October 1, 2015 at 12:11 a.m.

    Well put!

  6. Ed Cullen, October 10, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

    I knew Joe the coach and I knew Joe the man. A finer man I have never met in life.

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