THE MAN BEHIND THE TROPHY
When he was named the 1977 North American Soccer League coach of the year, Ron Newman quipped, "I am very thrilled with this honor, especially since I consider many of the coaches in the league my friends. People say a coach's life is like having one foot on a banana peel and the other on a bar of soap."
Newman was referring to the precarious life of a soccer head coach.
As it turned out, Newman very rarely slipped and forged one of the most impactful careers a coach has had in American soccer - indoors and outdoors.
He lived, ate and breathed an outstanding soccer career that spanned 45 years as a player and a coach.
As coach of the San Diego Sockers, Newman was best known for guiding the team to an astounding 10 indoor championship across two leagues over 11 years.
Quite fittingly, the Major Arena Soccer League has named its championship trophy after Newman - the Ron Newman Cup. One of his former organizations, the Sockers is battling for indoor glory against the Florida Tropics. The two teams tussle in Game One in Lakeland, Fla. on Monday, May 2 at 7 p.m. ET before heading to San Diego for Game Two and a possible Extra Time Game, if needed, on May 8 at 8:05 p.m. ET.
"Ron Newman has been synonymous with the Sockers and has done more than anyone else to build their tradition of success on the field," Jeff Quinn, a partner in Arena Group 2000, told the North County Times in 1994. "He is not only a peerless coach, but also a tireless evangelist for the sport."
Former Sockers general manager Tim Latta had similar sentiments about the man who introduced the sixth attacker to the indoor game.
"If he's in football, he's bigger than John Madden or Vince Lombardi," he was quoted by the North County Times in 1994. "If he's in baseball, he's bigger than Tommy Lasorda.
"If every industry had an ambassador like Ron Newman, it would be unbelievable."
By the time he retired in 1999, Newman had guided teams to 12 titles across four leagues - the North American Soccer League indoor and outdoor circuits, the Major Indoor Soccer League and the American Soccer League. He also earned coach of the year honors in all four leagues. He also helped innovate the indoor game, using the sixth attacker.
Pretty incredible, huh?
His lifetime coaching record, indoors and out, was 753-296-27.
Again, pretty incredible.
“Ron was a great recruiter,” said former Baltimore Blast head coach Kenny Cooper, who kept goal for Dallas and was a coaching adversary in many MISL championship series. “He had the unique ability to put people together, different backgrounds, cultures, heritages. He could pick out a player maybe somebody else couldn’t. He always figured out a way of bringing out the best out of people. He was an excellent motivator.”
Cooper added Newman was “very consumed with the game, lived the game, loved the game. Very passionate about the game.”
Before he became heavily involved indoors, Newman made a reputation as an outdoor player on both sides of the Atlantic. After a 12-year career playing for English clubs, Portsmouth, Leyton Orient, Crystal Palace and Gillingham, he decided to take a plunge and join the Atlanta Chiefs in the fledgling National Professional Soccer League in 1967. The NPSL morphed into the NASL the next year.
Newman joined the Dallas Tornado in 1968 and was appointed head coach the next season, directing the side to the 1971 NASL crown.
Back in the day, soccer was hard sell and players needed to be pioneers and teachers off the field. When Newman represented the Chiefs on a float during a parade, spectators did not know soccer from Adam.
“He got up and started juggling a soccer ball and everybody started looking, watching it,” his son Guy Newman told this writer several years ago. “He would get some kids out going down the road having them start kicking balls. Nobody even knew what the game was about. He was trying to promote the game.”
In Dallas, Cooper remembered participating in as many as three or four clinics a day.
“That was expected of you,” he said. “He instilled all that into all of us. When I went into coaching, I obviously used some of those influences that Ron would share with us.”
Newman also knew something about human psychology, which must be an important ingredient in a coach's arsenal.
“Humor to him was a good thing to break tension, get people what he wanted,” Guy said. “He didn’t want to get people on defense, so he used humor to get his point across and be positive. He realized players. The players play at a high-level game. They were nervous and all that. You don’t want to make them more nervous. Nervous players don’t play as well. You have to play with confidence and be ready to play in a good state. He was very good at that.”
Not surprisingly. Newman’s humor diffused many a controversial or difficult scenario.
