Remembering Sam Koch

Monday, November 17, 2014
Earlier this week, I solicited some memories of UMass soccer Sam Koch, who died Sunday night after a two-year battle with sinus cancer.

Here are the responses so far. If you'd like to share, it's not too late - send anything to Mvautour@gazettenet.com. I'll keep updating as long as people send remembrances.

I want to point people to the CaringBridge.org site that Sam's wife Suzanne set up. It's a blog that she wrote chronicling his fight with cancer. There's some great anecdotes and memories of a memorable guy. It also presents and opportunity for anyone that wants to, to leave a note for the Koch family.

After the first post, these are in no particular order:

This is from the Caring Bridge Site. It was posted by Suzanne the morning after Sam died. I'm posting it here with her permission:

Whirlwind of loveBy Suzanne Koch — Jul 21, 2014 5:55amWe had a whirlwind of love created throughout the week-end by all the people swirling through the house telling stories and comforting Sam. The energy expanded every hour by caring phones calls and beautiful messages that I shared with Sam. We had three solid days that allowed friends and relatives to be with Sam and each other one last time.The last visitors left at 9:00 Sunday night, the whirlwind settled, the love hovered through the house, and he passed peacefully at 9:15 with our immediate family by his side. It's truly as if he knew the kind of time each of us needed and somehow he was able to do his part, way beyond what anyone could expect, and stay strong and be each with of us in just the right way. I will post information when we have made arrangements for Sam's service. In the meantime, "it's a beautiful morning", go find a whirlwind and be part of it, or create your own and then share it with others.

From 7 p.m. July 29

From Erin Hetzel:"Since learning of Sam's death, I have been trying to figure out how to share and explain the impact he had on my life. I worked with UMass Athletics for about 5 years; the last 2 with Compliance, a role in which I worked directly with coaches. I got to know Sam well during this time - I worked on scholarship budgets and recruiting records, all for which Sam usually had a joke or deprecating comment as they related to his program. Sam would stop by my office to chat much more often than he turned in paperwork - which I always welcomed. We quickly developed an easy banter and our sense of humor would crack us both up in a way that could set the tone for the whole day - we reveled in it and thought we were uniquely comedians. Visiting his office in Boyden was also a treat; the bunker of sarcasm had nothing on us.At the time, my life was, to put it mildly, quite unhappy and unhealthy. I was struggling with professional and personal choices that often weighed heavy. I didn't talk about them, and I didn't share them, but some things were likely visible. I am not sure how much Sam picked up on, but he was actually part of creating a pivotal moment of change. One Fall, I was obsessively planning a surprise birthday party; I was so blindly invested in the details and in pulling it off, it was likely concerning for all who were observing. Sam made a point to not only attend the party but to check-in on me to see how I was holding up that day. More than the experience of the party, it was Sam's reaction and feedback from that day that, quite honestly, was the catalyst to begin much needed changes in my life. He didn't have to say much; it was more of what he expressed: a blunt, no-nonsense intolerance for anything less than respect and gratitude. What he said is not as important as how it made me feel - and it was exactly this which spun me on my heels and caused me to see things in a different light. It caused me to see myself in a different way. It was in his reflection that I was able to view myself in a way that Sam did. As valuable, honorable, unique, and worthy. It was simple, really. With that and within 6 months, I made major steps, and within a year, I had changed my life completely. I had dinner with Sam last winter, almost 6 years since I had left UMass. I was able to explain and share with him the impact that moment had on me, the influence his friendship had on how much I was able to make a fresh start. We talked and laughed and carried on like old times, just like the Boyden days. We practically closed the place after 4 1/2 hours of our rekindled comedy show, during which he also shared the struggle of his illness, mixed with an actual gratitude for the way this curve ball had allowed him to spend so much more time with his family. He was able to find gratitude in cancer, which I find speaks even more fully to his character. I am so glad I was able to meet him that night, not just to see him and catch-up. I am more grateful that I was able to share with him how much he had played a part of me finding my future. I was able to share and show my happiness and my pride in the goals and dreams I had made come true. He did remember the party and the ridiculousness of the scenario; he remembered even more clearly how much I deserved better. He didn't see that particular moment as a big deal, because for him, it was his normal. But I will be eternally grateful that it was he, with just a few words, that helped me change my life. Over the last week, it has been amazing to read how many others have the same impression of Sam, especially those of us just starting out on our journey of life. It seemed he was always in Coach mode, teaching life lessons in his characteristic way, simply treating us with kindness, value, integrity, and respect. It is somewhat sad to say how unique that is...but we are lucky to have had such a man make such an impression. That twinkle in his eye, the penchant for stories, the love of life, and the amazing amount of gratitude he lived with, every day, is how more of us should live. I am so sad to see this world lose such a magnificent man. I am grateful for the lessons I've learned from him and will continue to live by. I am lucky to have crossed his path when I did, and I am so proud to have called him my friend."

