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.