Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Interview With Chris Wright: Pittsburgh Spirit GM

Chris Wright is the President of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx and previously served as the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League. As someone who was a big Spirit fan back in the 1980s (I even attended a Spirit soccer camp), I recently learned that Chris held the GM position and reached out to him to find out more about the inner-workings and history of the team. Chris was gracious enough to take 30 minutes to talk to me last week about his time with the Spirit, his current job, and much more. I broke this interview into two posts. Today focuses on how Chris went from England to Pittsburgh and his work with the Spirit. The second portion includes his transition to Minnesota, everything he's doing with the Timberwolves and Lynx, and his thoughts about the city of Pittsburgh. Please note that there are a lot of names in this post, and there's an excellent chance that some are spelled incorrectly. If you have any corrections, please feel free to contact me. And now, here's my interview with Chris.

Sean: How do you go from growing up in England to Pittsburgh and being the GM of the Spirit?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, it’s an incredible journey when you think about it. A young kid from in Filey, North Yorkshire, England, fishing town, 2,000 people, you know, goes on this sort of journey all the way through to ultimately ending up in Pittsburgh, then Minnesota, Minnesota in soccer, national sports center here and then into the NBA and the WNBA. So it’s been quite a journey, and I’m on the sort of back end of that journey now, but it’s been truly remarkable. So I played at school, at high school, I was seen by Hull City, invited to be part of their junior program, in the end didn’t make it to the top levels of their professional roster, so went away to college and played at Carnegie College of Physical Education. The single biggest thing that we did there is we won the English colleges cup by beating Cardiff 1-0 where I saved a penalty.

Sean's Note: Take that, Cardiff!

From there I decided that really what I wanted to do was be part of the game, so I did my English full badge, which is their top coaching award, I did that in Cardiff in Wales. Back then the national team manager of the Welsh soccer team, Mike Smith, he basically led that particular course, and he passed me to be able to coach at the highest levels in England. So I did a lot of work for the English FA, the Welsh FA, etc., coached at a really good level in England. I coached a team called Hitchin Town in the Isthmian League and from there managed to get a job in Allegheny County through the county commissioners there, Tom Foerster, Robert Pierce, Jim Flaherty, they hired me to come in as the soccer coordinator of Allegheny County, and from there Jim Mihalke bought the Spirit and they sort of folded for a year, and [Edward] DeBartolo [Sr.] brought them out of moth balls and offered me the General Manager’s job. So that’s how I sort of ended up in that seat.

I obviously hired John Kowalski as the Head Coach, and between John and myself, we put that new version of the Pittsburgh Spirit that played in the Igloo together with basically a Polish line, a sort of an Anglo-Scottish line, remember Graham Fyfe, David Hoggan, Paul Child, those guys, and sort of a mix of American players, the Joey Papaleos of the world, the Dave MacKenzies of the world, Canadian by birth, but Johnny O’Hara, etc. One or two additions like Drago [Dumbovic] that we found, Marcio Leite that we found, they became sort of that first iteration of a team that we put together.

Sean: Going back a little bit there, how did this all come to pass? Did they come to England to recruit people, or were you interested in moving to America?

Chris: No, between the ages of 21 and 28, I came to the United States every summer to coach in different soccer camps all over the country. Back in the day, North American soccer camps were absolutely huge. They were owned by a guy called Gary Russell. I actually met him over in England when he brought an American soccer team to England and I was asked to basically chaperone and coach the team while it was over in England. So he brought me over to the United States when I was 21, and I basically at that point started coming over every single summer. So I got to know a lot of people around the country but particularly in Pittsburgh, some of which happened to be led by Jim Flaherty [one of] the County Commissioners of Allegheny County. So when they wanted to expand their soccer program, they reached out to me to see if I was interested in the job, and after a series of interviews, they offered me the job, I packed my bags and came to the United States.

Sean: That’s really interesting. As a kid, I loved watching the Spirit, I never knew the history.

