Ambition made UM's Cirovski college soccer's dominant coach

Maryland's leader seemingly endless drive was forged at young age; 'He's relentless'

  • A young Sasho Cirovski (right foreground) in his native Macedonia in about 1969 with brother Vancho, mother, Ljubica, and sister Diana.
A young Sasho Cirovski (right foreground) in his native Macedonia… (Handout photo )
September 23, 2009|By Mike Klingaman |

COLLEGE PARK — He keeps the picture in his office, on a shelf with mementos of the country's most dominant college soccer coach.

All around are highlights of Sasho Cirovski's past, from the two national championships his Maryland teams have won to the 40 players they've furnished the pros. But that stuff pales next to Cirovski's treasure - a framed black-and-white photo of his family, circa 1969.

It could have been taken during World War II.

That's Cirovski in the foreground, in the rocky Macedonian village where he lived, a smallish boy with pursed lips and a resolute gaze far too focused for an ordinary 7-year-old.

It's the same determined look Cirovski, 47, will flash on Friday when Maryland hosts North Carolina in a rematch of last year's College Cup final won by the Terps, 1-0. A sellout crowd is expected. Carolina (5-0-1) ranks second nationally, while Maryland (4-1-1) is No. 4.

Maryland also won it all in 2005 and has reached the final four in five of the past seven seasons. The latter is the greater accomplishment, said Elmar Bolowich, North Carolina's longtime coach.

"You can win a national championship here and there, but to stay near the top every year is hard, real hard," Bolowich said. "How does Sasho do it? He's relentless."

The Terps swear by their coach, an indefatigable recruiter who turned a moribund program into one to be reckoned with.

"His passion is what propels this team," senior defender Kevin Tangney said. "The guy is driven, like a general. And it all seeps down to us."

When Cirovski arrived in 1993, Maryland was a woebegone team with a field better fit for agricultural research. This year, the Terps try for their 16th straight winning season at Ludwig Field, with its 7,000 seats. Cirovski fought for every one. Sasho's Folly, folks once called his dream.

"The basketball and football people at Maryland said, 'Sash, you've got your place in the world and that [soccer field] isn't going to happen.' Well, he changed their mind-set," said Bob Butehorn, a former Terps aide who is now the coach at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Cirovski kept plugging, lobbying and raising funds until he had his field. Not that his wheels aren't still turning. The locker rooms need replacing and the concession stands are outdated and the portable toilets are offensive.

"'No' is just a temporary obstacle," he said. "I always find ways to get to 'Yes.'"

His ambition was forged early, those who know him say, during his hardscrabble youth in the sleepy Balkan town of Vratnica. There, Cirovski and his family lived in several rooms atop a barn filled withlivestock: chickens, pigs, cows and horses.

"We had no bathrooms, hot water or refrigerator," he said. "We took baths in a small tub in the kitchen, by the wood stove. But we probably grew up healthy. There was no candy in our lives."

His parents were factory workers, poorly educated but proud of what little they could give their three children. Cirovski's father, Trpemir - friends called him "Terp" - slogged around Europe in search of work. In better times, he would scrape to buy a soccer ball and send it home to his sons, Sasho and Vancho.

"The whole village would play with that ball for a month, until it wore out," Cirovski said. After that, they made do with substitutes.

"Whenever a pig was slaughtered, we'd save the bladder, blow it up like a balloon and kick it around," recalled Vancho Cirovski, 49. "We'd play soccer wherever we were - on a hill, in the forest or on a riverbank," the Maryland coach said. "We never saw games on TV because there were no TVs, but we heard older people talk about the great players. You developed an embedded love for the game. It became part of my DNA."

Cirovski was 8 when his family emigrated to Windsor, Ontario. There, his father toiled long hours in a factory making car bumpers until being laid off for 22 months during the recession of the mid-1970s.

"We were poorer than dirt and always in debt," said Cirovski, by then a fast-rising player. "But if I needed to make a soccer trip, he would find a way to borrow $20. People trusted him to pay it back."

For two summers, Cirovski labored beside his dad in the factory.

"You came home from work with junk up your nose and dust all over your body, like in a coal mine," he said. And he thought: The clock is ticking. His father's death at 52 upped the ante.

"Life is the race for happiness," Cirovski said, "I knew then that all I wanted to do was to live, eat and breathe soccer."

He has gone full tilt ever since.

"Sash works extra hard because he's afraid of going backward," said Vancho Cirovski, a self-employed entrepreneur in Windsor. "He remembers not having things. It's always 'go forward' with him."

At Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cirovski captained the team and played like one possessed.

"Put a paintbrush on Sash's butt and he'd have painted the whole field," said Bob Gansler, then the coach at UWM. "He still squeezes everything out of himself every day."

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