Soccer’s Right Man
By Michelle Brunner
As a young boy trying to escape communism in the 1940s, Gene Chyzowych was a long way from the manicured lawns and center-hall Colonials of Maplewood and South Orange. He and his family fled their Ukrainian homeland and set off through Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, finally settling in Germany.
"Most of the time we were traveling, dragging little wagons behind us with our property through the Alps," he says. "We slept between cows and horses in stables. We learned how to survive. We washed ourselves in the river. We ate grass." Like many displaced people of that era, they spent a great deal of time in refugee camps. It was better than life on the run, but there wasn’t much to do if you were a kid. "They formed schools for us," Chyzowych recalls, "but mostly we just played soccer."
More than a half-century later, Chyzowych is a Maplewood/South Orange soccer legend. If his name seems familiar, maybe you’ve driven by it on Parker Avenue just west of the railroad tracks, where a sign reads "Gene Chyzowych Soccer Field. " Or maybe you’re one of the thousands of students whose lives he’s touched as a coach at Columbia High School, where he singlehandedly created the Cougar soccer dynasty, as well as the innovative scouting system responsible for its talent.
He is also one of the winningest high-school coaches in American soccer history, with 720 victories. He has even been a coach for the U.S. Olympic team. This year he was inducted into the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame.
The root of his success is a fierce competitiveness. "The first understanding between me and my players is that I want them to be perfect," says Chyzowych, affectionately known as Coach C. "They are smart enough to know that’s impossible in soccer, because a soccer game is made up of mistakes and the team that makes fewer mistakes wins. It is impossible to play soccer without losing the ball." He pauses. "But we don’t talk about that."
Chyzowych isn’t just an exceptional coach – he’s an inspirational figure to the many players who have passed through his teams over the years. Some former Cougars have even grown into outstanding coaches in their own right, including David Masur (class of ‘80), now head coach at St. Johns University; Lenny Armuth (‘81), head coach at Drew University; Jack Weber (‘79), head coach at Montclair High School; and Marty Berman (‘70), head coach at Seton Hall Prep.
"I think so many of us are successful because he instilled that work ethic," Weber says. "Some kids brought more to the table than others, but he worked to get the best out of everyone." And he’s still motivating new kids every year. Says Berman: "I think he’s coaching as well as, if not better than, he ever has."
Chyzowych’s family got out of Europe and moved to the U.S., settling near Philadelphia in 1952. "When we finally came to America, we couldn’t speak English," he says. "Soccer made us secure. It made us a little more confident." He and his brother Walter were unusually gifted players. Both later scored soccer scholarships to Temple University, where they graduated with degrees in physical education, and after college both played professionally in the American Soccer League.
In 1964, Chyzowych landed a coaching job at Columbia High School, a wildly different place than it is today. "The superintendent told me I had to fix my teeth," he recalls. "Sometimes when you play you take an elbow to the teeth, and mine were cracked. At that time, to go to the cafeteria you had to wear a tie and jacket."
Many years have passed since Chyzowych had to dress up for meat loaf, and he’s seen a lot of changes during that time. When he started, he had to recruit players from phys ed class because the kids thought soccer was for "sissies." From those humble beginnings, he built a team that quickly grew into a powerhouse, winning its first state title in a dramatic, now-legendary 1979 game at Giants Stadium.
Cougar soccer was the backdrop for the 2007 film Gracie, a fictionalized account of a teen girl’s struggle to play soccer on the boys’ team, loosely based on the real-life experiences of Elisabeth and Andrew Shue (both of whom produced and appear in the film) growing up in South Orange. Chyzowych inspired a major character in the film, a tough but fair coach played by John Doman (Damages, The Wire).
Not a lot of high school athletic instructors become characters in Hollywood movies, but Chyzowych isn’t just any locker-room leader. He instills qualities in his players that will serve them well not only on the field, but also for the rest of their lives. "The more intelligent you are, the better the soccer player you’ll be," he says. "Once you make good decisions on the field, you learn how to make good decisions in your life. You’ll make some mistakes, but you won’t give up."
Michelle Brunner lives in Maplewood with her husband, Rob, and their 3-year-old son, Leo. She’s written about music, fashion, food and design for Entertainment Weekly, the New York Post, the Village Voice, Budget Travel, Blender, and Seventeen.