After finishing the 1977 campaign with the best NASL record, the Strikers stumbled to an abysmal start the next season. They lost their opening three matches and were outscored, 13-2. For the team's next home match at Lockhart Stadium on April 22, the Strikers and Newman decided to do something about that.
Prior to the match, a funeral procession was held. A hearse was driven to the middle of the field and a coffin was taken out. Newman popped out of the coffin, ran to a microphone and exclaimed: “We’re not dead yet!” The crowd of 7,718 went wild and the Strikers went on to a 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Aztecs. Fort Lauderdale rebounded and reached the playoff semifinals.
Newman later admitted that he was “nervous the players were going to nail [the coffin] shut.” He quipped: “They wanted a coffin, but I didn’t trust my players.”
Wait! There's more.
In 1979, FIFA had denied Northern Ireland international's George Best from participating in the Strikers’ North American Soccer League season opener because Fulham of the English League claimed he didn't fulfill a contractual agreement. After the ban was lifted, Best started against the New England Tea Men but was replaced in the second half.
As he walked off the field, an angry Best took off his shirt and threw it in Newman’s face.
“How can I get fit if I’m taken out 29 minutes before the game is over,” Best told Soccer Digest. To which Newman replied with a grin: “I always wanted one of his shirts. He’s an Irishman with a hot bloody temper and we forgive all Irishmen.”
Another coach might have had some stern words on the spot and added further fuel to the fire to turn it into a full-blown controversy.
“In this day and age, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Guy Newman said. “In those days, players didn’t like being substituted and Best said: ‘You’re taking me off and nobody has ever taken me off.’ If he gets all upset, they have to suspend George Best again. That’s not good for George, that’s not good for anybody. He had to make light of the whole situation … so it quieted down. Everybody laughed. George was all right. He played the next game and all of a sudden everything was fine. He had to do something, so he used humor to deflect the situation.”
No doubt that Newman was a players’ coach. Ray Hudson, a long-time TV soccer analyst, a former Strikers midfielder, said that players loved playing for him.
“He didn’t show any great stress or strain in the job,” he said. “It wasn’t a case of him of sitting on the sidelines and not looking stressed out. You see any picture of him with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was tough work. He worked the sidelines hard. I’m not sure how many players were aware of it that this man is having an influence on you at the time. You realize it long after the event, where you realize how good he did and the manner in which he did it. All the players had affection for him as the boss.”
Newman was fired by the Strikers after the 1979. After coaching the Miami Americans for an ASL season, he was hired by the Sockers in 1981, which kicked off an historic run that nobody could have imagined. He remained coach of the team for 14 years, which is unheard of in American soccer.
Also unheard of was the Sockers' 10 indoor championships in 11 seasons in two leagues. San Diego's only MISL "failure?" When it lost to the Tacoma Stars in the 1986-87 MISL semifinals.
After leaving the Sockers, Newman guided the Arizona Sandsharks (Continental Indoor Soccer League) in 1995 before becoming the first head coach of the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) in 1996. He was fired early in 1999.
Newman probably has been involved with more firsts in American soccer than we can count. He likely was the first father to play pro soccer with his son and coach against him years later.
During the infamous NASL players' strike in 1979, he suited up and played with Guy for the short-handed Strikers. In 1994, Ron coached against his son for the first time as Guy was head coach of the Las Vegas Dustdevils.
Ron Newman's fatherly advice for Guy?
"He told me the best way to beat them is to let them score as many goals as possible," Guy told the Times-Advocate.
The Sockers defeated Las Vegas, 6-4.
Newman passed away at the age of 84, in August 2018, but the legacy he left on the game in the states was second to none.
He is a member of at least six Halls of Fame - the National Soccer Hall of Fame, the U.S. Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame, Atlanta Hall of Fame, San Diego Hall of Champions (his star is in the walkway of the San Diego Sports Arena, between Frank Sinatra and Bette Midler), the USL Hall of Fame and the Dallas Walk of Fame.
Just as important, his name is on the trophy that signifies indoor soccer excellence that will be awarded to the MASL champion on Sunday, May 8.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. 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.