Steve Negoesco stands alone on a cement step at the top of the 3,300-seat stadium that bears his name at the University of San Francisco. This is how the stocky 71-year-old has coached soccer for the past 35 years: from far above the field. "I like to give my players freedom," he says. "If I always tell them what to do, they will never be able to think for themselves."
Occasionally he trots down the stairs to share his insights with assistants, but he always retreats to the place from which, he believes, he can best dissect a soccer match. "You have to see a three-dimensional game," says Negoesco. "When I am up on the stairs, I get a pretty decent perspective of the field."
While standing on those steps on Oct. 24, 1995, Negoesco watched the Dons beat Stanford 2-1 in overtime to earn his 500th win—the most wins by a soccer coach in NCAA history. However, Negoesco says, "the 500 games are just a number. I'm more concerned with the quality of play." Through Oct. 31, this year's San Francisco squad was 8-5-1, including a 2-0 upset win over Cal State Fullerton; Negoesco's career mark is 511-124-64.
His seemingly distant coaching style suits his players just fine. "Most coaches yell and scream and jump off the bench," says Dons forward Chris McDonald, a senior. "Steve says, 'This is your team, we've practiced, you know what you need to do.' "
Negoesco's players say they respect his honesty. Four years ago when the coach was recruiting McDonald, he didn't try to impress the young player. "He took me to Mel's Diner, right down the street," says McDonald, who had been wined and dined at fancier places while visiting other schools. "He just said, 'Here's what we have to offer you. If you like it, take it.' Steve was up front; there wasn't any hidden agenda." McDonald watched Negoesco coach a game that day and made up his mind on the spot.
When John Doyle was a freshman at USF in 1986, he quickly learned about Negoesco's straightforward approach. Doyle was having a hard time making the transition to college life, and he wandered into the coach's office hoping to get some sympathy. What he got instead was a dose of reality. "Steve said to me, 'You think you've got problems? Hey, I was in a concentration camp,' " says Doyle. "When he said that, it put everything in perspective."
Negoesco can be forgiven for what may seem like a lack of compassion. Fifty-six years ago soccer was all about survival for him. Although he was born in Jutland, N.J., in 1925, he was sent by his father, a Romanian sea captain, to live with relatives in Bucharest after the boy's mother died in 1926. Negoesco was in Bucharest when the Nazis invaded in 1940. After a scuffle with a German soldier over a girl, he was shipped to a labor camp in Germany. Even at 15, soccer was the center of his life; before being taken away, the first things he packed in his canvas satchel were two deflated soccer balls and a pair of cleats.
For 12 hours a day, six days a week, Negoesco did hard labor, mostly digging ditches. But on Sundays he and other teenage prisoners were allowed to play soccer. Occasionally some of the German guards joined in, even helping the boys pat down the clay fields before games. The guards took note of Negoesco's skill. "A guard says to me, 'You're a beautiful player,' " says Negoesco, smiling at the memory. "We had common ground there. All of a sudden the war didn't exist anymore—not between the two of us."
After four months in the camp Negoesco had lost 20 pounds and contracted tuberculosis. He realized his only chance of survival was to escape. On a spring afternoon in 1941, while guards who had watched the soccer games turned their backs, Negoesco and four other boys sneaked out of the camp. After hiding on trains for more than a week, Negoesco made it back to Bucharest, where he began playing soccer again and was chosen for the national junior team. Eventually he was discovered, but because he was such a good player, the authorities allowed him to continue. Finally, in 1945 he returned to the U.S., where he was reunited with his father.
Negoesco finished high school in New Jersey and later played soccer at San Francisco, where as a junior in 1949 he became the first West Coast player to earn first-team All-America honors. The following season he married Mercedes Coronado-Arce. "She lived a half a block from campus," says Negoesco. "Her father bought a house, 2514 McAllister, right in back of my south goal." Even on their wedding day Negoesco couldn't stay away from a soccer field. After kissing his bride, he rushed back to campus to play a game. "Before we got married, Steve told me that soccer came first," Mercedes says with a laugh. "When I first met him, he was playing soccer. So how could I ask him not to play?" Their arrangement seems to have worked. The couple has six children and 14 grandchildren.