John Basalyga sits in his office looking out at the NKU soccer field. Three college students are playing down on the field. Basalyga is displeased by this.
“They aren’t really soccer players,” Basalyga said. “I’m always having to chase them off the field. I’m the bad cop.”
Basalyga isn’t the bad cop any longer though. He announced his retirement from NKU on Dec. 6.
“After 43 years of teaching and coaching, it was kind of neat waking up this morning and knowing I don’t have to be anywhere,” John Basalyga said. “I’ll probably be bored in about a month.”
He sits back in his chair and grabs a baseball that has been sitting on his desk. He begins to toss it up and down to himself.
“You know for a lot of the years I was coaching, I played on a traveling baseball team,” Basalyga said. “Our team made it to the championship game in Battle Creek, Michigan when my daughter was a month old. A lot of people thought it was crazy to bring a baby to a game with 85 degree heat, but we did it.”
Between the traveling baseball and caring for his three children, Basalyga won an NCAA Division II National Championship at NKU in 2010. His final record at NKU after 14 seasons was 161-88-38.
He coached players like Major League Baseball standout Jim Leyritz and US Women’s Soccer National Team star Heather Mitts.
“In 43 years of coaching, I can say I did it my way,” Basalyga said.
A family shaped by coaching
Basalyga’s wife Linda cried when he told her he was retiring.
His two grown daughters Lindsay and Courtney came over to his house Thanksgiving morning and were told then. Both of them also cried. Their entire lives had been shaped by Basalyga’s coaching career.
“Sports and my dad’s coaching career has always been a big part of our family,” Lindsay said. “We as a family have been invested in Northern Kentucky and invested in his program and the players he has coached. Knowing that chapter of his life and our life as a family was coming to a close was pretty emotional.”
While they were upset, no one tried to talk him out of his decision.
“I told them now that I will be losing money, I won’t be picking up the bill quite as much as I used to,” Basalyga said with a chuckle.
Basalyga spent more time with other people’s kids through his coaching and teaching career than he spent with his own. Every day when Basalyga would get home from teaching and coaching, he and his three kids would go out in the backyard and play. It was their bonding time away from coaching.
“For 43 years I have put my kids to the back burner. I don’t think people out there in the real world understand what coaches do,” Basalyga said. “When I got home from work at 7, 7:30 at night, I went outside for the next 45 minutes. They stopped their school work and went out in the backyard and played with them every day.”
Because of this, Lindsay, who played college soccer at powerhouse Maryland, always felt like her dad was around, even when she went to college.
“I don’t remember ever feeling like my dad was never around,” Lindsay said. “When I was in college, he would leave after a Saturday night high school game, drive through the night get down to Clemson or Wake Forest, sleep in the car, watch my game, get back in the car, slept for a few hours and go to teach.
“When I went to college that was one of my fears was my mom and dad not being able to see me play and they were at more games than some of my teammates whose parents lived 2 hours away.”
Soccer created a bond between Basalyga and his oldest daughter. Lindsay once slept outside the bathroom door when she was seven so her father would take her to preseason practice at Turpin.
“I was mad at him for leaving me the day before and not taking me with him to soccer practice,” Lindsay said. “From that morning on I went to every single practice with him from the age of seven through twelve to preseason practice. I was with him all day during the preseason and I would train with his players sometimes. I had a unique bond with him that was all built around the game of soccer.”
Lindsay would join in on practices from time to time and her father would watch her play just as hard as the high schooler boys she was playing against.
“My guys would throw her in puddles and just abuse her,” Basalyga said.
Linda and her three children sat in the stands with the parents. Basalyga said she was the best PR person he has ever had. She kept the parents from turning on him.
“There were times where the parents were incredible and they wanted to sit with my mom and meet for lunch before a game,” Lindsay said. “There were parents at Northern that she would travel with to games. She went to almost every home game my father has ever coached.”
Things weren’t always great with parents though, and there were times where parents took out their frustrations on Basalyga’s family in the stands.
“They treated my mom poorly in the stands and treated my brother and sister poorly because they felt their son should have been playing,” Lindsay said. “To hear parents bad mouth my dad, who is spending more time with their sons than he is with us as a family. It can be really hurtful.”
During many NKU games, Courtney would sit in the stands as close as possible to her father to hear what he was saying and see what he was doing.
“She would say ‘I just came down here to listen to you yell at the refs. Some of the stuff that came out of your mouth just made me laugh,’” Basalyga said.
After every game, the family would go out and have dinner together after games. When his teams lost, the whole family had a mourning period.
“I’m going to miss my family being at my games,” Basalyga said.
Finding his way on the streets
In the late 1950s, in the projects of Queens, New York, a young John Basalyga played football without pads, baseball and hockey. They kept him out of trouble in the cold, black, concrete jungle.
He went to high school where, Basalyga says, girls were arrested for prostitution and where students carried razor blades in their hair. He walked through race riots in 1967.
“It was challenging. I saw some crazy things,” Basalyga said. “I wouldn’t change my childhood. I learned more in the streets of how to take care of myself that had more life skills than we could teach our kids these days.”
Both of Basalyga’s parents and brother were alcoholics. His father and brothers were World War II and Vietnam veterans. Basalyga didn’t drink in high school or college. The first time he was ever drunk was at age 24, the night before his wedding.
“I was the only one in my family that wasn’t chemically dependant,” Basalyga said. “I had this dumbass view that athletes didn’t do that. When my brothers turned 18 my father took them to get drunk. When I turned 18, my dad gave me a new baseball glove because he knew I didn’t drink.”
