May 31, 2016
Ted Dumitru: an appreciation
By Michael Lewis
The first story I wrote about professional soccer, after interviewing Ted Dumitru in January 1975.
The news hit me like a ton of soccer balls.
My wife Joy told me that the former coach of the South African national team, Ted Dumitru, had passed away. He was at a Johannesburg mall, collapsed and died last week. He was 76.
I felt shocked and sad, very sad.
And I had good reason to be. Ted Dumitru was the first professional soccer coach I had ever encountered, covered the quoted.
At the time, Ted Dumitru was in one sense, a man without a country, trying to prove himself to be in land that was desert when it came to international soccer. Oh yeah, we knew of Pele and George Best, but we did not understand how complicated the rest of the soccer universe was.
Born in Bucharest, Romania, Dumitru was forced to give up playing soccer due to an injury. So, he turned to coaching and became the youngest coach to direct a team Romania's Diviza A with Stiinta Craiova, (now known as Universitatea Craiova), at the ripe old age of 25 for the 1964-65 season.
He wound up coaching Altay Izmir, Besiktas and Mersin in Turkey before he was ordered to return home by the Romanian government.
"I don't have any regrets about leaving," he told me for a story in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in May, 1975. "I have some empty spots I have to fill. I have to watch what I say because I have a brother and a sister over there. I can't correspond with them because of fear of harassment. I'm not afraid of myself but for them."
The Romanian National Sports Council ordered him to return home.
"I couldn't return," said Dumitru, who had a wife, Helen, and a four-year-old daughter, Andrea, at the time. "I had contracts with several clubs in Turkey and it was impossible to break them. Romania said that's all right, that they'll take care of it."
He traveled to Germany and requested political asylum before deciding to move to the USA in May 1972. Meanwhile, Dumitru was sentenced in absentia to 20 years’ imprisonment.
There was nothing like the USA.
"The Romanian government had told me, that anything you win was a result of your education in the Communist regimentation,” he said. “You must emphasize not the personal activity but the system. It was against my will and because this reason, started my conflict.
"For my family, the biggest thing was liberty. In this country, I can express myself, my decisions and my opinions. I don't have to explain why."
Actually, he originally did not want to pursue a sporting career.
While growing up, Dumitru became interested in electronics, but elected to play sports, instead.
"Sports wasn't my big attraction," he said. "Because of the political situation my mother and I realized that I could not reach a high position in electronics. We decided to use my natural abilities in track and field.
"I was very lucky when I was young because my brother was a well-known basketball player. He was 6-foot-6 and the idol of many fans. In Eastern Europe, once you prove your value in sports, they forget about your political background. You have to take advantage of it. That was exactly my case."
In the USA, he wound up as the University of Texas club soccer coach. When the Lancers fired Bill Hughes midway through the 1974 season (despite the team moving into first place), he was hired amid controversy because he was "only" a club soccer coach at a college.
In those days, the problem was there was no way to corroborate his background. Heck, at that time, anyone could make up a resume and claim he accomplished this or that.
Dumitru, as it turned out, was telling the truth.
Jim Paglia, who was chairman of World Cup Chicago 1994, was the marketing and public relations director of the Lancers back then.
"He often asked me to do advance scouting while on the road doing my primary PR work," Paglia said. "As a result, we sometimes roomed together on the road so he could get a complete briefing on the opponent once he arrived in a competitor's city."
As a novice in soccer, Paglia was stunned by Dumitru's brilliance.
"After having been exposed to the contrasting styles of crafty Sal DeRosa and the less than successful approach of Bill Hughes, Ted was totally unexpected," he said. "His humble, quiet nature and sometimes unwarranted concerns about speaking English belied a brilliant mind. He was professorial in his command of every aspect of the game. He introduced me to the concept that to be a world class coach, one needed to study the sciences. Physiology, kinesiology, psychology, geometry and nutrition were subjects in which he was as learned as he was the X' and O's."
Dumitru was different than many other coaches, in his generation and today.
"He opened up to me and exhibited trust in ways that still baffle me," Paglia said. "He insisted I not only attend team practices but that I participate. Rather than send non-English speaking players to do community events and clinics [all the players had day jobs anyway] he wanted me to do them. However, it was critical to him that I be fit and capable of demonstrating skills."
Ted Dumitru was ahead of his time. I remember reading his study of the game that was well over the ahead of this novice in soccer.
Paglia discovered how multi-talented the Romanian-born coach was.
"Somewhere, I still have an original draft of a technical paper he gave me to edit that detailed the science behind a concept he had for an athletic shoe design that consisted of air pockets in the sole that reacted to the shifting of the wearer's weight," he said. "Remember, this was written more than 50 years ago, long before the Air Jordan, 'technology at any ridiculous price era.' "
The 1975 Lancers will not be remembered for playing beautiful soccer or for winning. The team finished at 6-16. Despite that poor record, the ownership wanted Dumitru back, but he would only return if the club went professional -- ie. paying players more money that they didn't need to second job away. It never worked out and Dumitru sought greener pastures.
"But almost as suddenly as he appeared on the scene, he left," Paglia said. "I was saddened. We never spoke again. However, it was Ted that sparked the desire in me to coach, something I've done for the past 38 years.
"Ted was one of the most dignified men I have ever known."
Eventually, Dumitru found his haven -- or was it heaven -- in Africa and settled in South Africa, where he forged a reputation as one of the top club coaches. He wound up directing the two biggest clubs and rivals at one time or another -- the Kaiser Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, who clash regularly in the Soweto Derby. That would be the equivalent of someone coaching the Red Bulls and New York City FC (since City is only in its second year, let's give that possibility some time to come to fruition).
I didn't realize it at the time, but Dumitru was part of my education as a soccer writer. Some of the things that he said were way over my head since I was just trying to grasp the rudimentary rules and basics of the game.
When I ventured to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, I tried to get in touch with Dumitru several times through his current club, Mamelodi Sundowns, but with no luck.
It was my loss.
Rest In Peace, Ted Dumitru.