For the first time in his 37-year coaching career, Winthrop men’s soccer coach Rich Posipanko finally knows how his seniors feel.
Posipanko announced before the season that 2015 would be his last. The Eagles clinched the Big South Conference regular season title Saturday at Longwood, the school where Posipanko’s career began in 1978, and the league tournament begins Tuesday with a game at Manchester Meadows against UNC Asheville. The Eagles’ coach and his senior players all know the next game could be their final.
“We’re in the same boat together, trying to win one more with your last opportunity. That’s what it’s come down to,” said Posipanko on Monday, the same day he was named the Big South’s 2015 coach of the year. “I’m ready for it to be honest with you. It might be different a month from now, or three months, or a year.”
In English soccer parlance, “the gaffer” is the manager, a soccer club’s head coach. Former player Gary Baker pinned that moniker on Posipanko in the early 1990s and it stuck. As Posipanko pointed out, his last name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so Gaffer made sense.
When Winthrop’s Gaffer steps down at the end of the season, the Pennsylvania native will close the curtains on a career that saw him become the most successful men’s soccer coach in two schools’ history- Longwood and Winthrop. He’s currently the seventh winningest active Division I men’s coach with 338 victories, and his league coach of the year award on Monday is the fourth of his career at Winthrop. He’s won over 270 games in Rock Hill and took the Eagles to five NCAA tournaments. Three more wins this week would send him in to retirement a Big South champion.
Posipanko can come off as grumpy and terse, and he’s nothing if not blunt.
“When you weren’t performing, he’d let you know in no uncertain terms,” said Northwestern coach Dom Wren, who played for Posipanko from 1998 to 2002. “If you performed to the level he knew you could play at, he’d just give you a pat on the butt or a “good job,” or a wink or something like that, and it would make you grow 10 feet.”
Winthrop assistant coach Daniel Ridenhour called Posipanko “hard but fun.” Ridenhour said when he first arrived on the job that Posipanko tore up his contract and told him he was on a minute-to-minute deal.
“Then it was an hour-to-hour, then it was day-to-day, and now I’m back to hour-to-hour. I’ve been here 12 years,” he said, smiling.
But the Gaffer’s tough outer shield covers a wry, sarcastic sense of humor and a much warmer inside, evinced by his work with Kickin’ It To Cancer, a local soccer-related charity that’s fighting breast cancer. After his wife Gayle had breast cancer, Posipanko took up that challenge and has helped raise over $200,000 for the cause in the last six years.
He also efforts to keep up with his former players. Matt Lacey played at Winthrop from 2007 to 2009, and said Posipanko calls at least once a month to catch up. Not all of the former Eagles liked their coach when they played for him, but they all respect him, especially the way he motivated them in ways unique to their personalities.
“He used to tell me in August I only play well in November when the weather cools down,” said Lacey, originally from England and never a big fan of South Carolina humidity. “At the time it used to drive me crazy but looking at it now as a coach he was a genius as he got the most out of me and motivated me to achieve some great heights.”
Posipanko leaves with few regrets.
He did lament the program’s wobbly financial footing in his first nine or 10 years. Posipanko had to do everything, from washing laundry to maintaining Eagle Field. But once his fund-raising efforts hit full speed and the program began a sustained run of success at the turn of the century, those issues began to subside.
“If you look at the last 14 years of this program, what we’ve done in terms of wins, NCAA College Cups and players in the pros, it’s as good as anybody in the country,” Posipanko said. “We just didn’t have the resources to win championships early on.”
Wren credited Posipanko with making the Winthrop soccer program unrecognizably improved in all aspects from when he played. While things have improved markedly there are realities Winthrop soccer will never escape. With both of his team managers at a sorority event, Posipanko did the team’s laundry on Sunday.
He plans to stick around Rock Hill, a community full of youth soccer coaches that played for the Gaffer, and said he has some next-steps in the works. Posipanko also expects to continue his involvement with Winthrop soccer’s fund-raising efforts. Ridenhour said Posipanko has poured large amounts of his own money into the program over the years with no publicity.
Enough of all that. This week, the Gaffer is focusing solely on the Winthrop soccer program for the last time ever. Typically, he downplayed the significance.
“We had a decent senior class graduating, so it felt right to go out with them too,” he said.
