Colombia men’s soccer coach Kevin Anderson (left) and Rocco B. Commisso, holding a photo of the former Columbia standout from back in the day. (Photo courtesy of Columbia SID)

By Michael Lewis

Front Row Soccer Editor

It was bitterly cold day in Buffalo, N.Y. when Columbia University made its first appearance in the NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament against Buffalo State Nov. 19, 1970.

“We were one of the top 10 in the country,” Columbia All-American midfielder Len Renery recalled. “They had only lost a couple of games. There must have been 4,000 people in their stadium. It was jammed. We were lucky if we ever got 40 people at our games. There was ice on the field.”

Buffalo State was so confident it was going to win and advance to the next round against Hartwick College, it booked hotel rooms at a downtown Oneonta, N.Y. motel.

Columbia, however, had other ideas, although the Lions did not get off to a good start. In the third minute as Randy Smith, a future National Basketball Association star, slotted home a rebound for the hosts.

Before the first quarter — yes, college games were played in quarters back then — was finished, a senior co-captain and striker named Rocco B. Commisso took the game in his own hands, or more appropriately, his feet.

“With a minute to go in the half, Rocco gets the ball breaks through and sticks it to tie the game,” Renery recently said. “We ended up winning the game. I’ll never forget how cold it was and Rocco didn’t give a [crap] how cold it was. He wanted that ball, He wanted that goal. He went for it and he got it.”

Quite appropriately, Commisso became the first Columbia player to score a goal in the NCAA tournament. The Lions prevailed after four extratimes, being awarded the win after recording the more corner kicks in the extra periods, 1-0 (yes, those were rules in 1970).

And not surprisingly, that goal helped define Commisso in so many ways, as a goal-getter and a go-getter. He built his business, Mediacom, into the fifth largest cable TV provider in the country and most recently bought a majority share of the Cosmos, who host Miami FC in their home opener at MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn Saturday at 7 p.m.

“Rocco was strong as a person, as a player,” said Renery, who forged a 10-year professional soccer player in the United States, including two seasons with the original Cosmos. “Rocco was intense as a person and as a player and he was good enough skill-wise or soccer-wise that he started every game. I don’t remember Rocco not starting, didn’t care what position he played.

“Rocco gave 100 percent and when you do that, you get respect automatically. Rocco was a major part of Columbia during the sixties and early seventies when we played. His leadership carried us through so many games. Rocco was always there, win, lose or draw, behind or ahead, Rocco would give 100 percent. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Rocco has done well in business because Rocco was the kind of player that didn’t take no for an answer. When pushed off the ball, when things were going wrong, it was much more reliable to say let’s make it go right than accept it going wrong. Rocco was a good guy. Rocco was a great teammate.”

Since then, the Columbia men’s program has grown into a respected college soccer program that grew into prominence that included a national championship game appearance under Dieter Ficken in 1983, which is currently guided by Kevin Anderson.

Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso at last week's press conference

تم نشره بواسطة ‏‎Michael Lewis‎‏ في 1 أبريل، 2017

 

Now 67, Commisso has been one of the most, if not one of the most influential people when it comes to Columbia soccer — men and women (“I feel equally as proud of both teams”) — as an alumnus and benefactor. In the seventies, he co-founded Friends of Columbia Soccer and was its chairman from 1978 to 1986. In 2013, Columbia recognized his contributions by naming its soccer venue the Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium. The 2015 NYC Soccer Gala honored him for his lifetime dedication to soccer. In October, he was inducted into the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame.

He has gravitas in the school’s soccer programs “because he’s walked the walk,” Anderson said.

“He is first and foremost a Columbia soccer player. And he’ll be the first one to tell you he still bleeds blue, which is phenomenal. And the passion and the fond memories that he has, he has helped us continue those traditions and bring them back and to re-engage, to understand what the past was like.”

Renery saw that passion almost five decades ago when he co-captained the Lions along with Commisso, who also earned All-Ivy League second-team honors.

“Rocco is a soccer player,” he said. “When you come from Italy like I came from England, it’s what you do. It’s part of your fabric. Rocco as a player played to the maximum of his ability. … It was the sixties. Rocco and I were the antitheses. I was a long-haired hippy and Rocco was as straight as an arrow. But when you have a passion … One of the reasons why Rocco and I are tight now, it doesn’t matter. When you step on the field and you’re wearing light blue colors it’s something about Columbia that Rocco bought into. When a guy like Rocco buys into something, everyone else does.”