Chris: When I got here, in terms of registered players with the United States Soccer Federation, there was, believe it or not now, so I was 21 then, 68 now, so this was 47 years ago. 47 years ago there was 2,000 kids registered with the United States Soccer Federation. When I actually moved into the role with the Pittsburgh Spirit, there was 26,000 kids playing. So that was how the program grew. And through that and really getting to know the Pittsburgh area and a lot of the coaches in that area, there were already people doing great work, Denny Kohlmyer, John Wilshire, Bruno Schwarz, Jim Perry, Joe DePalma, all of those guys were doing incredible work in soccer. I just became for Allegheny County the catalyst and the growth of club soccer in each of the communities.

Sean: What was it like working with Stan Terlecki? It seemed like he had quite a personality.

Chris: Stan was an incredible talent, and back in the day, he actually came to us from Bruges in Belgium. There were basically two teams that were chasing him, we were and the New York Arrows. And Don Popovic was the head coach of the New York Arrows back in the day. John Kowalski had seen Stan play back in the day a number of times for the national team at the club level and really, really felt that Stan could be an incredible force inside of our league. Back in the day, the Arrows had Branko Segota, they had Steve Zungul, and we just felt, and I can remember conversations saying, if they got Stan Terlecki, then they would become just this basically unbeatable team because of the fire power that they would have had. And so we worked really really hard to recruit Stan. We actually went over to Europe a couple of times, once to Belgium, once to Poland, to really recruit him very very hard, and in the end, an agent for IMG called George Kalafatis), who we worked with on a lot of different player contracts. We convinced them to come to Pittsburgh. Stan was incredible, had a great family, incredible work ethic, very passionate about the game, prolific both right footed left footed, could go past players like nobody that I had seen, and it was unbelievable for the indoor game, particularly Pittsburgh. Because we had a big Polish community in Pittsburgh, Polish hill, etc. people like him and Greg Ostalczyk, Piotr Mowlik, Adam Topolski, Zee Kapka, Jan Sybis, all resonated really really well with the market. Stan obviously was the most notorious of all of them and well-known, but that group of players were, one, they were incredible human beings, very very incredible work ethic all of them, and always gave you 110, 120% in everything that they did. So we were really proud of the Polish connection, particularly John. This was nothing of the doing of Chris Wright, I just supported John in all of his efforts and made sure the contracts and everything else. I supported John in all of this, and he was the one who really recruited very very hard that Polish group.

Sean: You mentioned Steve Zungul, and Patrick asked me to ask you if the Spirit were close to acquiring him in the last season.

Chris: It was a little bit of a pipe dream because he was very close with Don Popovic, and obviously the last season was under the guidance of Don. We had struggled, I think it was season number five under John, if I remember correctly, you know, we had struggled, we decided to part ways with John Kowalski, and that was one of the, really that was one of the hardest decisions that I had to make because John was, John’s an incredible person, incredible coach, incredible human being, had worked so hard on behalf of the Pittsburgh Spirit and its fans and its players. And that’s one of the hardest decisions that a general manager ever has to make. So it was difficult to do that, and having made the determination that John would go, then obviously to have someone the caliber of Don Popovic as the potential head coach, I thought at the time was truly going to be a game changer for the team. He knew a tremendous number of players. He was able to attract a lot of great players, Helmut Dudek, Freddy Grgurev, and as much as he and we particularly wanted Steve to come, we knew that it was going to be problematic. So although we talked about it, it was never going to be realistic that Steve was going to wear a Pittsburgh Spirit jersey.

Part two of the interview is available here.

A special thank you to Patrick McCarthy, probably the most active Pittsburgh Spirit fan on the internet. This interview wouldn't have happened without his connection to Chris, and he gave me some suggestions of questions to ask. Most of the pictures and videos in this post are courtesy of Patrick. Please follow him on Twitter @pwmst1. In addition, I'm still amazed that my friend Ellen agreed to transcribe this interview. There are a lot of tough names to try to type! Thank you!

Please feel free to follow me on Facebook and Twitter where I'll include some outtakes of this interview.

No comments: