When Gene Chyzowych was first hired to teach and coach at Columbia High School in 1963, it was widely recognized as one of the best high schools in the state, and he had to interview multiple times before landing the job. The then-superintendent told him to fix his front teeth and come back for another interview in three weeks; Chyzowych made a dentist appointment, and the rest is history.
Chyzowych was officially inducted into the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's Hall of Fame at a ceremony in St. Louis last month, and he'll be enshrined in their display at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., in August. He was also recognized at a pep rally today at Columbia High School, where teachers and administrators including Superintendent Brian Osborne and Assistant Principal Michael Healy carried him onto the stage.
Chyzowych has been a physical education teacher and soccer coach at Columbia since 1963 and is the second winningest active high school coach in the country with 720 wins. He says his coaching philosophy is based more on intelligence on the field than on sheer physical toughness.
"My coaching is designed to make players believe in perfection," said Chyzowych, who lives in West Orange. "They need to understand with everything they do and everything we do in practice that good is not good enough; very good is not good enough. Perfect is the key."
Born in the Ukraine, Chyzowych and his family emigrated to Germany after World War II, and he recalls moving westward through Poland and Czechoslovakia at the same time that German troops were retreating. Some of them left weapons behind, and he learned to use a machine gun at that time.
"As the kids in the America were playing with toys, we were playing with ammunition," he said.
The family ultimately settled in Philadelphia, and Chyzowych and his brother, Walter, played soccer for North Catholic High School and Temple University. Out of college, he took a coaching job at Chatham High School and eventually landed the job at Columbia.
He also had a 2 1/2-year coaching stint with the U.S. national team in the mid-1970s but was obliged to give it up when the Board of Education asked him to choose between traveling with the team and his career at Columbia. (His brother, Walter, subsequently took the job.)
In a decorated 45-year coaching career, two seasons stand out for Chyzowych. There was 1978, when one of the stars was Elisabeth and Andrew Shue's brother William, and the team defeated Brick at a championship game played at Giants Stadium. And there was 1988 when Chyzowych's son played for the team and they were ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today. (They lost 1-0 in the state final to Shawnee High School.)
As for the question of when he'll retire, Chyzowych—who's over 70— doesn't know the answer. He's coming off a good season with a team that finished second in the state sectional championship. (The Cougars lost to Elizabeth in penalty kicks.) Since 28 members of the team were graduating seniors, the process of developing next year's team will be a "tremendous undertaking," but one that he's looking forward to.
"When the time comes and I’m not teaching kids and not adding to their development, then I’ll stop," he said. "Right now, I feel sharp."