Russo teaching soccer, changing lives
Williams head coach embarking upon 33rd season with Ephs
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- It's difficult to make Mike Russo talk about himself even if you ask him direct questions. So it is necessary to get others to talk about Mike Russo.
Mike Russo did not invent being humble -- he just lives it.
Entering his 33rd year at Williams in 2011, Russo has posted 28 consecutive winning seasons. In 27 of his 32 campaigns, Russo's booters have won at least 10 games in a regular season that contains but 14 contests.
"There is no better gentleman in the game of college soccer than Mike Russo," longtime assistant coach Tom Demeo said. "He competes as hard as he can, but he respects every opponent, his kids, and the game itself. Every time we go to a youth soccer tournament to look at potential Williams players, a father or mother of someone Mike has recruited in the past will stop him and say hi, even if their son did not go to Williams."
Even more impressive to Demeo, who will be coaching alongside Russo for the 19th year this fall, is what Russo does each year after the Williams admission office makes its decisions. "Up until about five years ago, Mike sent a handwritten note to each of the kids that he recruited that did not get into Williams, telling them that there are a lot of good schools out there and to make the best of their chances wherever they go. Now there are so many he sends an email."
Demeo shakes his head, turns to the side and then back. Blinking away a tear he says, "Who wouldn't want to play for a coach that knows the game, loves the game, loves his kids, and works at it just as hard as he expects his kids to work?"
Russo might nod his head when you ask him if he was the first college soccer coach in the nation in any division to win national coach of the year honors back-to-back (1987 and '88), but he will quickly add, "I had some very, very good players."
That's Russo-speak for 'let's move this conversation along.'
Don't even think about asking Russo about the two additional times he was named the national coach of the year.
Russo did have some very, very good players with multiple Ephs being named First Team All-America in a season 10 times. What really highlights these accomplishments is that many were achieved prior to 1993 when NESCAC teams were first permitted to participate in the NCAA Championship.
Angie Russo, Mike's wife of 42 years, remembers how excited Mike was for the beginning of his fourth season (1982). Mike told Angie, "If we can just win this first game against RPI, I think the guys will begin to believe they can be successful and we can have a good season." After the tough 1-0 loss to RPI, Angie asked Mike, "What does this mean?" Mike responded softly, "It means I don't think we're going to be here much longer." Nothing could have been further from the truth.
"I think his next option was to go sell grass seed with my father if it didn't work out at Williams," said Angie.
Russo was jolted by loss to RPI, but there was no way he would cash in his season after one game. He would figure out a way to continue to get the boys to embrace his system, his style of play, and coach the heck out of them.
It's hard to believe that in his first three years at Williams, Mike Russo's teams went from winning just eight games total (2.67/year) to making four trips to the NCAA semifinal, winning the 1995 title, finishing second in 1993 and third in both 1998 and 2009.
The 1982 Ephs came together after that first loss and fashioned a four-game win streak that was punctuated by a 1-0 win at Division I Dartmouth.
That Eph team turned it around for Russo at Williams, notching his first All-American in back Rob Kusel in 1984.
"I learned from Mike that consistency is an essential part of living and performing a productive life," Kusel said. "The way he relates to players is also tremendously consistent: He never raises his voice and he always provides constructive criticism. In my day, his halftime speeches always made us perform better, and we generally outplayed each and every team in the second half because of his tactical abilities."
There is no way to underestimate the value of recruiting in college athletics. Though an inexact science, recruiting must be as accurate and prosperous as possible to ensure continuity and success.
Winning attracts good athletes and as it turned out, it also attracted two very good two-sport athletes to Williams in Mike Masters (’89) and Dan Calichman ’90, who became perennial All-Americans, and each earned two caps with the U.S. National Team.
Masters was a pure scorer who also enjoyed playing basketball while Calichman wanted to play lacrosse. Ivy League institutions wanted them to choose one sport.
Masters was the first American professional player to score a goal in England's famed Wembley Stadium and Calichman was the first American to play in Japan's J-League and was named the defender of the year in the inaugural season of MLS while playing for the L.A. Galaxy.
Calichman, now the head coach at Claremont McKenna College, got his ego bruised when he first showed up at Williams.
"I came to Williams as a central midfielder and the first day Mike put me in the back, central back," noted Calichman. "I was a little surprised to say the least, but it gave me a long career… he just knew that central back was the position for me. Next to my parents coach Russo has been the biggest influence on my life. He is just a solid person who works hard expects the same from his players. When you put on the Williams shirt you want to win for the team and for him."
Russo is a creature of routine. He leaves his house in The Knolls at about 7 each morning and goes on a run of at least three miles. Often his route takes him past the men’s soccer field on Cole Field as the morning fog is lifting off the Frog Pond and the playing field – a site not to be missed. Wednesdays are hill days so Russo sprints from Denison Gatehouse at the bottom of Spring Street to the Susan Hopkins House. He does eight hill sprints every Wednesday.
