Thomas Jefferson's veteran soccer coach not ready to slow down just yet
Rich Costanzo, regarded as the top soccer player ever to graduate from Thomas Jefferson High School, has encountered more coaches than he could count during in his time around the sport.
From youth soccer through high school and college and even professionally in the MLS and with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Costanzo has played for coaches of all styles. One stands out above the rest: Thomas Jefferson's Michael “Doc” Kulish.
“He's one of the top coaches and one of the most influential coaches I've ever played for,” Costanzo said.
Costanzo isn't alone.
Kulish recently completed his 20th season as the Jaguars' head coach, and during that time, he's become the face not only of the program but also of the sport in general in the South Hills.
“He's a great coach, and a great guy,” said Tyler Fabian, who played for Kulish at Thomas Jefferson from 2005 to 2008, and now plays collegiately at West Virginia Tech. “He definitely values his players. He's really helped me out with soccer, and my work ethic overall. He's an all-around good role model.”
In his two decades with the Jaguars, Kulish has assembled a 285-130-22 record; his teams have won three WPIAL championships and one PIAA title. He was voted PIAA coach of the year in 2002, and WPIAL coach of the year in 2001 and 2002.
Kulish is proud of those accomplishments, but he's even more proud of the Thomas Jefferson players. That emotion is matched only by his love of the sport.
“The biggest difference with Doc compared to other coaches is his passion,” said Costanzo, who played for Kulish from 2000 to 2003. “He loves the game.”
A simple conversation with Kulish quickly reveals that love.
“I just enjoy the sport. It's such a special sport. I enjoy the enthusiasm young people have for the game,” he said. “At our school, a lot of kids come into soccer not really knowing the game, not really playing the game. But the beauty of this game is its simplicity.
“A lot of times, kids come onto the team almost experimenting; they're testing the waters, so to speak. But when you see a young man come in as a freshman, somewhat uncoordinated and with no experience in his footskills, then you see him get better one week at a time. By the time they're juniors and seniors, to see how well they've matured, that's the beauty of this game.”
Kulish, a 1964 Thomas Jefferson graduate, first became attached to the game as youngster growing up in Jefferson Hills.
While the sport was not as popular as it is today, and there was no TJ boys' soccer team at the time, Doc's father played played on club teams in local communities such as Curry and Broughton, and with various local ethnic clubs.
“He played for the Polish National Alliance club,” Kulish said. “My dad taught me the game. That's how I learned it when I was younger.”
After graduating from TJ, Kulish enrolled at now-defunct Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, Pa., and graduated in 1968. Alliance did not have a varsity team in those days, but Kulish tried out for the club team — which continued to nurture his love of the game.
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology, then started teaching at parochial schools in the area. During that time, he began coaching elementary school football.
Kulish landed his first job coaching soccer in 1974. He was hired as head coach at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where he coached for five years.
During the early portion of his coaching career, Kulish also continued his academic pursuits. He earned a master's degree in education for the hearing impaired and profoundly deaf, and a doctorate in vocational education from Pitt.
Kulish landed a job at Mon Valley School in 1980, where he taught until he retired in 2007.
His soccer coaching career continued when his son, Michael III, began playing in youth leagues in the early 1980s.
That eventually led the elder Kulish to TJ's varsity head coaching job in 1993, a position he's held ever since (not to mention the club teams he's coached and even taken overseas to play).
Under Kulish's watch, the TJ boys' program has experienced some ups and downs, but largely has been successful.
The greatest stretch of success came from 2001 to 2003 when the Jaguars went to the PIAA championship game three years in a row, winning the state title in 2002.
At one point in 2002, the local squad won 26 games in a row. One national service ranked the Jaguars the No. 7 high school boys' soccer team in the nation.
“I remember the scores, the memories,” Kulish said. “We had so many good players, it was unreal. That was some exciting soccer.”
Those who have been a part of TJ's winning ways credit Kulish for much of that success.
“One thing I can say about Doc is that he's a fair coach. He's a player's coach, and he gives his players a fair opportunity to play,” Costanzo said. “If there's a guy on the team that didn't get a goal during the season, he'll get that player in there and get him a chance.
“I remember games where we were beating the other team by a significant amount of goals. Instead of running up the score, he would get different players in there to try to get them a goal. He obviously looked out for his players' best interests. I always appreciated that. A lot of coaches don't ever let that enter their mind. They just want to run up the score.”
Kulish is known for being a disciplinarian at times, orchestrating intense practices that include lots of running.
It's not all intense, though, as Kulish is also known for having fun with is players.
As Tyler Fabian recalled, “My sister (Tonya) went through high school right around the same time as me, and she's a good player,” he said. “One time, right before my senior year, my sister scored four or five goals in a game. Doc sat me down to ask me why I couldn't do that.”
After 20 years, there's a reason why Kulish is the face of local soccer. And it's not just all those wins.
“The reason I've stayed at TJ so long is I like to see the players develop in all facets of life,” he said. “Not just soccer, but also as students and in everything they do.”
Costanzo said, “With Doc, he's a teacher. He's a teacher on the field, so he teaches us the game, but he also incorporates important life lessons. That's something a coach needs to do, but it's not something you find that often. Not all coaches do that, but not all coaches instill good work habits and teach good life lessons and good morals. I have such respect for him. He's a great coach and a great person.”
As of now, Kulish has no plans on stopping. He's 15 wins away from the coveted 300 mark, something he lists as a goal.
Beyond that, he simply enjoys what he is doing too much.
His son is an assistant coach at Thomas Jefferson. The younger Kulish does a lot of the physical coaching and drills, while Doc oversees the strategy and game plans.
The combo works well for Doc, and for the program.
“As long as my son is working with me as an assistant, I plan on staying at this,” Kulish said.
And, another set of soccer glory days could be on the horizon for the Jaguars.
This past season, the local squad finished 8-9-1 and missed the WPIAL playoffs. But Kulish is excited about the young talent he sees coming through the system.
“We have some good talent coming in, and it's starting to show,” he said. “We have a freshman class coming in, and the number of kids going out for the team is growing by leaps and bounds.”
There were around 40 players on the varsity and junior varsity squads during the 2012 season. Kulish pointed to the 14 freshman he had in the program, which “was the largest I've had.”
Next year, there could be as many as 21 freshman in the boys' soccer program.
“That's a lot of freshman players, given the size of our school,” Kulish said. “And in that class, there are a lot of good players. The future is exciting.”
Brian Knavish is a freelance writer.