Sam Koch, UMass men's soccer coach, dies at 59; led Minutemen to success over 23 seasons

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
University of Massachusetts men’s soccer coach Sam Koch died Sunday at his home in Hadley after a two-year battle with sinus cancer.

UMass announced Koch’s death on Twitter at 9:52 a.m. Monday with this post:

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Sam Koch. An all-time great person who will be sorely missed.”

Koch, 59, coached UMass for the past 23 seasons and led the Minutemen to the semifinals of the 2007 College Cup, college soccer’s final four.

He was a popular figure on campus, in the soccer community and in Hadley, where he lived with his wife, Suzanne, and four children, Christopher, 20, Jeffrey, 17, Benjamin, 16, and Katherine, 14.

“We’ve lost a great coach and great friend,” UMass athletic director John McCutcheon said. “His caring way and compassion for student athletes and the people he worked with was just outstanding. He was a great person and we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to have him in our lives. We’re going to miss him quite a bit.”

Devin O’Neill, who was Koch’s assistant for the past two years, will be the interim head coach for the 2014 season. Practice begins next month.

UMass women’s swimming coach Bob Newcomb said Koch, UMass’ all-time winningest coach, showed no ego about his accomplishments.

“He was humble. You’d never know his teams had the success they had,” said Newcomb, who developed a close friendship with Koch, took Koch’s death hard Monday.

“He was a great friend, a great guy,” he said. “It’s just sad.”

Last year Newcomb biked across the country raising money and awareness for cancer research. He was in regular touch with Koch, who made a similar bike trip himself after college. The connection between Newcomb’s ride and Koch’s battle added layers to their friendship.

“He’s a genuine individual. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him and trust him. He was a wonderful soul and was interested in what everyone was doing,” he said.

When Koch was hired in 1991, expectations were low — his job then was to guide a program that was scheduled to be eliminated as the athletic department attempted to comply with the gender equity requirements of Title IX. Koch, who’d been the coach at Stanford for six seasons, was set to coach for one year and help players who wanted to transfer find new places to play.

But the Minutemen were surprisingly successful that season (11-5) and support for saving the program gathered steam. UMass changed course and chose to keep the program, and Koch became an institution. He amassed a 222-182-45 record and led the Minutemen to three trips to the NCAA tournament.

Koch, a native of Concord and an alumnus of Colby College, was named the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year four times. Because UMass had few scholarships and less resources than most of the programs in the NCAA tournament, the Minutemen’s trip to the College Cup earned Koch national acclaim.

“As a coach, he made more out of nothing than any coach I’ve ever seen in my life,” Newcomb said.

Kenny Cook, a senior on the 2007 team, said lessons from Koch still resonate.

“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 firsthand that all the lessons, morals and values he preached would indeed carry us to success,” Cook wrote in an email. “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.”

Josh Schwartz, who’ll be a senior for the Minutemen this fall, said it was hard to picture UMass without him.

“We all look up to coach and all the things he stands for — honesty, integrity, hard work, dedication. He cares so much for us on and off the field,” Schwartz said. “He was an amazing person. When I think of him, I think of everything he stands for. He’ll always be in my heart as someone who helped me become the person I am today. I’m really glad I had coach in my life.”

Schwartz wasn’t sure how the players would honor Koch this season, but was certain they’d do something.

“Obviously we’re going to honor coach and play for him. It will be something we hold near and dear to our hearts at all times,” he said. “We’ll play to make him proud and install all the things into our game that he would be proud of.”

Koch was the second UMass coach to die while still on the job in less than a year. Softball coach Elaine Sortino died last August.

Koch’s funeral will be Sunday, Aug. 3, at noon in Memorial Chapel at Northfield Mount Hermon.

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