It all started when then-athletic director Kevin McHugh told Joe Russo on the racquetball court that the College of New Jersey was considering starting a women’s football program.
Having previously been an assistant to the men’s team and on the verge of coaching at the University of Pennsylvania, the prospect of returning to his roots at Ewing really piqued Russo’s interest.
The old saying goes that the rest is history.
Well, in this case the rest was to write history and millions of fond memories.
Earlier this year, Russo, who has led the College of New Jersey’s women’s football program for 32 years, decided it was time to retire.
Russo and the Lions (16-0-2) start their final attempt at a national championship on Saturday when they face Westfield State (15-4-1) in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament at Lions Stadium at 11 a.m. .
The other TCNJ bracket match pits Messiah (16-2-1) against Virginia Wesleyan (12-5-2). The winners will meet on Sunday.
Coaching games might be easier than when Russo told the team that he was about to retire.
“It was a very difficult conversation during our first preseason meeting with the team,” said Russo. “But right now it’s the right opportunity for me. “
Just like 32 years ago, it was the right opportunity to become the first – and only – coach in the history of the program.
“I really love what I do and it’s a great place to work,” said Russo. “We have great people in our department and I have always been happy. When I first arrived here there were such strong personalities as June Walker, Fern Labati, Eric Hamilton and Dave Icenhower in this department and this was the kind of place you wanted to get involved and be a part of. . ”
Upon joining the sports department, Russo’s vision for the program was not about national championships or conference titles. This was what has always meant the most to Russo, establishing a schedule where the players want to play and a schedule where he would like his daughters to play.
“I’m not talking about being the best team or the best program,” said Russo. “I wanted it to be a place where the kids would say I want to play there and say they are treated well there. “
Along with Russo, his longtime assistant and best friend Bob Turner is also retiring.
Recently, many former Lions have returned to honor the pair for more than just soccer achievements.
“Coach (Russo) and ‘T’ (Turner) taught us a lot of lessons,” said Katie Lindacher, who was a player and now an assistant coach. “We learned a lot about football, but we learned to wear ourselves with class, have high expectations and I have carried this throughout my life and I hold myself to a higher standard and this is what TCNJ football has taught us all. ”
The program is one of the most respected in the country and it is thanks to the culture that Russo has developed.
“Coach Russo is a coach that I admire and that’s the way I want to coach,” said Christine Levering, TCNJ’s all-time top scorer and recently named Robbinsville High softball coach.
“The way everyone respects him and he doesn’t have to say much to earn your respect,” Levering added. “Everything he has done has shown how successful he is. He will be humble about it and always say that success depends on girls. But every girl who’s been there has to thank him. ”
Although this is Russo and Turner’s last year, it has been as special as any of the 31 others.
“I’ve never had more fun than this year,” said Russo. “Maybe because it’s last year and I’m more relaxed, but the composition of this group is great. It’s a very good group. ”
While each team had their own identity, they all had one thing in common.
“The culture and how we all hold each other accountable is so important,” Lindacher said. “There are 32 years of players passing things on and this tradition has become so important to this program. Everything becomes a family. ”
A family that is always challenged to be the best they can be.
“I had such a good experience,” said Levering. “I feel like he challenged me and at the same time motivated me. I always wanted to be better because I didn’t want to let him down. We all have such respect for him. . ”
It went beyond the program Russo and Turner always dreamed it could be.
The Russo File
– 32 years old as a women’s football coach at the College of New Jersey
– 3 national championships, 1983, 84, 2000
– 30 consecutive participations in the NCAA tournament
– 12 NCAA Final Fours
– 20 New Jersey Athletic Conference championships
Overall record 551-66-46