Matt Vautour: Coach Sam Koch dedicated life to UMass men’s soccer program

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
From my view at Elaine Sortino’s funeral last August, I had a pretty clear view of Sam Koch.

I couldn’t help but wondering what was going through the University of Massachusetts soccer coach’s mind.

A few weeks earlier, I’d sat in Koch’s office for an article about his battle with sinus cancer. Koch talked about his increased perspective and new appreciation, not just for life, but for his life and the way he got to spend his time and the people he got to spend it with.

“I’m certainly more appreciative of things. I value things a lot more,” said Koch, who died Sunday night at his home in Hadley. “I realize I’m not superman and I’m not going to be here forever. I’m not sure you ever realize that until something like this happens. I hope I didn’t let things that were special go by, but I’m sure I did. I don’t do that now.”

He was focusing more on interactions and conversations, savoring moments and pausing to reflect more on each life experience. With those thoughts of his still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder what he must be thinking during a ceremony celebrating the life and mourning the death of a much beloved UMass coach, who’d died after a battle with cancer. Was he thinking about his own mortality? Was he inspired to fight his own fight that much harder? It all had to be hitting a little close to home.

But Koch was unflinchingly positive. A few days later he was excited to start practice and talked about getting healthy enough to repeat his cross-country bike trip from Newport, Oregon to Newport, Rhode Island that he did after college.

Over the next days, weeks and beyond, people will think about and talk about Koch often. Those conversations will start sad, but inevitably the people involved will end up smiling because Sam Koch stories make you smile. There’s aren’t many people in athletics that everybody likes. Rivalries, and jealousies almost always make somebody hate even the most pleasant of coaches. But everybody liked Sam Koch. Maybe it was his ability to be humble in a profession filled with self-promoters. Maybe it was his ability to find a the elusive balance between being a hard-working coach and a dedicated family man. While many coaches all but tattoo their professional accomplishments on their foreheads, Koch would be far more likely to talk about his four children — Chris, Jeff, Ben and Katie —than any accomplishment he earned.

Or maybe it was because his goofy sense of humor made him seem suited to be the neighbor character on every sitcom in the 1980s.

I like to picture him walking into the press conference before UMass’ semifinal game against Ohio State at the 2007 College Cup (soccer’s version of the Final Four) in Cary, North Carolina. The Minutemen were a fun story for the assembled media regardless. This team with less than three scholarships spread among the whole roster had come out of nowhere to reach the sport’s most elite college event.

But the reporters had no idea just how good they were about to have it. In a sports world dulled by an epidemic of coaches too scared to say anything original, Koch was a character. He loved to crack a joke, usually the cornier the better. In front of the largest collection of notebooks and recorders he’d ever faced, Koch seemed eager to inflict his sense of humor on a big crowd.

When one reporter asked him if it seemed ridiculous now that UMass, which had been nowhere near the national polls, was picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10, Koch’s eyes twinkled.

Koch’s eyes were always the dead giveaway that a joke was coming. They’d start lighting up before he could even get to the punch line.

“Well, you see,” he said. “The Atlantic 10 is a really good league,” and then chuckled to himself. Sam Koch was never too proud to laugh at his own joke.

Koch was raised on underdog success stories. He believed the full name of his eastern Massachusetts hometown was in fact “Concord-Massachusetts-Birthplace-of-America” and was always quick to give his Koch’s Notes version of the history of the original Minutemen.

“You know how we won the revolution? The British sliced through Lexington like a hot knife through butter. But when they got to Concord,” he’d pause to smile. “We stopped ’em cold.”

If there’s a heaven, St. Peter likely heard that version of American history before Koch even got past the pearly gates.

Koch’s own Minutemen overcame similarly long odds to still exist. When he was hired in 1991, the program had already been scheduled for discontinuation. He expected to coach a little and help any player that wanted to transfer find a new school. By 1992, the program would be shuttered, the players would be elsewhere and Koch would get a job in the business world. Expectations and pressure were both low.

But the Minutemen were pretty good. Koch led the squad to an 11-5 record. With a little help from a new athletic director, improved finances at UMass and even some financial contributions from rival programs, the Minutemen kept playing soccer. With fewer scholarships and resources than many teams he competed and recruited against, Koch kept coaching them. He taught 23 years of under-recruited boys how to become better players and better men.

There wouldn’t have been a UMass soccer program for the past two decades if not for Sam Koch.

It’s hard to picture it without him now.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage