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Famed Soccer Coach Gene Chyzowych: A Teacher on the Field and Leader in Life

Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, a 1987 Columbia High grad, looks back on the longtime coach's legacy.

Patch file photo
Patch file photo
By: Christopher J. Durkin

Before there were “Soccer Moms,” there was Gene Chyzowych.

I grew up in soccer-crazed Maplewood and South Orange in the 1970s and ‘80s. As a kid, I played soccer all day…every day.

At the heart of this super-charged atmosphere, built around chasing a black and white checkered leather ball, was Gene Chyzowych, or “Coach C,” as he was known to his faithful following.

Born in the Ukraine, Gene traveled with his parents and two brothers, Walter and Ihor, from war-torn Europe to America. They arrived in Philadelphia on a U.S. Navy Ship and were given $15 apiece.

He attended North Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where he was part of a team that won the City Championship in 1952. Gene then starred for four years at Temple University before graduating in 1958. He then played professionally in both the U.S. and Canada.

Chyzowych began his career as a physical education teacher and head soccer coach at Columbia High School in 1963.

He made a home in South Orange with his wife Anna and their two sons, Gene Jr. and Michael, who followed their father into the world of soccer.

Gene was the head coach of the United States men’s national soccer team in 1973 before his brother Walt took the reins, coaching the national team beginning in 1976. He also had the honor of coaching the U.S. Olympic team and was named national coach of the year twice in 1986 and 1990.

Both Gene and his brother Walt started the renowned All-American Soccer Camp which brought in professional players from around the world to teach the game.

Coach C retired with the third most wins of any scholastic soccer coach in the nation, with 757 career victories. He has four New Jersey state championships and 24 conference titles.

But the victories don’t tell the full story of how soccer in America was developed and grew because of this man. He understood the importance of grassroots programs, and began the Cougar Soccer Club in Maplewood and South Orange in 1965, which served to set up a recreation-to-club-to-high school feeder system. This system was used as the model for the feeder systems in New Jersey and throughout the country.

For 51 years, Coach C cultivated and inspired the lives of thousands of eager and impressionable young girls and boys who have, as adults, preached and taught the importance of teamwork and togetherness, and constantly find themselves repeating the “mantras” of “the coach.”

The lessons of Chyzowych are still being taught by his former players who have become some of the most prominent soccer coaches in the area. The list includes Dave Maser of St. John’s University, David Donovan of the Delbarton School, Jack Weber of Montclair, Marty Berman of Seton Hall Prep and Drew University’s Lenny Armuth.

Andrew Shue of “Melrose Place” fame was one of the many All-American soccer players under the tutelage of Coach C at Columbia High School. “When he believed in you…you just knew you could do or be anything. He was demanding in his discipline, but when you bought in, he was your greatest promoter,” Shue said.

The full story of Coach C’s legacy is not complete without mentioning the legendary Columbia High School girls’ volleyball teams. With the advent of Title IX in 1972, which intended to prohibit sex discrimination in public education and federally assisted programs, Chyzowych was given the mission of starting a girls’ volleyball team. He recruited the girls from gym class to competitive athletics. Coach C’s teams went undefeated for more than 10 years from 1977 to 1988 and accumulated a national record of 247-0.

One of his players, Amy Cohen, who captained the 1988 girls’ volleyball team, took Brown University to the Supreme Court as a student-athlete in 1991. Amy was fighting Brown University and the N.C.A.A. behemoth to implement Title IX on the collegiate level. She won.

In the end, Coach C’s teaching the games of soccer and volleyball were really all about the meaning of life. It was all about breaking barriers. It was about working hard to be a great leader and teammate. It was about seeing potential and taking action toward success. It was about the journey, and all of the triumphs and heartache along the way.

Gene Chyzowych didn’t invent the game of soccer, although some of the kids in our suburban community would argue that point, but he loved it with every fiber of his being. Soccer was his voice. The voice, that still rings in the ears of men and woman who heard that forceful, yet loving direction…that booming voice, with a strong Ukrainian accent.

Christopher J. Durkin is the Essex County Clerk and a 1987 graduate of Columbia High School.

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