Gene Chyzowych compiled a legendary career as the longtime soccer coach at Columbia High School. He passed away in May of 2014, but his imprint on the sport and on both the Maplewood and South Orange soccer communities remains quite memorable. (Photo by Doug Allen)
Columbia's Longtime Coach
Blazed Indelible Trail In Life
…A Look Back On The Legacy Of Essex Coaching Icon
By Sean Reilly
For the better part of 50 years, one vehicle always stood out from the others parked on fall afternoons at Cameron Field in South Orange.
From the 1970s into the '80s, it was a big station wagon. Two summers ago it was a Ford SUV. But no matter the era, it was always been easy to spot Gene Chyzowych's car, because the back half was always packed solid with soccer balls and other equipment, ranging from corner flags to nets to practice cones.
To some passersby, it might have seemed like clutter. But to the thousands of kids who've played over the years for the man they've known as ``Mr. C,'' it was a sign of his devotion to the sport as well as the youth in South Orange and Maplewood, all of which made him far and away the guiding force in the growth of soccer within the communities.
A remarkable life came to end when Gene Chyzowych, the boys soccer coach at Columbia High School from 1964 to first part of the 2013 season, passed away on May 10, 2014, after a long illness at the age of 79.
Chyzowych left behind not just a loving family, but thousands of former players who competed for his teams in soccer and also in girls volleyball at the South Orange-Maplewood school.
Those ex-players are now mourning the loss of a man who was known to all of them as a leader, teacher, father-figure, and more.
``Mr. C was a powerful presence,'' said David Donovan, a 1987 Columbia graduate who later played at Brown University and has also become one of the state's most successful current boys soccer coaches at Delbarton.
``Anyone who had the good fortune to play for him encountered an unforgettable personality -- an amalgam of old world Europe in new world America,'' Donovan said. ``With a barrel chest, muscular legs, sharp eyes and an often-imitated but never duplicated Ukrainian accent, Mr. C said everything with passion as if it was urgent that his young charges took in the significance of each word he was imparting.''
Chyzowych was born in the Ukraine and settled with his family in Philadelphia in the late 1940s. He was an All-City player at Northwest Catholic, where he was known locally as ``The Educated Toe.'' His play earned him a scholarship and more recognition at Temple University.
He got his New Jersey high school coaching start in 1961, working as an assistant to the legendary Otto Haas at Chatham.
``It was hard getting a job in Philadelphia, because there were so many candidates from all of the universities there,'' he said. ``So people suggested that I should apply for jobs in New Jersey, and Chatham was one of the places. The principal hired me there because he loved my accent and liked the fact that, aside from my major in physical education, I had a minor in Russian and he wanted to introduce that into the curriculum.''
When he started applying for other jobs after a couple of years, Haas told him to check out Columbia.
``He told me how it was one of the best schools in the country, and how they had so many great things there, and he was right,'' Chyzowych said.
But if not for one helpful administrator within the South Orange-Maplewood District, he might never have worked at Columbia, but at Manchester Regional in Passaic County instead. And the reason, of all things, had to do with his teeth.
``They told me they couldn't hire me at Columbia because of my dental work,'' he said. ``Columbia at the time was not just one of the top schools in the state, but in the entire country, where people wore jackets and ties and were very formal. After my years of playing soccer with the flying elbows and arms, I had a few chips here and there. So I went to another interview at Manchester Regional and they offered me a job, which I was going to take because I didn't have much money or any insurance to get my teeth fixed. But one of the people at the district office, Dr. Goble, worked it all out for me and I got hired at Columbia.''
Upon his arrival at the school in 1963, Chyzowych worked one year as an assistant under Bill Holmok before taking over the program in 1964. The first year for the team was in 1961, when it finished 4-8. The next two teams were a combined 0-22-2. The '64 team, the first under Chyzowych, finished 3-9-1. The next two teams also closed below .500, but Columbia did not experience another losing campaign until 1995. From 1970 through that '95 season, only three teams lost more than three games.
