Nuri Sabunch at a Lancers reunion in 1996. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
By Michael Lewis
The first time I spoke to Nuri Sabuncu, it was on the phone in April 1977.
The Rochester Lancers had just announced he had invested about $60,000 into the North American Soccer League team and was named vice president.
Now, a $60,000 investment (that would be $296,207 or so in today’s currency) might seem like a drop in the bucket to today’s billionaires. But for most of us mortals, that is a significant sum to invest in anything, including a money-losing proposition such as soccer.
Nuri Sabuncu put his money where his heart was – into soccer, passion.
The Turkish-born Sabuncu was one of those rare soccer owners, or should I say, co-owners (along with Charlie Schiano and Pat Dinolfo of the Lancers), at least in the United States, who played soccer before calling the shots elsewhere.
As a former player, a star performer at that, he understood the game. Before venturing to the United States from his native Turkey, he played for world-renowned clubs Galatasaray SK and Besitkas JK. He attended Syracuse University to secure his master’s degree, before excelling on the field. He played for several amateur and semi-pro sides in the Rochester area, including the Italian American Sport Club, Ukrainian-Americans, Rochester Rangers and Simon Pures of Buffalo.
Heck, in his day, some of his scoring exploits were written up in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Sabuncu passed away last week at the age of 90.
He had forged a huge reputation with his company, Nory Construction Co., which tackles many projects in the greater Rochester area over several decades.
During that first interview I had with Sabuncu, he talked about his passion for the beautiful game.
“I invested because I wanted major league soccer to stay in Rochester,” he said at the time. “They needed my help. You don’t appreciate anything until you lose it. To me, soccer is an emotional thing. Once you play it competitively, it goes into your blood.”
Quite frankly, at the time, I thought it was a lot of BS. But within a year or two, I understood what he meant. Soccer had become part of my blood – for just about the past five decades.
How much did those words resonate with this writer?
When I was describing passion for the sport in my book, ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers, I used Sabuncu’s quote in the fifth paragraph of the opening chapter.
During his time with the Lancers, I noticed that Sabuncu worked and spoke with dignity, especially when he and the team underwent much distress and duress.
One thing was certain: Sabuncu wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
With about a minute remaining in the New York Cosmos’ 2-0 win over the Lancers at Holleder Stadium on July 7, 1978, the former’s Santiago Formoso sat on the ball.
The Rochester faithful booed, and Sabuncu, needless to say, was angered. “What [coach Eddie] Firmani should bedoing is teach his team some sportsmanship,” he said. “Beat us by five goals, but this is strictly bush.”
During what was going to become a disastrous 1980 season, the Lancers managing to get past the Minnesota Kicks in a shootout, 2-0, after failing to find the net. They outshot the visitors, 22-11, that May 18 Sunday at Holleder.
Despite the victory, Sabuncu hardly was impressed.
“We’re not an exciting team,” he said. “We’ve scored [two] goals in six games. Where are we going? We need some exciting soccer, some offense. The players tried out there today, but we need a winger and a good center midfielder, brain trust of the attack.”
Sabuncu’s remarks previewed what was to come several days later as Ray Klivecka was fired as Lancers’ head coach.
The firing was another salvo in a war between two factions of team owners. The Rochester group of Dinolfo, Schiano and Sabuncu owned the majority of votes. The New York group of John Luciani and Bernie Rodin was supposed to pump in fresh money, which they stopped.
Not surprisingly, financial losses started to pile up. Through late May, no paychecks had been missed, but were late occasionally.
Sabuncu, who wouldn’t offer new information during the crises, wouldn’t deny the facts, on the other hands.
He admitted that he didn’t know how long the Rochester faction could keep paying. With payday being the last week of the month, the take from Wednesday’s (Toronto) and Sunday’s home matches probably wasn’t going to cover the salaries.
“Most of the money is coming out of our pockets,” Sabuncu said. “How long we can keep the club afloat with our money, I don’t know. But the team has been here for 14 years. If New York gets it, God knows what will happen. But there is no financial crisis now.”
Then Sabuncu changed his tune. “There always has been a financial crisis, but it’s nothing we can’t handle now,” he said.
Several weeks later, push almost came to shove.
Lancers players considered boycotting the highest drawing match of the season against the Cosmos in June because they were owed two weeks of back pay. Jim Pollihan, the team captain, said the possibility of a boycott was “seriously brought up” at a team meeting on June 9. The players decided to put it off untilafter the game.
The players had expected their paychecks for the weeks ending May 30 and June 7 when they returned home from their trip. “We’re not too happy about it,” Pollihan said, adding that he will try to talk to the team’s owners after the match because “it wouldn’t be fair to do anything until then.”
Asked why the team hadn’t received its salaries, Sabuncu responded, “We were on three away games. We had very high expenses. We just covered the trip. We are doing it from our pockets. We have no big corporation behind us. … We’re trying. Nobody can hate us for trying.”
Other problems mounted, especially between new coach Alex Perolli and teenage sensation Branko Segota, who almost singlehandedly boosted Rochester into the 1979 post season by striking for 14 goals in nine matches as an 18-year-old rookie.
There was a clash of personalities between the team and when Segota was replaced late in a game against the Washington Diplomats that June 16, he took his shirt off and threw it at Perolli.
Segota was suspended indefinitely by the team.
On Saturday, June 28, 12 days after the shirt-throwing incident, Segota put on a Lancers jersey again. He and the team owners literally kissed and made up, returning to practice after he was reinstated. Segota shook Sabuncu’s hand, and the team VP planted a kiss on Segota’s cheek.
Let’s face it, the club needed Segota and the teenager needed the team.
“He’s a kid yet,” Sabuncu said. “You’ve got to forgive kids. He’s big enough to call to say he’s sorry. To admit you make a mistake means you’re a man. … I’m glad to have him back as a man, as a grown-up Branko.”
It seemed he always knew the right thing to say.
After the Lancers folded, we went our separate ways, although I did see Sabuncu at several Lancers reunions over the years.
In 1996, the team had a special get-together during the Rochester Raging Rhinos (yes, that was the team’s original name) first season at Frontier Field. The Rochester Red Wings pull grass over the infield so the soccer team could play most of its home games there.
During that July afternoon, Sabuncu, though he never played for the Lancers, suited up for one of the old-timer teams that day (blue vs. gold).
He was 63 at the time.
As Nuri Sabuncu said, soccer was in his blood, and it never left it.
He didn’t just say it; he lived by those words.