After 36 years on Cole Field, the absence of former Head Coach Mike Russo is a startling one. A revered and respected member of the soccer world, Russo’s impactful career spanned over 600 games; 18 appearances in the NCAA Div. III Tournament; 15 prestigious coaching awards and most notably, a National Championship in 1995. So when it came time for Russo to retire, the search for a coach to maintain his excellence began in earnest. Now, Russo’s recognizable form no longer paces the sidelines of Cole Field. Instead, a new figure has taken his place, someone who has worked with Russo, played for Russo and knows the legacy that Williams men’s soccer holds dear. The new man at the helm is one who also holds Williams in personal, academic and athletic prestige: Erin Sullivan ’96.
Sullivan comes to Williams from Western New England University (WNE), where he was the head coach of men’s soccer for 15 years. Sullivan’s record of 207-96-37 at WNE makes him first at WNE in both wins and winning percentage. He was named the Commonwealth Coast Conference Coach of the Year in 2007, 2009 and 2010. He was named Great Northeast Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2005, Sullivan was named the National Soccer Coaches Association of America New England Region Coach of the Year and was a Finalist for the National Coach of the Year.
Yet Sullivan’s coaching career began much earlier than that – specifically, when he played goalie for Russo. Sullivan played for the Ephs for four years and was a starter for three, including on the 1995 Div. III National Championship team. An English and history double major, Sullivan’s time at Williams was largely influential in his decision to become a coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have been mentored and surrounded by so many great teacher-coaches that have instilled a passion in me for mentoring young people, teaching through sport and giving back to the game of soccer,” Sullivan said. “Foremost among these mentors is certainly Coach Russo. I think every player that has played for him became a better person, teammate and tactician because there was so much feedback and knowledge passed down from the coaching staff. Great leaders and teachers such as Mike Russo and [former Assistant Coach] Tom Demeo challenge you to leave your comfort zone and grow as an individual, as an athlete, as a man and to take a more critical approach to your own self-reflection. We enjoyed a lot of success and faced a lot of adversity together and that time period was incredibly influential in my path toward coaching.”
Over Winter Study in 1996, Sullivan participated in a 99 on coaching with Russo. “It was an incredible experience and taught me a great deal about preparation, leadership and motivation,” Sullivan said. “Coach Russo’s encouragement and patience with me were remarkable and I came away from that experience more determined than ever to pursue coaching as a profession.”
After graduating from the College, Sullivan taught and coached at the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., before beginning his collegiate coaching career with assisting coaching positions at Lafayette College, Cornell University and St. John’s University. In 2000, he took the position at WNE. “It was a magical fifteen years at WNE as we rebuilt and elevated the program to a nationally competitive level,” he said. “To come full circle and return to Williams is a dream come true.” Sullivan returns to the Purple Valley with his wife and children, noting his excitement to rejoin a community as “eclectic and vibrant” as Williamstown.
“In terms of the quest for competitive excellence, the goal of consistently competing at the conference, regional and national levels and the mentoring of the entire student-athlete, I’d say [WNE and Williams] are very similar,” commented Sullivan. At WNE, Sullivan taught physical education courses and served as an administrator and compliance coordinator for 19 varsity sports in addition to coaching men’s soccer. His new position at Williams finds his focus more exclusively on “the development, management and operation of the soccer program,” an opportunity he calls “wonderful in terms of focusing on my passion as a teacher-coach.” And while Sullivan’s tenure at WNE will always have a place in his history, he notes that, like all true Ephs, he “has always bled purple.”
A large part of Sullivan’s return to the Purple Valley can be attributed to Russo. “I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to coach here at Williams,” said Sullivan. “Following a living legend like Mike Russo is not an enviable predicament, but I’ve been given every advantage to succeed in my estimation. The Williams athletic administration, coaching staff and Coach Russo himself have all been incredibly supportive of this new chapter and the vision we have for the future of the program.”
And perhaps the most exciting thing about Sullivan’s appointment as head coach is his excitement, drive and passion for both the present and the future of the program. Sullivan’s “top priorities are to represent Williams and the Eph athletics program in a first-class manner, to bring the team together as a cohesive unit and to qualify for postseason play.”
While goals such as competing to be the Little Three, NESCAC and NCAA Div. III Champions are important milestones in the season, Sullivan’s implementation of specific, incremental goals put in place over the course of the fall are intended to lay a very strong foundation for post-season success. Undoubtedly, the men’s season is off to a strong start. But even with three wins under his belt, Sullivan remains focused on the here and now: “Certainly it helps to have achieved positive results in our first couple matches,” he said, “but our focus has been more on solidifying our system and style of play and returning to some of the important core principles and values in our program.”
Sullivan has some large shoes to fill and an intimidating legacy to uphold. However, he is an Eph through and through, an alumnus that bleeds purple, a coach that prizes the strength and principles of the program and a leader that strives to instill sportsmanship and values in the players that come onto his team. While Russo’s reign may have been long and respected, Sullivan is the new coach on the block – and one with many bright opportunities just on the horizon.