From Frank and Denise Cirillo:

An evening to remember ... Our son, Greg, grew up in RI and entered UMass Amherst in the fall of 2004. Fast forward to his junior year and Rhode Island was on UMass’ soccer schedule for October 22, 2006 at Rhode Island.As many parents did, we attended many, if not all, of the soccer games and got to know the players and coaches. At one of the games in early October Sam mentioned that they would be playing in RI and jokingly asked (or so we thought) if dinner was going to be at our house. Of course, we laughed and my wife said sure, no problem.

Then at one of the following weeks’ games Jon Davy (assistant coach) and Kristen Weeks (athletic trainer) said to us something like: “I heard we’re coming to your house for dinner the night before the RI game” ... and you can guess the rest of the story as dinner became a reality.So on Saturday, October 21, 2006 we hosted dinner for the team, coaches and athletic trainer at our house. The team arrived in three vans, parked in front of our house and piled out. Sam was one of the first to get out and he had a big smile on his face. After some warm greetings, we served the standard fare for such an event (ha-ha ... with Sam’s input of course): pasta, chicken, salad, bread, water, Gatorade and strawberries for dessert. All the players (young men) were an absolute joy and we had the pleasure of breaking bread and talking with Sam. It was an evening we will never forget. Thank you Sam for all you did for the boys (and us parents too) and for all the memories, including the 2007 A-10 Championship and Final Four. Rest in Peace ... we will miss you.From 9 p.m. July 27

From former UMass athletic trainer Lacy Gunn

When I sum up my favorite memories of Sam, I have 1 in general and 1 very specific.In general: One of my duties at UMass was to help the coaches find athletic trainers to work their summer camps. Every summer, Sam by far held the most camps. He would do one for older kids where they stayed in the dorms, one for younger kids, one for boys and girls, etc. Well you'd think in 20-some years of running several camps a summer he would remember to get himself an athletic trainer.

But no. He'd stop down in the AT Room back when we all shared one big office, plop down with me and Jenn Brodeur and break the news: his camp starts in 5 (or 4, or 3) days and he forgot to find an athletic trainer.

"What are we going to do?" he'd say. Jenn and I would look at each other with amusement. "We, Sam?" we would think.

Well sure enough more often than not we couldn't find him anyone so our staff would end up piecing his camp coverage together because he was just so damn nice and charming and none of us wanted to leave him hanging out to dry.

So one of us would cover the morning before work, another of us would use our day off to cover the afternoon, another one would come back at night. And boy oh boy was he appreciative. Not only would be pay us but in addition usually bribe us with some type of gift card to a restaurant. I remember dining (on Sam Koch) at the old Montana's Steak House in Northampton. And we'd toast Sam and feel guilty that we had accepted a gift from him because we truly didn't mind helping him out.Specifically: Last fall UMass came to play at Syracuse where David now works. Our son Clay was only about 2 months old and I remember it being borderline too cold to have a 2 month old out but we desperately wanted to see Sam, knowing it would probably be one of the last times.

We took Clay up in the bleachers in his stroller all bundled up and chatted with Bob Kuzmeski pre-game. Right before the horn went off signaling the end of pre-game warm-ups but before the national anthem started, Sam spotted us.

He made a beeline over and we passed Clay in his car seat over the rail of the bleachers down to Sam so he could see him. I will never, ever forget the look on his face. He beamed at Clay with such pride, and then up at us. I have been wracking my brain trying to remember exactly what he said to us, but it was something to the effect of: Be careful because before you know it you'll have 4 children.

I just remember thinking the look on his face summed up all the love and pride and overwhelming feelings you feel for your children and oh how lucky Suzanne and the 4 Koch kids were because that is a man who gets it.

And then the national anthem started and he was gone, back to the sidelines to coach the game. And I'm so thankful we took Clay out when he was a little too little on a night that was almost too cold, to see our friend Sam one last time.

From former women's soccer player Therese Smith:

"I have tons of memories of Sam, but my favorite part about him was his humor. One of the many Julys I worked his summer camps, he was briefing the counselors on kids with allergies; how to deal with their medicine, who to give it to, and what to do in cases of emergencies.

