Last Saturday, legendary men’s soccer Head Coach Mike Russo walked off of the pitch at Cole Field one final time as his final campaign at the helm of the Ephs came to a close. “I am older than some of the buildings here,” Russo joked, who began his coaching career at Williams in 1979.
When you walk into Coach Russo’s office, you are immersed in the history of Williams men’s soccer. On his wall hangs a jersey of Matt Stauffer ’96, a member of Coach Russo’s 1995 Div. III National Championship team, who lost his battle to Leukemia in 1998 and whose jersey was retired upon his passing. Coach Russo uses Stauffer’s spirit and commitment to excellence to instill his values in his current players. Turn your head to the left, and his shelves are filled with trophies from his various Final Four, NESCAC Championship and Div. III NCAA Championship teams. Yet his shiny hardware is just the beginning of Russo’s long-lasting legacy.
It is not only his impressive statistics – the 438 wins that place him in the top 10 for most wins in Div. III soccer history or his 33 consecutive winning seasons – that make his departure so bittersweet. Rather, it is the way Coach Russo represented himself and the soccer program for over three decades that makes it incredibly hard for the Williams community to part with such a decorated coach. He established Williams soccer as an institution in the Div. III soccer landscape through hard work and dedication. “We work with goal-oriented and driven athletes who seek excellence in everything they do, especially in the athletic realm,” Russo said. Moreover, it is his passion for the students, the sport and for his job that has continually reeled in some of the best student-athletes from around the country, and around the world.
He has compiled a 438-116-60 record over his 36 seasons leading the Ephs, appearing in 18 NCAA tournaments, clinching six NESCAC Championships and one Div. III National Championship. But you would never know that Russo is one of the most decorated collegiate coaches in the nation just by talking to him. He prides himself on humility and respect for both his players and his opponents. “I don’t know how many games we have won – I haven’t won any games; players win games,” he said.
Current players recognize their coach’s achievements and admire his commitment to both the sport and their team. “It has been an absolute honor playing under Coach Russo,” co-captain Luke Pierce ’15 said. “The way he conducts himself, both on and off the pitch, is something that we all strive to emulate. His humility speaks volumes. I’ve never met a coach who had so much respect for the game.” At a banquet earlier this year, commemorating his final season, over 200 former players returned from around the world to honor their coach – a testament to the respect he earned from all those associated with him over the years.
Even those that have had the opportunity to coach against him realize the magnitude and lasting impact of Coach Russo’s career. “It’s been a pleasure coaching against Coach [Mike] Russo,” Amherst men’s soccer Head Coach Justin Serpone said. “He’s created a high bar for NESCAC soccer coaches. Everyone at Amherst, whilst competitors, greatly respects the soccer tradition that he built at Williams. He will be missed.”
But even through all the success, for which he is ever grateful, Russo has strived to turn boys entering as first-years into groomed men by the time they exit his program four years later at graduation. “I’ve tried to provide an environment where young men can thrive and improve as both players and people,” Russo said. His coaching style is all about buying into his system to play and live the “Russo Way” – through hard work, humility, integrity and passion. “Coach Russo has taught us all how to be better people by instilling this “Russo Way” into our program,” Pierce said. “There’s no question that the legacy he leaves will always be cherished here.”
In a year filled with incredible Williams coaches handing over their whistles, Coach Russo’s exit as the most storied Williams soccer coach in history is a reminder of what it means to be the best. “He has created a soccer legacy and family,” Pierce said. More than a legacy and family, Russo has been able to emulate the College’s standards of excellence, both on and off the field, through the entirety of his tenure.
Even if this season did not go as well as planned, or did not live up to the Russo standard, Mike Russo will still go out on top. He will forever be remembered as a stalwart in Williams’s soccer history. As for whomever is slated to replace him next season, Russo offered simple advice: “Enjoy it and have fun.” From all of us at Williams, thank you, Coach Russo, for teaching us how to sustain greatness with unwavering humility. You will surely be missed.