"Coach Russo is the ultimate student of the game and an amazing tactician," noted former Eph standout Brad Murray ’97, the NSCAA National Player of the Year in 1996 and holder of NCAA Tournament scoring record (eight). "He’s constantly watching and learning from games and practices. As a team we were always so well prepared tactically, mentally, and physically. I always felt like we won our games during practice and game day was just when our opponents found out."
San Jose Earthquakes starting midfielder Khari Stephenson ’04, who has also played numerous times for the Jamaican National Team comments, "Coach Russo's greatest strength is getting everyone on the same page. So many times teams have players with huge egos. He was able to get us to play as one, where each player knew his role and executed it for the betterment of the team."
Fourth-year Williams head men's basketball coach Mike Maker has become a close associate of Russo's through a mutual connection with current Notre Dame head soccer coach Bobby Clarke who was at Dartmouth with Maker.
"Bobby raved about Mike as a person and as a coach," stated Maker. I have come to see Mike as a mentor and a role model for me and a lot of people both on campus and in town.
"Mike Russo has a tremendous will to win, but he also has great humility and it is clear he is coaching for all the right reasons. I'm impressed with the large number of lives he's shaped and changed using soccer as his vehicle.
"I've come to him about tactics and team situations and he always has something to say to make the situation better," Maker continued. "If I go more than a day or two without talking to him I find that I crave his knowledge and wisdom."
Rob Blanck '89 an All-American goalie for the Ephs and currently the goalie coach for the women's team at the U.S. Naval Academy notes, "Now that I've been in college coaching for 20 years I appreciate Mike even more. Nothing I can say or write will do justice for his impact on me, and so many others. Nothing I can say or write will do justice to his character and dedication.
"Nobody loves the game like Coach and nobody prepares for preseason, daily training, or matches as well or as thoroughly as coach. To this day, I think the biggest reason Williams is successful is because he out-coaches his counterpart on game day but, just as importantly, also every other day."
"I refer to Coach Russo as the 'Wizard of Williamstown,' with humble reference to the immortal John Wooden," stated Western New England head coach Erin Sullivan, goalie on the 1995 NCAA title team. "Both men have been great purveyors of wisdom and winners, in sport and in life. They teach the game from the ground up, sparing no detail in instruction and extolling the virtues of repetitious practice. The same principles are emphasized -- fundamentals, teamwork, self-sacrifice. You must strive to excel in every facet of the game."
"Coach taught us that success had less to do with talent and more to do with hard work, teamwork, and humility. From day one, we set specific incremental goals, both individual and team, and we did so out loud in front of one another, so there was no boasting or cowardice."
"As I've entered the professional world, I think Russo's lessons apply well," commented All-American and NSCAA Scholar-All-American Patrick Huffer, now in medical school at the University of Vermont. "In order to succeed and be a good leader, I try to remember that I am committed to my own development but also to the "team" I work with. That means that by taking extra effort to improve my skills and knowledge, I help those I work with and for. Just as I endured sprint workouts on Cole Field, I have to be willing to sacrifice my time and energy for the requirements of my profession, but the payoff is there."
There were times after Russo got the Williams program moving forward and recording success on the regional and national levels that he did think of leaving the Purple Valley for what he thought might be even greener pastures.
What Russo found when he when he looked in particular at Ivy League openings was that the pay was not all that different and the further his team would go in the NCAA Division I postseason the less competitive they would be because Ivy League teams are not scholarship supported.
Russo did however; agree to leave Williams for another job in the soccer world, but only briefly. In 1995 during Christmas break, Russo called Williams SID Dick Quinn and told Quinn, "I just want you to know that in the next couple of days it will be announced that I will be joining the New England Revolution as an assistant to Frank Stapleton, but please do not release that information yet. I just wanted you to know so you would be ready when the media contacted you."
Quinn assured Russo he would not say anything to the media. About three hours after the initial call Russo called Quinn again. "I've changed my mind, I'm not going to the Revolution," said Russo. "I met with [athletic director] Bob Peck and he informed some of the members of the administration that I was leaving and they asked me to consider taking a sabbatical in case I did not like the professional game. That way I could come back to Williams. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I already had the best job in the world, so I called the Revolution and thanked them for the offer and declined."
While the official record indicates that in 1995 when Russo guided the Ephs to the NCAA Division III title his team compiled a record of 17-0-2, the Ephs actually did lose a game that year. Russo's varsity lost to Russo's alumni on Cole Field before the official season began. Even Mike Russo can't out work and out coach Mike Russo sometimes.
In 1995, the Ephs won their first nine games before settling for a 1-1 tie with Amherst on Cole Field. After seven more wins in a row, the 1-1 score was duplicated on November 18th in the national semifinals when Russo's boys advanced to the title tilt versus Methodist College after defeating Muhlenberg 6-5 on penalty kicks.
