Remembering Jim Pollihan
HARRISBURG, Pa. - They came from near and far to pay their respects to and honor a friend, teammate, coach, father, husband and all-around great guy on Saturday, March 11.
Jim Pollihan was all that and much more.
In many ways, he was the All-American boy who turned into the All-American man. He was a leader, someone whom you wanted on your side because he would have your back during his time as a player and a coach in the indoor and outdoor games. Polly, as he was known by many of his associates and friends, left his mark on so many people, from his native St. Louis, Rochester, N.Y., Baltimore and here in Harrisburg over the past six decades.
On Feb. 12, Pollihan passed away, several days after suffering an injury while playing his favorite sport soccer, even at the age of 68. It was one day shy of his 69th birthday.
Several hundred people packed a room at the Jesse H. Geigle Funeral Home, in a celebration of life as they remembered, lauded and told stories about the former player and coach. Pollihan's wife Barb and daughter Madison attended, as did his family from St. Louis.
Former Heat general manager Gregg Cook attended the celebration, as did many Heat fans, including Jim Casey, and team trainer Craig Sherrick at the celebration. He defined who Jim Pollihan was.
"Jim and I became pretty good friends over the years, shared a lot of good times," he said. "It was a pleasure to go to work with him every day. We spent a lot of time on the golf course. Spent a lot of time enjoying beers, particularly after the games. It was always fun. There's a lot of words that maybe some of the other folks are going to speak today are going to use - class guy, total class guy. Honest, hardworking, reliable, great friend."
When he played with the Rochester Lancers during the early days of his distinguished soccer career, Pollihan was given the ultimate respect by both coach and teammates.
Don (Dragan) Popovic named the St. Louis native his team captain, at a very young age.
At the same time, Pollihan was selected team player representative for the fledgling North American Soccer League Players Association in the late seventies.
Just wondering how many players held the same title at once.
Now, that’s what we can call respect.
It was easy to give Jim Pollihan respect because he gave it right back. He was straight forward as a person. On the soccer field, he used his talents to the best of his ability.
Of the 10 people who spoke publicly at the celebration of life, several themes emerged. One was that he was a class act.
Former Heat owner John Wilsbach saw Pollihan up close and personal for seven years at home and on road trips as the team's radio announcer.
"During my travels with Jim in indoor soccer never once did I hear mean things were said about Jim from a team official, referee, opposing coach or a player or a fan," he said. "You're going to think he's the type of guy you wanted to be around."
Wilsbach was far from finished.
"Jim was special in his own way to each and every one of us," he said. "As my road trip roommate for several seasons, we were often with each other more than we were our wives. Bus trips, flights, car rides, hotels, restaurants, practice games. Jim was a friend and quietly like an older brother to me. I interviewed Jim over 300 times since 1991. Our first season we even did a weekly one-hour talk show. It doesn't matter how many times I've asked the same questions over those years, or phrase something differently or even ask a stupid question. He always treated it like it was new. He treated it like someone had never heard the answer, even if I already knew what the answer was. He was happy to just educate the listener or educate the fan. He was never cynical, never abrasive. He was thoughtful, prepared, confident. He was professional."
Prior to his passing, Wilsbach interviewed Pollihan at halftime of a Heat broadcast. He asked him about what it was like playing against the great Pele.
"He paused, smiled and said, ‘I didn't play against Pele he played against me,’ " Wilsbach said.
Wilsbach remembered when he and Pollihan were in a hotel elevator with actor Jack Nicholson, who was filming a movie in Detroit.
"Leave it to coach Pollihan, who wasn’t afraid to ask, ‘Are you coming to the soccer game tonight, Jack?’ “ he said. “Unfortunately, he declined."
The room erupted with laughter.
If you are unfamiliar with Pollihan's career, we'll give you the Reader's Digest version.
He was a lethal goal-scorer for Quincy College (now Quincy University), leading the team to consecutive NAIA titles in 1974 and 1975, while being named MVP in the former. He earned All-American honors as a senior.
He was chosen by the Lancers as the third overall selection of the 1976 NASL draft. As a rookie, he was switched to left back and learned the various aspects of that position in rapid time, time enough to make his U.S. men's national team debut later that year. Polly made 16 international appearances in a four-year span, during an era when the national side did not play all that much.
When the Major Indoor Soccer League was born, Pollihan joined the New York Arrows. In their very first game, Pollihan scored the first goal in league history. While overlapping on the left flank at 2:10 of the second quarter, Pollihan drilled a return pass from Luis Alberto past goalkeeper Keith Van Eron; the first of thousands of indoor goals. The Arrows went onto record a 7-2 triumph over the Cincinnati Kids on Dec. 22, 1978. He helped the Arrows win the first MISL championship that campaign.
Pollihan joined Houston Summit Soccer for the next season before the team moved to Baltimore. He played with the Blast through the 1983-84 season, helping the team capture the MISL in his final year.
He became a Blast assistant coach under Kenny Cooper before taking on the coaching reins of the Harrisburg Heat in 1991. Pollihan directed the Heat into the National Professional Soccer League playoffs in each of his seven seasons, earning league coach of the year accolades in his first year. Harrisburg never won a championship under Pollihan, as the team fell in the final series to the St. Louis Ambush in 1995. He became Heat vice president of soccer operations in 1999 through 2003. If you are counting, Pollihan guided the Heat to 155 wins, fourth on the all-time NPSL list.