Former players’ memories
We played at home against Liberty (at the time, the 2007 conference champions) and we may have put in one of our best team – and my own personal – performance of the year, leading 3-0 at halftime. I was a defensive midfielder so I was pleased with the work we had put into to win the battle in the middle of the field. But I get a tap on the shoulder and I’m expecting Gaffer to tell me to keep it up, but instead he tells me with a straight face “Lacey, any danger son of you scoring today?” I was so annoyed/motivated by the comment, I went out and worked harder than the first half, winning a really important game.
I think it’s November, 2002. Winthrop is getting ready to host the Big South for the first time. We have had our last training session the day before the first game. Gaffer asks me to hang back after the lads go in to the locker room. He is having a chat with me sitting in the bleachers about the tournament, using his favorite comment “it’s big time,” etc. Discussing team selection etc. He had spent all morning spray painting WINTHROP on the side of the pitch underneath the bleachers. Gaff says look at how “big time” this is. We look down and he has misspelled Winthrop, WINHTROP.
He gave me the keys to the Coliseum van and $20 and sent me to the hardware store in my boots and training kit to buy extra paint. He stayed right there to make sure nobody saw it. We spent the next couple of hours respraying it.
The first time I came to America and got to meet Gaffer, I had a tough time understanding his accent. We had trouble understanding each other. Every time I sat in his car, I tried my best to ignore long conversations so that I didn’t have to get an interpreter. With time things, started getting easier and we have been very close ever since. We share a father and son relationship. Every time I have to make a decision in my life, he is the first person I speak to for guidance. Words can’t express how grateful I am because he made my dream come true. He is a true blessing in my life.
Gaff was more than a coach to me. His confidence on me since Day One made me give my best on and off the field. I've always tried to return the opportunity he gave to me and the 2012 Championship was the best way for me to do this.
Gaff taught me a lot of things while I was at Winthrop, but there are two things that had a big impact not only in my soccer career, but also in my life. I learned from him that small details make the difference and how important is to make good decisions on every situation. 2012 was not an easy year for the team, but we made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history because we had a group of players and coaches with leadership, ambition, teamwork, and a lot of trust.
There are so many things to talk about the gaffer. It's difficult to pick one. All I can say is hat he took care of me like a son. He is one of the funniest coaches to be around. Always looking to help others. He challenged me to be the best I can be and I thank him so much for everything he did for me and the soccer program. One famous quote “the bus does not leave without Valli or Franco.”
What I can remember and will never forget is the type of man gaffer was and still is to every single player that ever played for him. I myself and others can attest to the same that gaffer was far more than a just a college coach. He was a father to us while away from our families. A coach not only concerned with winning games but a person who genuinely cares about the players in his program “winning at life.”
It has been 11 years since I first stepped foot on Gaffer’s beloved pitch as a freshman, and though I no longer have college eligibility as a player, he still makes us all feel like one of the boys when we catch up. I was fortunate enough to play soccer after college as a professional and a big reason for that is the training and mentorship I received from Gaffer. I was completely out of the picture after my time at Winthrop and Gaffer would check on me several times a week no matter the time of day/night making sure I was healthy, learning and playing well.
I could go on and on about Gaffer to no end but I will sum it up saying how grateful and indebted I feel to have been presented with the opportunity to play for him, grow in to a man under his watch, as well as be a part of his legacy at the helm of the men's soccer program. Thanks for letting me take the time to share my experience with you on one of the great influences in my life.
Big South Conference tournament
Quarterfinals (Campus Sites), Tues., Nov. 10
Tuesday’s games (all start at 7 p.m.)
No. 8 UNC Asheville at No. 1 Winthrop at Manchester Meadows
No. 7 Gardner-Webb at No. 2 Radford
No. 6 High Point at No. 3 Coastal Carolina
No. 5 Longwood at No. 4 Campbell
Friday, Nov. 13 semifinals (Bryan Park, Greensboro, N.C.)
Match 5: No. 4/5 winner vs. No. 1/8 winner, – 4 p.m.
Match 6: No. 2/7 winner vs. No. 3/6 winner – 7 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 15 final at Bryan Park, Greensboro, N.C.
Match 7: winner, Match 5 vs. winner, Match 6 – 2 p.m.