A 2-1 win over previously undefeated Methodist on Cole Field gave the Ephs the NCAA crown.
The 1995 season had begun with a pre-season trip to Ireland where the team trained with the best coaches in the Emerald Isle, but upon return to the U.S. and before arriving back at campus, the outlook for the season ran smack into a brick wall. Midfielder, captain, and inspirational team leader Matt Stauffer '97 was diagnosed with leukemia. Not only was Stauffer out for the year, he was in a fight for his life.
Stauffer held off leukemia as long as he could and when he finally succumbed to the disease in Boston in January of 1998 he was surrounded by family, friends, teammates, and, of course, Mike Russo.
"I am always struck by what a vastly important role coach Russo had in helping Matt and his friends deal with such a tragedy -- at an age when you may be too old to cry to your parents, but not old enough to know that you need to," stated Matt's sister Hannah, a 2005 graduate.
"Coach Russo ushered Matt and his teammates through what had probably been their most traumatizing life event. And of course, he did it with the grace, compassion, and tenderness that are so characteristic of coach Russo. I am sure he coached those young men through the meaning of life and death during those years. And you can tell they have the utmost love and appreciation for a man who was their guiding light in that dark time. He is not just like a father to those men. He and Tom Demeo were, in a way, like spiritual guides. Matt's teammates were forever changed not just from Matt's death but mostly from the love, resilience, and loyalty that Demeo and Russo taught them."
"Mike Russo was not only the best of coaches; he became that surrogate parent who led his team and our family through the worst and best of times," Matt's mom Julie said. "Compassionate, quiet, tender, gentle, humble, determined, dedicated -- not many coaches can be described in such diverse and eloquent terms, but that's Mike Russo. The personal times he reached out to my family and to Matt gave us added strength to meet each difficult challenge. Each January as we gather around Matt's stone, Mike is there with his current team, integrating us all in collected memories of Matt, bridging the gap of current team members with Matt's teammates with his quiet leadership and compassionate spirit."
Matt Stauffer's No. 10 jersey is the only retired number in Williams' men's soccer history. Annually there is a Run for the Cure race on campus in Stauffer's memory and the annual presentation of the Matt Stauffer award to the Eph player "who best exemplifies the highest commitment to excellence both on and off the field."
Matt Stauffer's mantra was, "Run for yourself, run for your mates."
Team Russo, wife Angela and son Derek (now with State Street Bank), know full well Mike's passion for the game and coaching, "In my opinion, he is most happy watching a soccer game, drinking a Spaten, munching on peanuts and observing tactical differences in the teams he is watching," notes Derek. "He loves to get away to Florida with my mother after the season and relax in South Palm Beach. Their condo is a stone's throw from the beach and he gets his Starbucks coffee and reads The Sun, a British paper, with great football coverage."
"It always amazes me how creative he can be as a soccer coach, because he is not that way in life," states Angie. "Everything else he has to make a plan for and there is a process he goes through for getting the job done."
Derek admires his father as a great coach, "His passion is coaching and soccer. He has a big heart and is an even better father. He is always there for me and I believe his players feel this."
Amusing to Derek are his dad's "issues," as he calls them. "He's always losing his keys, wallet, anything to lose he will lose it," claims Derek. "Even in Texas in 2009 before the national semifinals he dropped the players' meal money in a drain on the field and after the game they had to bring in a heavy piece of equipment to lift up the drain… later he's blow drying the bills in the hotel room at midnight."
Mike Russo is not planning to go anywhere else having already discounted opportunities in the Ivy League, Division I, and with an MLS team.
The Russo message of competing at all times, in training and in games, and has been carried forward to the 2011 Eph team.
"Nothing matters to coach Russo more than competitiveness, and when you start matching his competitiveness, that's when things get fun," notes senior midfielder and co-captain Nick Pugliese. "When you respect the game and want to win it as much as he does, that's when he trusts you to run it. He trusts you to take fun practices seriously, to handle ourselves off the field like professionals, and ultimately to make the decisions on the field. Coach Russo is paradoxically at his best when he is saying the least: He has so thoroughly prepped his players that their performance is an extension of his regimen."
"His commitment to excellence and indefatigable hunger for more are enough of a reason to give your heart, body, and soul every time you step on the pitch wearing the Williams colors," states Eph junior back and 2011 co-captain Matt Ratacjzak. "He has taught me that in order to succeed, countless sacrifices must be made for the team and that the focus needs to be on the process, not the final result. Coach is an inspirational figure in our Williams soccer family, for his sheer presence and devotion to the team. He fires guys up like you wouldn't even imagine. It's truly something to experience first-hand."
He would never say so and he would surely contest the idea, but Mike Russo is men's soccer at Williams and he will be for a long, long time if he ever decides to stop coaching.