Polly also is a member of at least five halls of fame, including Quincy University, NAIA, St. Louis soccer, the Blast and Lancers.
His accomplishments aside, Pollihan's former teammates and friends remembered another side of him.
Pollihan's leadership skills off the field helped save the jobs of his Lancers teammates in 1978.
Don Droege, a former teammate on the Lancers and USMNT, roomed with Pollihan and had known him for 50 years. He remembered a lesson in loyalty when the Lancers were in San Diego for training camp in 1978.
To say Popovic laid down strict rules was an understatement.
"We had a coach whose rules were no drinking, no sun, and no women. But we broke all those rules," Droege said.
Several American players, including goalkeeper Jim May, Jim Roth, Pollihan, and Droege got a six-pack to drink some beers while they were doing their laundry. They threw the empty cans in a trash can.
"He [Popovic] saw that there were beer cans in the can. We're in trouble," Droege said.
Popovic sent trainer Joe Sirianni to their room to find out who was drinking the beer.
"Well, Jim, because he was the captain and he was the guy that would be getting the most trouble and not be in trouble, took the blame for it," Droege said, adding that Sirianni said, " 'You're gone tomorrow. They're taking you back to New York, and they're going to trade you.' Little did we know that Popovic is listening outside the room here. I stood up and said, 'Joe, you take Jim, take me out. I quit.' "
May followed suit.
No one was traded, as Pollihan had made his point with his stand.
"That the best of the best and I'm so proud to be a friend," Droege said, adding that Pollihan embodied the philosophy, 'I will be here for you for whatever you need guys.' He's the guy that I'd say I love you. You don't say that often to guys. But I loved him."
Pollihan was godfather to May's first son.
"Never met a better guy," he said. "He just he was a gentleman. Great athlete, great teammate. He wouldn't be just one of those guys. If you picked up the phone and said, 'Jimmy, I need 20 grand or I need this or I need that,' he wouldn't even wave his hand. We were fortunate enough to have him."
Two other former Lancers, Kevin Gannon and Nelson Cupello, came in for the celebration, as did players from the Brockport State 1974 NCAA championship team. Pollihan played with many of those players in later years in various tournaments in the Northeast.
As a coach, Pollihan understood the human side of an athlete's life.
"Jim gave a lot of these guys these players here that we're chatting with a start to their careers," said former Heat standout Mark Pulisic, the former of USMNT forward Christian Pulisic. "He was an honest guy, great coach, somebody I'll never forget. He was your coach, but he also took an interest in your family. He always knew my kids' names. He was such a great mentor for me, helped me get my first coaching job. I'll miss him a lot."
Pulisic was among several former Heat and Blast players who paid their respects.
"Jim was a great guy obviously a great coach, great mentor for all of us," said Danny Kelly, who coached the Blast to three consecutive Major Arena Soccer League championships. "We were all pretty much straight out of college when we came to the Heat. Jim was a great first coach for us all. I think it was because of what he didn't do. His style of coaching, he let us be ourselves. We weren't overly structured and what we had to do. He kept it simple for us. He knew exactly who we had on his team and how to make us successful and we were."
Bill Becher, who also played for the Heat, echoed Kelly's sentiments. He noted that Pollihan's first Harrisburg team was a young one.
"I was 25 or 26," he said. I was the fourth oldest guy on the team. He took a bunch of younger guys that had a lot of passion for the game, a lot of enthusiasm for the game, but we're all kind of new to it. He was able to mold us and make us a team. We had so many characters and so many different people on that team, it took somebody like Jim to really bring it together to let us play and reeled them when he knew he had a reel us in. We were winners right away. ... I think it speaks a lot about the kind of person he was. He understood what kind of team he had and he figured out the right way to handle that group."
Pollihan also left another legacy - a sizable coaching tree. Becher noted that several Heat players went on to work bench the bench or continued their careers in soccer.
Becher directed the Harrisburg City Islanders for 11 years in what is the USL Championship today. Bob Lilley directs the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the same league. David Bascome calls the shots for the Blast. Richard Chinapoo succeeded Pollihan as Heat head coach. Pulisic coached indoor soccer teams. Denis Hamlett is the New York Red Bulls sporting director and the late Todd Smith was the New England Revolution's general manager. Lee Tschantret coaches at a high school and Franklin McIntosh ran a youth club in Atlanta.
"I'm sure I'm missing guys," Becher said. "Almost everybody went on and did something in soccer. You have to credit some of that to Jim. He influenced us to continue to do that."
Wilsbach remembered many a meal with Pollihan, whether it was a restaurant in Cincinnati, Kansas City, Detroit or Wichita.
"We ate well. We laughed. We talked soccer. we told stories," he said. "All of this here at some point will make that one last road trip. When that time comes. I look forward to sitting down again with my friend and enjoying a heavenly meal and some good conversation."
Jim Pollihan was that type of man who you wanted on your side and by your side.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk. His new book, Still Alive and Kicking: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers, will be available soon. The book includes many stories and features about indoor soccer.