He considered the peanut allergies as very serious, but was particularly focused on kids allergic to bee stings, because, "well, peanut butter doesn't just go flying through the air hitting kids in the face."

From 11 p.m. July 25

Former UMass field hockey coach Megan Donnelly:

Sam's qualities were too good for words to capture. How do you capture integrity, loyalty, and decency? I met Sam when I was an assistant at Stanford and both programs were under-funded. That experience was our lasting bond. Sam showed that there is nobility and integrity in the daily struggle to do your best. That should be more appreciated than it is.

From 8 p.m. July 25:

Former UMass women's soccer coach Jim Rudy:

I wasn't so sure when I heard that we(UMASS) were hiring a Stanford guy to take over a program that was just saved from the chopping block. A Californian to New England, a southern AD (Marcum). I thought "oh boy" !After getting through the tough adjustment years Sam's irascibility mellowed into dry wit, self-deprecation and lovability. He was so much fun to be around. I smile as I write this. He begrudgingly allowed me to call him Phi, Slammy, Jammy Sammy.

I admired Sam not only for his ability to evolve but also for his sheer determination to do more with less. To this day I am not aware of any D I college coach with less scholarship who has taken a team to the Final 4 in his/her sport. I was honored to have experienced his and the team's magnificent run to that event.Sam Koch, a man of high integrity, loyalty and humor.I miss him.

Former UMass player Greg Cirillo:

I played for Sam from 2004-2007. I was a part of the 2007 College Cup Final Four. I have a ton of memories about him, so I am going to give it my best shot.Coach Koch was one of a kind. I will never forget that day in August of 2007 of my senior year when preseason began. Coach and I were walking from the training field (where we just got through running shuttles) to the game field for a scrimmage. He said to me "Mr. Cirillo, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?" Now, I am thinking why on earth would he be asking me a question about a holiday that is three months in the future and well after the season is over. So, I replied "we usually get the family together and have a nice Thanksgiving dinner". Well, apparently that was the wrong answer. Let us rewind to the first three years I spent as a UMass soccer player; we made the playoffs one time, and even with playoffs, each of those three seasons ended before Halloween. Back to our conversation, he said to me "wrong answer! you're supposed to say... coach, we are going to be in the first round of the NCAA tournament." I chuckled and continued to walk by his side all the way to the field. I was not sure what to say, so I said what any player trying to stay on the field would say, "I hope so!" Turns out, we had Thanksgiving dinner together followed by the first round of the NCAA tournament the next day. I am sure we all know what happened next.Coach's character goes beyond soccer. Coach turned us into men. He made us appreciate everything we had in front of us and constantly reminded us what a great country we live in. He was one to pick out our dinners or bunk three to a room on our away trips. The only option was his option and made sure that we were grateful for what we had in front of us; and if we did not like it, then there was no room for us on that team. He was that kind of guy. To give you more of an idea of his mindset, when cars stopped for our team to cross the road, there was no walking or showing laziness getting across the street; you run across so that cars can continue with traffic. It was all about the little things in life that he wanted us to do, because it is the little things that set us up for success.Coach will always be remembered for much more than that. He was a great man that we lost too soon. He is a legend and his legacy will live on forever.

Former media relations assistant Leigh Torbin:

From the humblest of windowless offices in the basement of the humble Boyden Building, taking over a program that he once told me wasn't a sinking ship but rather a sunk ship, what Sam Koch was able to do with the UMass men's soccer program is astounding. He never lost his optimism and to see the once-condemned Minutemen set sail for the semifinals of the College Cup was one of the best stories to ever emerge from an athletic department renowned for generating great underdog tales. Sam always treated this former SID student assistant and Daily Collegian beat writer well and I have nothing but fond memories of him and my brief time around the program. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, the UMass men's soccer family and with the UMass Athletics family which lost one of its true fixtures on Sunday night.