In 1965, the seeds for future success were planted when Chyzowych established the Cougar Soccer Club to serve as a feeder system for the high school program. The concept, which seems so ordinary today, was virtually unheard of at the time. It established a talented pipeline to the varsity program, and got so many of the large families residing in the two towns interested in soccer. Over the years, well over a hundred families have had at least two siblings play for the Cougars. Others -- like the Defino's -- had as many as five brothers play for Chyzowych. Another family was his own -- sons Gene and Michael played for their dad, and now have their own kids. In the days ahead, Chyzowych is looking forward to watching his young grandchildren compete in the local circuit.
``The Cougar Soccer Club allowed us to develop a farm club,'' he said. ``It was not only a chance to teach the little kids in town the game, but give them a passion for it, which they could also pass along to their brothers and their friends. At that time, it was hard to sell soccer to American families. We were getting them to like the game, and as they got older, they were the ones who became ambassadors to the younger kids in town.''
The recreation directors in both towns also helped promote the movement, and the sport took off locally long before the soccer boom hit elsewhere.
Jim Madden, who graduated in 1979 and is a borough councilman in New Providence, heads the Columbia Soccer Alumni Association, which has close to 300 members. Madden, whose father was a beloved elementary school principal in town, was among those pulled into the sport through the recreation program and the Cougar Soccer Club. He was a senior on the 1978 team that won the school's first Group 4 state championship with a 3-1 win over Brick on a frigid Saturday afternoon at Giants Stadium.
``There were no imports on our team,'' Madden said. ``Our first team together was when we were Alexander's Exxon when we were 11 and 12 years old. ''
Not only that, of the 29 players on that 1978 team, 15 had brothers who had one time or another also played for the varsity.
The Columbia program began to take off during the early 1970s, when Madden and the other youngsters in town were influenced by early stars like Bill Burks. The varsity may have gained perhaps the biggest victory in its all-time history in 1971, when sophomore Elson Seale scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory at Haas-coached Chatham Borough, which ended the Eskies' 58-game overall winning streak and five-year winning skein at home.
``That was absolutely one of the highlights,'' Chyzowych said. ``When the kids got on the bus after that game, they were bouncing up and down the whole ride home. That was the game that gave us the shot in the arm. It meant a lot for the future of the program, because it created so much interest. It also meant a lot for me, because Otto was always a gentleman and I've always remembered his words from when he congratulated me that day, because it was also the first time a quality coach had said good things about our team, because we played so well that day.''
While the varsity teams in the early and mid-70s were waging fierce battles with the likes of Kearny and Bloomfield in the Big Ten Conference, the feeder system was developing the group that sent the program toward its most successful period. The state championship victory over Brick capped a 22-1-1 season.
``That was a sensational win,'' Chyzowych said. ``We came from behind early to beat a very good team. Winning the first state championship opened a lot of doors for the future. It was easier to get assistant coaches, equipment and other things, like making sure we had JV and freshman teams.''
Madden was a senior on that team, which included standouts like Dave Brienza, Dave Masur, Brian Kerrigan, Jack Weber, Chip Confalone and the late Willie Shue.
The Cougars then went 24-0-2 in 1979 and repeated as Group 4 champs with a 2-1 win over Neptune in the Group 4 title game at Mercer County Park in West Windsor. Columbia returned to the final in 1980, but lost to Neptune.
The run of success continued beyond that season. The next three teams all won North 2, Group 4 titles, but lost to Kearny in epic state semifinal games. But Columbia was entrenched as an elite program in the state, and Chyzowych -- who also coached the U.S. National Team for a time in the early 70s -- was recognized as one the top coaches. Additional Group 4 titles also came in 1989 and 1998. Over the years, Chyzowych has also guided the Cougars to a total of 13 Essex County Tournament titles and 16 sectional crowns.
But despite all of the wins, what means most to Chyzowych is following the successful paths that so many former players have embarked upon in their adult lives. Cougar soccer alums have become successful in virtually every field, ranging from medicine to car dealerships to television.
Others have become successful coaches. Masur, who built St. John's into an elite program from scratch and led the Red Storm to the NCAA National Championship in 1996, graduated in 1980. Lenny Armuth, who graduated in 1982, is in his 20th season as the head coach at Drew, where he entered this season with an all-time record of 278-93-30 that includes an NCAA Division 3 runner-up finish in 2003.
Two of his former players have won state titles as high school coaches -- Marty Berman at Seton Hall Prep and David Donovan at Delbarton. Weber has been the long-time successful coach at Montclair, while Kevin Williams, who has won Essex County titles as both the boys basketball and golf coach at Seton Hall Prep, was a 1984 graduate. Burks, who died in 2010, was a well-respected coach and administrator at West Milford.
``The success the former players have had is what I am most proud of,'' Chyzowych said. ``It means so much to see all that they've become.''
If the soccer legacy isn't enough, Chyzowych also attained unbelievable success coaching a totally different sport at Columbia -- girls volleyball. He had played the sport over the years both as a boy in Europe and in Philadelphia, and was given the task of starting the Cougars' program from scratch when it began in the spring of 1977.
The team went 247-0 before losing its first regular season match against Johnson Regional in Chyzowych's last year at the helm in 1988. A large part of the volleyball formula was to somewhat emulate the Cougar Soccer Club by establishing a side program -- the South Orange Maples -- that developed players and allowed them to compete throughout the year against strong competition. They would annually compete in the AAU junior Olympics and even played a match at Madison Square Garden before the United States men faced China in an exhibition a month before the 1984 Summer Olympics. And like the soccer group, Chyzowych takes pride in how those players have become successful adults, with several of them becoming coaches themselves.
``Our philosophy was that you couldn't be good or excellent,'' he said. ``You had to be perfect. And we used the same model and did a lot of the same things that we did when we had started the soccer club.''
They came from near and far, men and women representing six decades and two different sports, all for the purpose of honoring a man who played a distinct role in shaping their lives.
Over 200 former players, co-workers and friends gathered on April 4, 2014 at the Manor in West Orange to celebrate the career of Gene Chyzowych, who retired during the 2013 fall season after spending 51 years on the staff at Columbia High, including 50 as the head soccer coach and a dozen as the founding coach of the girls volleyball program.
Chyzowych exited with a career soccer record of 758-218-73, dating back to when he took over the program in 1964 after serving as an assistant the prior season. He is the third winningest high school soccer coach in United States history. His teams won four NJSIAA Group 4 championships, 13 Essex County Tournament crowns and 16 North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 titles.
On the volleyball side, he was the founder of the program in 1977 after plucking many potential players from gym classes. The team didn't lose its first regular-season match until 1988, going 247-0 before falling for the first time during his final year at the helm.
He was a visionary, most evident in his founding of the Cougar Soccer Club in 1965. The idea of building a feeder system within the community, which exists in practically every town today, was a new concept in an era when most players learned the game playing for ethnic-based clubs.
He brought the same concept over to volleyball, where the town club team, the South Orange Maples, allowed girls to be introduced to the game and then learn and play beyond the high school season while at Columbia.
While his won-lost records have been worthy of Hall of Fame inductions on the national, state and local levels, what brought his former players out in force for the 2014 dinner was the way in which he taught them, and the life lessons they learned in the process.
Follow Sean Reilly on Twitter @SeanReillyHS
(Editor's Note: As part of our summertime retrospectives we look at the life and career of one of New Jersey's memorable sports figures)
Columbia's legendary soccer coach Gene Chyzowych (right) is joined by one of his former players Marty Berman, who is the veteran coach at Seton Hall Prep. The two got together during a special banquet to honor the longtime Columbia head mentor in April of 2014, one month before his passing at the age 79. (photo courtesy of Columbia Soccer)
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