Commisso said it was natural to give back to the institution that gave him so much. He likes to say he “self-recruited” himself to the school.

“It opened up my doors to an education that it’s critical to where I am today,” he said. “It gave me scholarship. I think the most important thing was, here’s an institution that never saw me play a minute of soccer. They knew I got a scholarship from NYU, 50 percent. I did not play in high school. I knocked on their doors. I actually recruited myself literally, with the help of my gym teacher because he saw me play. Not that he knew anything about soccer. But he says, ‘This kid is better than anybody else at the school.”

That was Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx.

“I had pretty good grades,” he said. I was not the No. 1 student in my high school. So I knocked on the door literally. Gave me a scholarship, fulltime 100 percent, room and board, tuition. Today it is probably $70,000-$80,000.”

Commisso, who wore a bandana when he played, put the bite into the Columbia attack in more ways than one. In one game against Cornell, the Lions faced a 1-0 deficit with two minutes remaining in the match.

“All of sudden there was fight and Rocco was by the Cornell bench and there was a skirmish and the skirmish turned into people pulling and referees leaning in and coaches trying [to pull players away] … and its getting louder,” Renery said. “Rocco’s right in the middle of it and there’s this fierce scream in the pack. Rocco comes out bandana-less and walks away. I said to him: ‘What the hell was that? What was that scream?’ He said, ‘I bit the guy’s finger.’ I said, ‘Why did you bite his finger?’ He said, ‘He stuck his finger in my mouth, trying to pull my mouth or cheek apart so I bit it.’ True story. That’s the kind of guy Rocco was.”

When Anderson took over the men’s team in 2009, one of the first calls he made was to Commisso “to find out what his thoughts were, what his support was and what he was thinking.” Anderson first met Commisso when he was a volunteer assistant coach at the school in the 1990s.

“I knew that he would be a very intrical part of us returning the program to the heights that it once had in the early to mid-eighties,” Anderson said. “So, since I’ve been back he’s been tremendous. He has been someone who has been a phenomenal leader. He’s been along with his family, extremely, extremely generous, not only with their finances but their time. He’s really re-engaged our alumni community to the capacity that I think exceeds anything that the men’s soccer program has done over the course over the last 25-30 years.”

Commisso follows Columbia soccer on a regular basis. He was at the stadium when the Lions clinched the Ivy League title in a 4-0 triumph over Cornell last Nov. 13.

“It’s been the highlight of our time since I’ve been back. I don’t think you could have written it any better than for it to happen — at home, at the stadium, in the capacity that it did,” Anderson said. “So, I am really proud that we were able to bring the championship back home to Columbia.

“Of course, he doesn’t miss many games. I get on the bus and he texted me when we are at away games. He already knows the results and the scores and what’s going on and what’s happening. He is completely entrenched in this program. He has been a fantastic mentor, role model and friend because he was able to help, teach me things when I first started that I did not know much about.”

These days, Commisso is helping another coach — the Cosmos’ Giovanni Savarese — and that’s where his next big challenge lies. He already passed the first test, saving the Cosmos from soccer oblivion by purchasing the majority of the club and taking care of past debts.

Now he must make sure the Cosmos thrive and not survive.

“I don’t know what kind of sports owner Rocco will be,” said Renery, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “One of the causes that gets a lot of press is when an owner, and is a good example out here is the San Francisco 49ers — when an owner steps in and he knows everything and doesn’t delegate. I don’t see Rocco not delegating for a couple of reasons. No. 1, I don’t think he’s going to have the time to run the program. I don’t think he wants to run the program. I think Rocco has a love of soccer.

“Rocco has a big ego and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It isn’t because if you don’t have an ego, then you’re not a good player and you’re not a good business owner. It has to be tempered, of course. But I literally hope Rocco hires the right people and doesn’t try to do something too quickly and too big. This is what happened to the old NASL. … So, I’m hoping that Rocco realizes this is not like tomorrow’s thing, that it will take a couple of years to build. These are the things that Rocco Commisso would think about. He wouldn’t just jump into stuff willy-nilly, I’m sure, or he wouldn’t own the fifth largest cable television company in America.”