UMass director of athletic media relations John Sinnett:

First Meeting: Sam was one of the first coaches I met when I first got to UMass in 2004. I don’t recall the conversation verbatim because of being nervous as the new guy, but I did walk away thinking “Great, I have the grumpy coach.” After I got to work with Sam and know him, that initial observation wasn’t 100% true. In six years working with him directly, I came to know him as a man who greatly cared about others, had a terrific sense of humor that could get anyone to smile, and saw life in a way that put everything in perspective. He was still grumpy from time-to-time, especially after a loss, but that never lasted for long before a joke and a smile followed.The Pride of Concord: I lost count of how many times he said this:“Let me tell you how the American Revolution was won. The British went through Lexington like a hot knife through butter. But when they got to Concord, BAM (slaps fist into open hand), we stopped ‘em cold.”A bus driver was never a stranger: It’s a pretty common occurrence that a head coach sits in the front seat of a bus either directly behind or to the side of the bus driver. This was perfect for Sam as he like to interrogate them. By the end of most road trips, Sam probably knew more about the bus driver than the bus driver’s wife, priest, and doctor. He also invited the bus driver to eat with the team at the coaches table where the questions continued.The crash before the NCAA tournament game at BC: This is one that most people don’t know. The day of the NCAA second round game in 2007, Sam and I had to drive to a pre-game coaches meeting over at the BC soccer complex. I picked Sam up at the hotel and we made our way over to the stadium. It was the late afternoon so traffic was pretty steady on the neighborhood roads. We come up to a stop-sign intersection that is more of a ‘Y’ shape than a traditional ’T’ shape. Sure enough, a guy in a Range Rover t-bones a car that’s about 50 feet in front of us as he was trying to make a left-hand turn to merge into our lane while crossing the street. The car that got hit did a pretty good spin and I had to yank hard right to avoid crashing into the car in front of us. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to get Sam killed before the BC game’ and seeing chunks of the cars in the collision go floating over the hood of my car missing us by about six inches. Without hesitation, Sam hopes out of the car and runs to the aid of the girl in the car that got hit while sending me to check on the guy who hit her. The guy in the Range Rover ended up driving away from the scene before the police got there which pissed Sam off more than anything. The girl ended up being ok, we stuck around until the cops got there and were late to the meeting. I’m convinced we beat BC because Sam was so mad at the guy for leaving the scene.The Media: My final fun Sam Koch nugget is that he did not seek the spotlight. Often times, it was difficult for me, a practitioner of pitching stories to the media, to combine his low-key desire with my career of publicizing. We made it work but I think the entire 2007 College Cup season caused his hair to go a little more gray. And this wasn’t because he didn’t like the media, didn’t want the kids to earn praise or was afraid of being in the public eye. He just wanted to do his job and get his kids ready for the next game and for life. He was great with the media and open. He had some great one-liners which I think was a right of passage for any young writer starting out with the Daily Collegian. I always chuckled whenever I would hear him drop a one-liner on a new writer who didn’t know him. The confused look conveyed the question of “Is this guy joking with me right now or is he serious”. With Sam’s deadpan expression, it was often hard to tell. The writers also came to appreciate Sam’s trademark of answering a question with one of his own. Writer: “What will it take to beat so-and-so?” Sam: “That’s hard to say. Will be play our best soccer this week? Will we take advantage of our opportunities?” One thing for certain, however, is that every member of the media who worked with Sam understood that he appreciated what they did and he would help them just as he did everyone else.At the end of the day, I want Sam to be remembered for this. Professionally, he came to UMass tasked with ending a program and helping the kids find new homes. Instead, he made his home, saved a program and helped two-decades of college players become men. He helped build that program that was to be discontinued into something to be proud of. Competing against other schools with more money for scholarships, Sam was able to convince a kid to come here so he play soccer and be a part of a team. That mentality is what made him such a good coach and, I think, helped him build some pretty good teams over the years. Personally, he loved his family and friends more than anything. Instead of talking about his team at the weekly sports luncheon, he would often regale the crowd with stories about what his kids were doing. That’s when Sam was at his best.

Former player Kenny Cook:

