Tops in his field
Mike Russo grew up in Deerfield under the shadow of Mount Pocumtuck in a section of town that came to be called Russoville, where the townies would convene to play pickup games with all the other Russos, including Mark, Rick, Vic and Steve.
After Mike graduated from Deerfield Academy in 1967, he went to UMass and played varsity baseball and soccer. “I was a baseball guy, but my senior year Peter Gooding became the soccer coach. He was from England and he really turned me on to the game. Baseball had been my favorite but Peter really piqued my interest in soccer.”
When his collegiate career ended Russo coached soccer for eight years at Massasoit Community College in eastern Mass. and subsequently became the head coach at Williams College in Williamstown. That was in 1979, and the ensuing 34 years under Russo’s tutelage have been nothing short of remarkable.
His coaching legacy includes 29 consecutive winning seasons. He has been named national Division III coach of the year four times, including being the first coach at any level to win such honors in back-to-back seasons (1987 and 1988). His teams have been to five NCAA final fours, he’s coached 47 All Americans and had 66 of his players named All New England.
The list goes on, and earlier this month Sports Illustrated included him in its “Faces in the Crowd” section. The blurb noted that the 68-year-old Russo notched his 400th career win last season and that his .771 win percentage (415-103-58) ranks seventh all-time in Division III.
“I contacted SI and said he’s worthy of consideration,” said Dick Quinn, the school’s longtime sports information director who’s managed to get seven of Williams’ coaches and 29 of its athletes into SI’s popular feature since 1989. “They kept him in the mix and got him into the April 1 issue.”
“Mike is unbelievable,” added Quinn. “I call him Mr. Humble. He’ll send players handwritten notes if they don’t make the team.”
If that’s the case then Russo must be getting writer’s cramp because even at the Division III level, recruiting has become a daunting and time-consuming process. “The amount of time has increased dramatically,” agreed Russo. “We have the names of 320 players who’ve contacted us. It’s overwhelming. There’s no way we can see each and every one of them.”
Asked to describe the composition of a good soccer player Russo answered, “Number one I like to see a guy who’s competitive, confident and has composure. A good person, one who’s not an egomaniac and puts the team before himself and if he’s not a big guy he should be fast and very skilled and can read the game well.”
Although Russo and his wife Angela have lived most of their 45 years together in Williamstown, he was nearly lured into the pro game when the New England Revolution came calling. “The MLS had come into existence. Jonathan Kraft runs the soccer side of things. He went to Williams. They hired a guy from Europe and he wanted someone to help him get adjusted to the college game. I thought about it, but the quality of life is very good in Williamstown so we stayed. It’s a good thing because the head coach and his assistant were fired the next year.”
When Quinn posted a note on the school’s Facebook page regarding Russo’s inclusion in SI, many of his former players responded. Nearly all concurred he deserved the recognition but Rob Blanck who’s now an assistant coach for the U.S. Naval Academy’s women’s team said it wasn’t enough. “He deserves the cover,” wrote Blanck.
Retired GHS track coach Pete Conway remembers when the Boston Marathon wasn’t nearly the big deal it is now. “You walked in the gym and got a number,” said Conway, who was a regular participant nearly a half century ago. “Registration was 25 cents, or 50 cents, one or the other. I never paid much more than a buck for anything. Nowadays you gotta come up with a week’s pay.”
He’s right. The registration fee for Monday’s marathon is $150, which is steep but not as much as the New York City Marathon, which cost $196 to register.
If they went into the starting gate today, Greenfield handicapper John Dobrydnio says he’d bet Orb to win the Kentucky Derby. Trained by Shug McGaughey, the colt has won four straight races, most recently the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
Both times Dobrydnio put win bets on Orb. He likes horses that come from off the pace and in the Fountain of Youth Orb came from last place to beat the favorite, but in the Florida Derby the 3-year-old stayed closer to the leaders. Jockey John Velazquez got the whip out at the top of the stretch and again Orb blew past the also-rans. “What was interesting is that he closed in slow fractions,” said Dobrydnio. “For a horse that likes a fast pace, that was impressive.”
USA Today reports that NFL teams are monitoring college players’ Twitter and Facebook feeds to learn more about prospective draft choices. “There are guys on Twitter that are being like Eddie Haskell,” said Seattle GM John Schneider. “They’re putting out, ‘I’m going to work out’ and it’s 3:30 in the morning or whatever. That’s kind of weird ... you’ll see some things that are very alarming.”
Squibbers: Only four of the top 50 minor league prospects made big league rosters this spring, a result of clubs’ resistance to starting the free agent clock ticking before they have to. The minimum MLB salary this season is $490,000. The average salary is $3.2 million. ... Of 122 teams in the FBS (formerly Division I), Rivals.com ranked UMass 114th in recruiting. The Minutemen had no five- or four-star commitments and only one three-star commitment. New England’s two other FBS teams, UConn and Boston College, were ranked 64th and 87th. ... It was nice to see Craig Janney on NESN’s broadcasts of the Hockey East playoffs. The Enfield native by way of Deerfield Academy and Boston College scored 188 NHL goals. “Tomato stakes is what my old man used ‘em for,” Janney cracked after seeing a broken stick on the ice. ... The Boston Globe reports that 342 people tried out for the Red Sox PA job. The three that were chosen and will share the chores are Dick Flavin, Bob Lobel and Henry Mahegan. ... This is the 41st anniversary of Frank Shorter’s marathon triumph at the 1972 Olympics. “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another,” says the 1965 NMH grad. “Your mind can’t know what’s coming.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.