Thirty years ago this fall, Kearny High School enjoyed a soccer season to remember, perhaps the greatest single year in a litany of soccer excellence in a place called “Soccertown, USA.”
In 1984, the Kardinals posted an undefeated 24-0 record, rolling to another NJSIAA Group IV state championship. But the Kards were also crowned as the No. 1 team in New Jersey and to top that, they were the recipients of the mythical national championship.
It was a team filled with superstars like eventual World Cup standouts John Harkes and Tony Meola (who was a sophomore forward on that team). But the team also featured two best friends, namely Rob McCourt and Mike O’Neill, two guys who grew up together, whose fathers were best of friends since arriving in Kearny from their native Scotland, two buddies who did practically everything together from diapers through corner kicks.
Now, three decades later, those two longtime friends hold another distinction. They are both major college soccer coaches in their home state.
McCourt has been entrenched as the head men’s soccer coach at Monmouth University. McCourt has guided the Hawks to numerous championships over his incredible tenure and will lead the Hawks this season as they begin their second season in a new league, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
In fact, as they prepare to begin practice in earnest this week, the Hawks are the preseason favorites to win the MAAC title and hopefully will return to the NCAA Tournament this fall.
O’Neill gets a golden opportunity this season, as he takes over the head coaching reins with the Rutgers University women’s program, becoming elevated to the top spot after the retirement of former head coach Glenn Crooks last month.
O’Neill had been an assistant coach at Rutgers for the last several years, after first helping the women’s program at Seton Hall become a solid force.
Now, O’Neill gets to run a major college program on his own.
What are the odds of two best friends becoming major college coaches? It doesn’t happen often.
“We’re best friends, as thick as thieves,” McCourt said. “It all goes back to my roots in Kearny. I think that’s the way for the both of us. It’s 100% of what we’re made of. Our character, the base of all our success, comes from being from Kearny.”
O’Neill was the star of the 1984 team, earning the Coggins Award as the top high school player in the country. McCourt was a fine player in his own right, but he believes that coaching was in both of their futures even back then.
“There was no MLS and the NASL ceased to exist,” McCourt said. “There weren’t many chances to play professionally. John (Harkes) eventually went overseas, but at that time, coaching was the way to stay in the sport and something we could do for the rest of our lives. I think that’s what Mike and I thought back then.”
McCourt got his start as a coach as the freshman coach at Kearny High and was a teacher in the district before moving on to become an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Their head coach, current Kearny athletic director John Millar, knew that both of his standout players would become solid coaches.
“Surely they both had the tools to be leaders back then,” Millar said. “They had the respect of their teammates and they always had great leadership skills. They were both very mature at a young age and worked with our staff and other members of the team very well.”
McCourt remembers his buddy as being one of the first coaches, even at an early age.
“Mike was the one who always took charge, organizing the teams at the (Harrison) Courts, making sure who wore what number and what colored T-shirts to wear,” McCourt said. “He was always the guy we looked up to. In a way, I guess it’s fitting that we got into coaching. It’s like a role we always were meant to have.”
McCourt was asked about the idea that both are now coaching NCAA Division I college programs in their home state.
“That is pretty ironic,” Mc- Court said. “When I started coaching, my goal was always to get back to New Jersey. Mike said the same thing when he was coaching in Indiana. So that part is pretty ironic that we’re both here. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I think Mike feels the same way. We’re two guys from Kearny. Some say we’re crazy to do what we do, but I know we both have the same passion. Jersey roots are Jersey roots. Kearny roots are Kearny roots. Mike’s family is like my family and vice versa.”
McCourt said that he always likes to come back to his hometown, make a stop at the Kearny Scots-American Club where he and O’Neill spent many a night and played many a soccer match together.
“It always helps to come back and learn even more about the great soccer history of Kearny,” McCourt said.
McCourt said that he remains close with long-time friends Bill Galka, the current head coach at Kearny High, and Sal Rosamilia, who was a longtime assistant coach to both Millar and Galka.
“I think it’s fitting that we all got into coaching,” McCourt said.
McCourt has another Kearny product in his coaching staff at Monmouth in former Kearny High three-sport standout Hugh MacDonald, the first-ever Observer Male Athlete of the Year in 2003 who had a stint with the MetroStars. MacDonald played for McCourt at Monmouth after starting his career at VCU.
McCourt also coached former Kearny High standouts Michael Millar and Christian Nogueira at Monmouth.
For having a hand in all of their growth, the elder Millar has a gigantic sense of pride.
“Absolutely, I still have a great feeling about those guys,” Millar said. “I’m never able to grow old because of it. It’s a lot of fun. Robbie always finds time to talk to people from Kearny. We try to get to as many games as we can. I know a lot of Kearny people like to go to Monmouth games because of Robbie. He’s done a great job there.”
Added Millar, “Mike has always expected to win wherever he’s been. I don’t think he got the credit he should have received for what he did at Seton Hall. I hope he can elevate Rutgers to a higher level.”
O’Neill was instrumental in the recruiting of former Kearny High standout Stefanee Pace to Rutgers.
In a way, it’s all part of that strong soccer circle that comes from “Soccertown, USA.”