Coach Koch's passing hurts. One of Sam's colleagues on social media made the comment "waking up to a world with no Sam Koch doesn't feel right." I don't think I would be alone by seconding those sentiments. The loss of Coach Koch is a huge void in so many peoples lives especially his wife and four kids. To them I am so sorry and hope they know my thoughts and prayers go out to them.I always felt I underwent a transformation during my time at UMass. Came in as a boy, left as a man. It was Sam Koch's principled way with which he conducted himself that was the catalyst for growth in not only myself but just about anyone who interacted with him. You see, coach was a "grinder." He never had an expectation that anything in life would be given to him. This was evidenced by his office, the cold war bunker in the basement of the Boyden building that for so many years he called home. I remember after I graduated the big news in UMass Soccer Alumni was that Coach had his office moved upstairs - where he actually had windows - and unsurprisingly [pause] he wasn't fond of it. Although this story will bring a smile to the face of just about anyone who has ever met Coach Koch, I think its a reflection of his character. Moving upstairs to a nicer office didn't feel like that blue collar, strength of will work ethic he was so accustomed to preaching and implementing on a regular basis.In 2007, my senior year, I was so fortunate to be a part of the College Cup Final Four team. Those five months of the season will forever be a defining moment in my life - and NOT just because of the end result. It is because of the journey; the blood, sweat and tears that were put into everything we were able to accomplish. You see, unlike elite level programs who are recruiting machines - where one or two players can come in and push a program from mediocrity to greatness - UMass had to acquire what coach liked to call "diamonds in the rough." The players that maybe didn't have the flair, the flashy technical ability or the lightning speed that most coaches covet. No, a UMass player was one that was loyal, committed, unselfish, responsible, and above all else had the work ethic that was in the stratosphere. These were the type of players that coach could not only give a tremendous opportunity to, but they were the ones that he knew could handle the rigors of the program. Let's face it, in today's landscape of high school athletics everyone thinks they're an elite college level athlete deserving of a scholarship. And if not a scholarship, surely you will be given a nice locker room with plenty of free apparel. Not at UMass, and coach needed players that were not only okay with that, but embraced it.To get back to the run to the College Cup, the foundation for the success of that 2007 team was not in the tangible technical ability of the players; but the amount of elite level human being's that Coach had managed to compile and stuff into our 26 man roster. From top to bottom, every single player was molded by Coach Koch's mantra. Those that follow athletics understand that the strength of any team relies heavily on the coaches ability to have his players buy into a system. Coach Koch's system was often difficult for young eighteen and nineteen year old's to buy into, but by assembling elite individuals who understand the value of "process", his vision of taking the program to new levels manifested itself in the most glorious way possible.I think if you talk to different members of that 2007 team you would find that we all carry a level of Sam Koch in our hearts that will always be there. We believe in his process because we lived it; we were able to experience first hand that all the lessons, morals and values he preached would indeed carry us to success. Below I'll list the "commandments of Koch":1) It is understood that the endeavors we embark upon in life won't always be star studded. 2) To get to where we want to go we have to be ready to battle the hard times through raw commitment and never lose sight of our goals. 3) Don't forget as we pass through the journey of life to look towards your family, your teammates and close friends for love and support as they're of utter most importance to life's greatest fulfillment. This is the legacy that Sam Koch has left. This is the legacy that I will passed on to those around me for eternity. I expect to tell my grandchildren someday about UMass Soccer in all its glory. Sam Koch is UMass Soccer. He will be missed.

Former Collegian beat writer Patrick Strohecker:

As someone who covered the men's soccer team for two years with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, I had numerous opportunities to speak with him. Maybe the greatest thing about him was that win, lose, or draw, he was always optimistic and in good spirits. He was always good for a laugh during his interviews and one of the most inviting coaches I've ever dealt with as a journalist.

Former Collegian beat writer Andrew Merritt:

He’d laugh if I said it, but Sam Koch was, for me, a journalism teacher. When I started covering the UMass men's soccer team in the fall of 2002, I was just a kid who knew the basics of soccer and wanted to advance through the ranks at the Daily Collegian. Sam Koch could have eaten me alive. He could have dismissed me as a dumb kid who didn’t know anything, and given me meaningless quotes and no access. Instead, Sam invited me to come to practice, to get to know him and the players. He invited me into his office to talk about the team, on and off the record. He showed me things about the game that I had never seen before, and through him, I got to know that team both as a collection of athletes and a group of my own peers. As a result, I became a better sportswriter – one who could cover a beat in a professional way. Sam demanded that of me.Sam Koch was a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a father, and a coach. I don’t think you can put any one of those things first on the list, because he did them all with excellence. Much like Elaine Sortino, Sam Koch was more than a coach at UMass – he was a part of the fabric of the school. From the many players he coached, to the staff he worked with, to the student reporters he patiently helped along the way, Sam Koch’s legacy lives on, and he’s one of the big reasons I am proud to be a Minuteman.Former media relations assistant Betsy Devine:

Coach Koch was one of the most down to earth, humble coaches that I have ever worked with during my nine year career in Sports Information. Not only was he a great coach, he was also an outstanding man. I thoroughly enjoyed every soccer game I worked at UMass including the outstanding run to the College Cup with one of what has to be the coldest soccer games on record during my senior year! Coach Koch made it easy for all of his athletes to love him because he treated them with the same amount of love. He also made it easy for anyone who came in contact with him, me included, to respect him because of the man that he is. Rest in Peace Coach.