ICON SERIES: STEPHEN NEGOESCO
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
This article was originally published on February 20th, 2019.
Earlier this month the soccer community lost one of its all-time greatest coaches, Steve Negoesco passed away aged 93.
You may never have heard of Steve Negoesco, however, his impact on US soccer is undeniable. He is considered one of the greatest all-time collegiate soccer coaches.
Born in Jutland, New Jersey, on September 12th, 1925, son to a Romanian sea captain. He was raised by his 10-year-old sister, after the death of his mother, when he was only six months old.
At 18 months old, Negoesco would be sent to grow up with his aunt and uncle, in Bucharest, Romania.
As Negoesco grew up in Romania, war would break out in Europe. Despite Romania's leadership adopting a neutral stance, the war would soon come to the country. The rise of fascist and military factions within the country would see the country become occupied by Nazi Germany.
Negoesco and his uncle would try to return to the U.S. His uncle making available the $1,200 for the passage, however, they were unable to secure a route out of the country, due to the limited trains or flight available.
Aged 15, Negoesco would choose to return a punch to a German soldier, after the soldier tried to court a girl living on the same street. "You don't hit me on my street" Negoesco would recall shouting.
The following day, he would find soldiers at his door asking about his American connections. Explaining that after confirming that he was an American subject, he received the three most feared words, "come with me."
Negoesco would be taken to a concentration camp in Immendorf, Germany. Where his first job would be to spend 10 hours a day digging a pointless ditch in a frozen field. Later moving to a job rolling empty bomb casings from one factory to another.
"We were told, 'Lager 35, nobody lives through that camp. But you just keep working,' " Negoesco explained during a 2000 interview.
"There were 16 of us in that room. Eight double bunk beds. We slept on straw mattresses. We had one blanket. You had to sleep in your clothes or you’d freeze to death."
Daily rations included a bowl of soup with a trace of potato, a piece of meat the size of a matchbook, and 12 ounces of bread containing 50 percent sawdust. "At some point, I realized I was dying. We were fed about 1,200- 1,500 calories a day, and working that much?"
He would supplement his diet by stealing raw potatoes and sugar beets from a nearby field. Eating the potatoes like apples and used heat inside the factory to boil the beets and drink the resulting concoction.
Negoesco would state "I was down to 135 pounds, from 155, and I figured I'd better run away while I still can. I can remember saying to myself, 'I'll die here.' "
On Sundays after completing their work, a number of young prisoners would organize games of soccer, in a cleared area next to their barracks,
The group of young prisoners would steal air from the tires of the Lagerfuhrer's car, to inflate the soccer balls.
After a time the soccer game would involve the group of young prisoners and young prison-camp guards, similar in age to Negoesco. "They began playing with us," Negoesco says. "We figured, 'What the hell. They're just doing a job out here, too.' We got to communicate on a whole new level. All of a sudden, they were not my enemy; they were just another soccer player."
After gaining the trust of one of the guards Negoesco would inform him that he was thinking of escaping. The guard would reply "I don't know anything about that, but if I was going to run away I'd do it on a Friday, because that's when the Lagerfuhrer goes to see his girlfriend."
The guards would find a reason to leave part of the camp unguarded, allowing Negoesco and three others to escape.
Utilizing Negoesco's knowledge of the train system, due to his uncle being an executive in the pre-war Romanian rail system, the group would jump trains aiming for Vienna. Catching a train to Braunschweig, then Leipzig, then on to Austerlitz and a fourth to Vienna.
The travel was fraught with difficulties. Often having to hide from SS officers. "I'd been playing hide-and-seek on trains since I was a little kid," he said. However, two members of Negoeso's group failed to complete the final train journey between Austerlitz and Vienna.
"I guess they got caught," he said. "Nobody ever heard from them again, so what else could you figure?"
Once he made it to Vienna, Negoesco would seek out the Romanian consulate. With the help of a few anti-Nazi Austrians, he was given a choice of being sent to America or returning to Romania.
He decided not to leave his aunt and uncle, who had become his family, he was put on a train to Bucharest.
After returning to Romania, Negoesco would move to a small coal-mining town. He would begin to play for the local Romanian League side.
Despite being in a remote part of the country, the Gestapo would soon catch up to him. "They caught me again and tried to send me off again," he says. "This time, my coach stood up and said, 'He is such a good player, without him the morale of the town would go down.' Because of that, they let me stay."
After the Nazi occupation of Romania ended, Negeosco's problems continued. Communism would start to grow in the country and started to recruit young Romanians to join the Union of Communist Youth, a wing of the Romanian Communist Party.
After initially refusing to join the party, communist officials believed that Negoesco's soccer abilities could make him politically valuable.
