Sam Koch, 59; reinvigorated UMass soccer program
Sam Koch, who resurrected the men’s soccer program at the University of Massachusetts in 1991, spoke from the heart when his team lost, 1-0, in the national championship semifinals to Ohio State 16 years after he took the helm.
“I’m extremely proud of this group for what they do off the field as well as on the field,” he said that day in 2007. “I am a very happy person to be able to coach these guys. In all my years of coaching this has definitely been a special time for me and I will never forget it.”
Those whose lives Mr. Koch touched while coaching for 23 seasons at UMass are not likely to forget him, either. In the two years since being diagnosed with sinus cancer, he never missed a game or practice, despite frequent trips to Boston for treatment. Mr. Koch died July 20 in his Hadley home. He was 59.
Family, friends, colleagues, and former Minutemen players will gather to celebrate his life and career Sunday afternoon at Rudd Field in Amherst, where food will be served, soccer balls will be kicked, and memories will be shared.
“He wanted people to relax and enjoy a common bond,” said his wife, Suzanne, “so I’ve told them to bring their cleats and a story about Sam.”
Under Mr. Koch, UMass advanced to the NCAA Division 1 tournament three times. He coached at Stanford University from 1984-89 and began his career as an assistant at Brown University and Boston College.
“He was a good friend and a good person,” said veteran Boston University head coach Neil Roberts. “Sam stood for what he believed in. His teams played hard and clean and never quit, and neither did he.”
Stuart Amick, a freshman starter on the 2007 UMass squad and later a team captain, said Mr. Koch knew how to get the best out of his players.
“He stuck to his guns. We played the game simple, but we did the simple things well,” Amick said. “We had great camaraderie and a blue-collar, defensive-minded approach to the game, and I’ll always remember him telling us that he would only cancel practice when it was colder in Amherst than it was in Anchorage.”
Mr. Koch, a 1973 graduate of Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, played soccer as a youth, but his passion for the sport grew while he worked as a rigger and wood finisher at a boatyard his father opened in England.
“Everyone played soccer on Sundays. It was 1974 and we watched the World Cup and it was the first time I had seen soccer on TV every day,” he told the Globe in 2007. “It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.”
Mr. Koch was a post-graduate student-athlete at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill before attending Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he was a four-year soccer letterman.
Mark Serdjenian, who retired last season after 38 years as head men’s soccer coach at Colby, said Mr. Koch “was a driving force in getting our guys together to play indoors and in spring tournaments.”
Mr. Koch’s Colby teammates suggested that the athletic department establish in his name an award for team spirit and dedication. Mr. Koch was its first recipient during his senior year, after Colby won the New England Division 2/3 championship.
He took a year off from college to attempt a trans-Atlantic sailboat trip with his father. A hurricane cut short the trip and he graduated in 1979. Mr. Koch also liked to reminisce about riding his bicycle from Newport, Ore., to Newport, R.I., 40 years ago. A car struck his bicycle in Hopkinton, and though he was uninjured, the trip was over.
Mr. Koch applied for the head soccer coaching position at Rollins College in Florida, where he met Suzanne Patterson, who was on the search committee. They married in 1992 and for a time lived on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus with his former coach and math teacher, Dick Peller, after Mr. Koch accepted the UMass job.
“Sam was a person of high character,” Peller said. “He was a no-nonsense coach, very direct, and his players loved him for that. To my kids, he was their uncle who made them laugh. When I told my daughter, Ann, that he had passed, she told me that when he introduced Suzanne to us, it was clear how much he loved her.”
Mr. Koch enjoyed trips with his family to the Bahamas and Disney World, which his wife said was the only way to get him away from the phone. He also liked to watch their children participate in sports and cultural events at Hopkins Academy in Hadley.
Peller said Mr. Koch often regaled friends with humorous stories, and that “when he started talking, his mouth would curl up in a grin, his eyes would twinkle, and he was so animated you’d watch him more than you’d listen.”
Budget cuts had all but eliminated men’s soccer at UMass prior to the 1991 season, but a fund-raising campaign by parents and alumni gave the program a reprieve. Mr. Koch reached an agreement that allowed him to coach and continue with graduate studies at the University of Connecticut. He had two weeks to get his team in shape, and then guided them to an 11-win campaign.
Soccer stayed at UMass and so did Mr. Koch, a four-time Atlantic-10 Conference coach of the year.
“Those who touched him the most were the players who had some issues or struggles that he helped along the way, and had gone on to lead productive lives after college,” said Devin O’Neill, Mr. Koch’s assistant coach and the interim coach for the 2014 season.
Mr. Koch’s final victory, 2-1, at St. Bonaventure University last November, was a personal statement and a personal triumph. UMass traveled with only 12 of its 26 players. The others were left home after breaking team rules.
“Sam made a hard decision for the right reasons,” said O’Neill, “and he was rewarded.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Koch leaves three sons, Christopher, Jeffrey, and Benjamin, and a daughter, Katherine, all of Hadley; a brother, David of Watertown; and a sister, Elizabeth Corwin of Essex.
A funeral service will be held at noon Sunday in Memorial Chapel at Northfield Mount Hermon School. The celebration of his life, at Rudd Field, begins at 3 p.m.
“His wonderful spirit and caring way will be missed by all of us,” said UMass athletic director John McCutcheon, “and we are grateful to have had Sam in our lives.”
Elliott Pratt, a close friend and former Colby teammate, said Mr. Koch “packed a lot into those 59 years. He was sure he was going to beat this and his passing is a sad ending to a beautiful love story.”