The film “Little Rascals” inspired Basalyga. He wanted to do everything they did, like being a firefighter or having his own baseball team.
“If it wasn’t for sports and the ‘Little Rascals,’ I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Basalyga said.
Basalyga and his friend settled for starting their own roller hockey team when he was 13 years old. They funded it on their own through raffle tickets, fundraisers, and contributions. They paid referees and bought jerseys without help from any adult.
Basalyga played against teams operated by boy’s clubs and played these teams for three years.
Eventually, tired of seeing Basalyga and his team do it on their own, the YMCA took the team into their league.
“I got kids out of the street,” Basalyga said. “We had a blast. We were just a bunch of little rascals out there. I took pride in coaching that team.”
When Basalyga and his friend arrived at the YMCA for their first coach’s meeting, the man running the league thought they were there for a different reason. He was shocked to learn they were coaches.
“We asked him if there was a meeting for a hockey league that night,” Basalyga said. “And he said ‘yes. Do you have an adult with you?’ We told him no. But they let us in.”
Twenty five other coaches sat in the room, all of them grown men.
The First Taste of Soccer
Baseball was the sport Basalyga excelled at the most. During his career he tried out for multiple MLB teams including the Yankees, Cardinals, and Mets. He played in college as well, first at a junior college in New York, and then at Bowling Green State University.
During his time in junior college, Basalyga was trying to find a way to stay in shape after the baseball season ended and before his hockey season began. His coach at the time was also the cross country coach, and Basalyga thought that would be a good way to accomplish this goal.
“His warm up was run four miles. I hadn’t run four miles in my damn life,” Basalyga said.
He didn’t last a day.
A few days after his cross country experiment ended, he, his baseball coach and the soccer coach Jim Megly were having dinner at a small table. Knowing the predicament he was in, Megly offered to take him to practice to stay in shape and to be the practice goalie, since the roster at the time only carried one goalie.
Basalyga excelled, using his skills he had as a shortstop in his primary sport to react to the shots of the members of the team. He was like a bowling ball, running into potential scorers and knocking away any shot that came his way.
“Getting hit didn’t bother me,” Basalyga said.
After practice, the team was supposed to leave for a road trip. As Basalyga was leaving practice, the coach stopped him and asked if he wanted to come on the road trip.
“I told him I wasn’t on the team,” Basalyga said. “He told me he would grab me a jersey and let me play.”
Sure enough, Basalyga made the trip that day. Three games later he was the starting goalie.
‘I Hated School’
Basalyga hated school as a kid. He barely graduated from high school and was on academic probation much of his junior college career and had a 2.0 GPA his junior year at Bowling Green State University.
It was his senior year when he finally made the Dean’s List with a 3.5 GPA.
“When I finally made the Dean’s List my mom thought I was on ‘his list,’” Basalyga said. “I told her that that was actually pretty damn good.”
At Bowling Green, Basalyga started as a business major. One day, his baseball coach asked him if he would ever be interested in coaching. He had coached when he was 13, naturally he’d want to again.
“He told me I should change my major to education,” Basalyga said. “I told him I hate school and you want me to do what?
“He said ‘if you were a coach you would be there with the kids and you can coach and it would be perfect. If you stick with business you would have to find time to do the coaching you want to do.’”
He took his coach’s advice and changed his major.
He stunned all his former teachers when he went back to his high school to do his observations.“They were like ‘What? You gotta be kidding me. You hate school,’” Basalyga said. “I said, ‘what better person to teach than someone who doesn’t like school?’”
He was hired by Turpin High School in Cincinnati in 1973 to teach business and physical education and taught for 35 years.
“Kids were afraid of me,” Basalyga said. “In 35 years of teaching, I only sent four kids to the office. My bark was much worse than my bite.”
One of those four kids was a guy named Rodney. Rodney fought another student in Basalyga’s first period class in the late 1980s. Basalyga was forced to send him to the office.
Basalyga struck up a relationship with Rodney though, despite Rodney’s tardiness to class. Basalyga wouldn’t send him to the office, but he wasn’t as lucky with his other teachers. He was summoned to the dean of attendance for skipping too many classes, some of them in the middle of the school day.
“I said ‘you’re busted’ and he said I know,” Basalyga said. “I said when you go down to the office, don’t try to argue with them, throw yourself to the mercy of the court. When he asks you, just tell them you had Gold Star or Skyline the day before and you had the squirts and you were in the bathroom.”
Rodney came back 20 minutes later with a week of detention
“‘It was suppose to be two but he loved my excuse,’” Basalyga recalls him saying.
About two weeks later Rodney was tardy again, but this time he came with a note.
“He had a note that said ‘Please excuse Rodney, he had Gold Star chili last night and had the squirts. Signed Rodney’s mother’. I said that’s not your mom,” Basalyga chuckled. “He was just a kid who had a rough life.”
Rodney did graduate from high school and joined the 101st Airborne in the Gulf War. He came to visit Basalyga in his classroom before he left, and told Basalyga when he came back he would come into class and have pizza.
“A year and a half later he walk in in front of the whole class in uniform, sits down and says ‘You guys can continue what you are doing’ and plops down a pizza,” Basalyga said.
A few years later Rodney arrived at Basalyga’s house an a repairman and the two discussed his high school days.
“He said ‘I had so much damn trouble in school but you were the only one I knew I could go to and you could understand where I was coming from,’” Basalyga said. “I said that’s because I grew up in the streets and I know you guys need a break sometimes.
“Just like I did.”