"They wanted me to join so they could say, 'See, you guys -- Steve's a Communist,'" he says. "But I wouldn't do it, so they made me out to be against them. They came to me and said, 'We have 18 signatures from other Communist Youth members, and Communist Youth don't lie.'
"I was ready for that. I said, 'I'm glad you mentioned that because I have 200 signatures from Communist Youth with me here. And as you know, they don't lie.' They just looked at me and said, 'Get out.' "
In 1945, Negoesco would make the decision to leave Romania. Taking a 38-day voyage from Russia to Baltimore.
Back in America
Originally he returned to New Jersey to complete his High School education.
“When I came here, I was a freaking foreigner,” he said. “I was born in this country but treated like a foreigner because I talked funny.”
In 1947, he would choose to move to California. Enrolling at the University of San Francisco, where he would study biology.
During this time he would also resume his soccer career. Joining the USF Dons soccer team, coached by Gus Donoghue. “You have a problem,” he said. “You don’t know what problems are. I was alive and well enough to work. I worked 40 hours a week, went to school 15 hours a week, went to practice, and played games. I slept 25 to 30 hours a week. I was grateful for that.”
As team captain, he would lead the Dons to the 1949 California collegiate title and the 1950 NCAA co-championship with Penn State. A game remembered due to Negoesco refusing the referee's request to continue to play after a dubious handball decision, leading to a penalty for Penn State to tie the game at 2-2. That decision led to the game ending in a tie.
In his four years on the soccer team, he earned two All-American honors
After graduating in 1951, Negoesco would go on to complete an M.S. in Biology from San Francisco State University, with the plans to become a teacher of science and mathematics. He would continue to teach in San Francisco for 25 years.
Furthermore, he would establish the San Francisco Youth Soccer Program, during this time.
“That’s maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Negoesco said. “Kids would come to me and say, ‘We want to play soccer, but we don’t know how.’ I would tell them that all they need is a ball and a goalpost, and then I would show them.”
In 1962, Dons athletic director Pete Peletta would name Negoesco as head soccer coach. With a starting salary of only $300 annually.
"Since the pros made a mess with their game, we'll have to carry the torch for the game in this country," he would state.
He became known for recruiting players from diverse backgrounds. Some of these players would go on to become stars on and off the field, in their own rights.
Off the field, Alejandro Toledo would become Peruvian president, another player would become a Venezuelan shoe tycoon and even the Ecuadorean ambassador to the United Nations.
On the field, John Doyle became, San Jose Earthquakes captain. Lothar Osiander would go on to be the US national team coach. Other players would go on to represent Nigeria, Greece, and Norway.
After the Dons won the 1966 NCAA championship, Sports Illustrated would release an article titled “USF wins one for the U.N.,” emphasizing that the Dons team that year comprised players from the United States, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Peru, Poland, and the then-Soviet Union.
When talking to his squad in 1975, Negoesco said "I told the boys to expect insults from the people in the stands. They called us a bunch of foreigners and much worse. I'm proud of the way we played. The boys won with style and flair. They answered the insults with ball-handling that made the other team look foolish.
"I wanted to play good soccer. That is why we had players from overseas."
''Now we have a lot of good players in the United States, and good schools play what resembles good soccer."
As well as leading the USF Dons to a championship in 1966, Negoesco was also the coach of 5 other teams. This included coach teenagers, a Police Athletic League team, a club youth team, and the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club and a semi-pro soccer team, which ultimately went on to take the U.S. Open Cup in 1976.
The University of San Francisco in 1982 would dedicate their home soccer stadium to their long-serving coach. Renaming it Negoesco Stadium.
In 2000, Negoesco would announce his retirement from USF soccer. Leaving as one of the most decorated collegiate coaches of all-time. Building a legacy that may never be matched in the college game again. He won 544 games, 22 West Coast Conference titles, 34 winning seasons and 41 NCAA Tournament wins. All in addition to the five NCAA Division I national championships won in 1966, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1980.
The 1978 national title was later lost, due to the use of an ineligible player. However, Negoesco disputed this charge over the years.
“I don’t like to lose,” Neogesco said of his record. “I don’t care about winning; I just don’t like to lose.”
In 2000, Negoesco would hand the USF head coach role onto Erik Visser, his assistant coach of 19 seasons.
“Steve was a pioneer, visionary and legend of soccer at USF, Bay Area as well as the entire country,” said Visser “He has impacted and made a difference in thousands of lives. His passion and knowledge for the game was unparalleled. He was able to unify teams with student athletes from more than a dozen countries and played a brand of soccer that is now being emulated in the country.”
After his retirement from coaching men's soccer, Negoesco was inducted to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America hall of fame in 2003, joining his former coach, Gus Donoghue.
“I did a lot of living. I was able to survive,” Negoesco said in 2000. “If I die tomorrow, well, you can’t live forever.”