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

A young Sasho Cirovski (right foreground)
in his native Macedonia in
about 1969 with brother Vancho,
mother, Ljubica, and sister Diana.
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 The locker rooms need replacing and the concession stands are outdated and the portable toilets are offensive.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."

After college, he earned an MBA. Determined to coach, Cirovski declined a $60,000 consulting job in 1990 to work as a part-time assistant at UWM for $2,700. One year later, he landed at Hartford, where he coached two seasons before the Terps called. His Maryland record: 240 victories, 103 defeats and 21 ties

Two NCAA titles in four years haven't softened his edge. Witness Maryland's freshman recruiting class, ranked No. 2 in the country. Cirovski has a bloodhound's resolve in finding his man. When recruiting players from lesser backgrounds, Cirovski often takes along his family photo.

"See the outfits we're wearing?" he said, pointing to the picture. "Those clothes were our Sunday best."

And though dogged by a volatile past - Cirovski was ejected from the Terps' semifinal loss to UCLA in the 2002 College Cup - he has demonstrably cooled of late.

"He refers to that [red card] as 'a learning moment,' " Vancho Cirovski said. "Clearly, Sash has mellowed. We talk after games, and the tone he takes now after a loss is, 'I'm so proud of these guys.'

"In the past, you'd have thought he had lost an arm."

Cirovski still rants at his players, but "I've seen him apologize to his team on many occasions for the harsh things he said at halftime," said Rob Kehoe, an NCAA soccer leadership consultant. "Sash always closes the circle."

The father of three, Cirovski melts into the stands at his kids' games.

"He doesn't say 'boo' during youth soccer," said his wife, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski. Once the Maryland women's soccer coach, she quit to raise their brood. Even at home in western Howard County, far from campus, she said it's often a struggle to hold Cirovski's ambitions in check.

"Last year, when we first looked at this house, Sash didn't come in the door. He went straight out to the backyard to measure for a swimming pool and soccer field," she said. Both are now in place. The field is covered with top-drawer artificial turf.

"He goes overboard everywhere. Nothing's done halfway," his wife said. "Send Sash to the grocery store for two items and he'll come back with $200 of stuff. Six years ago, he found some gel to keep his hair from sticking up like a broom. He ordered $400 of it. There's still some left."

Sometimes, when he settles down to a family dinner or to watch a movie on one of their seven TVs, Cirovski will look around, remember that 40-year-old photograph taken by his father and shake his head.

"It's hard to believe I have all of this," he'll say.

"The greatest adversities Sasho has faced came before he got here," said Yale coach Brian Tompkins, a friend for 20 years. "He's both motivated and inspired by the difficulties he grew up with. Some never get over that, but Sasho has used it as a springboard. It's a cornerstone of his character."