By Steve Sears
Rob Osieja, recently inducted into the NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association) Coaches Hall-of-Fame, Class of 2019, leans back in his chair, sighs, and says, “I’m going to tell you a story I’ve never told anyone.”
He pauses, then continues. “We (referring to his 1988 Chatham High School soccer team) were 11-0, and Whippany Park – tough team, Group 1, Tony Wilson, great coach – we have to go to Whippany Park and play them. My guys are joking around on the bus. I know what we’re facing. The first game against them (which Chatham won, 3-1) was a tough game. And there’s a caveat to this: those Chatham kids had never lost a game of soccer in high school. They’re seniors now; they won as freshman, they won as JVs, they won as juniors…they never lost.”
Osieja chose to not pump his team up as normal, telling himself that now might be a good time for his club to lose. The league title lead was secure, the county tournament was a week away, the state tournament was nearby, and he knew his kids had never felt what it was like to lose. “I had (lost), and I know how I bounced back after it,” he says. “They’re joking around in the bus, we get off the bus, and Whippany Park is all over us. They’re tremendous.”
“We lost 2-1.”
At this point, Osieja’s eyes get misty. “This impressed me more than anything. Those kids came off the field, my Chatham kids who lost, shook hands (with the other team), they looked at me and apologized to me for losing – because they knew it was them – and they said, ‘Coach, when we get back, we’re all going on the football field, and we’re running because we lost.’ And then they looked at me and said, ‘We’re never losing again.’”
“We never lost again. We won three (the 1988 Morris County Tournament, Colonial Hills Conference, and Group II State Championship) titles after that.”
“These kids,” says Osieja, referring again to his historic club, “are now 48 to 50 years old, and they’re running companies. But back then I recognized that a kid is still a kid.” The team is having a 30th reunion in June, to coincide with the Chatham Class of 1989 reunion, and Osieja, who back then awarded tiny felt soccer balls per game to offensive and defensive stars, is still being reminded by one team member that he is still waiting for his. “If you know anything about me, it’s not just about what I’ve won. It’s about the relationships built with these kids.”
Osieja, who was officially inducted into the NJSCA (New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association of the NJSIAA) at the end of March 2019, began his coaching career in 1978 in his hometown of Irvington, when he as a 22-year-old was named head coach of the sophomore basketball team. He moved up to first assistant of the JV team in 1980, and he eventually became head coach of the varsity team. But Osieja, who played soccer at his alma mater, delivered as a head coach with Irvington’s first championship in soccer, the Watchung Conference title in 1983. He first coached the Junior Varsity team in 1978. His JV clubs had two great years, and in 1980 he took over the varsity squad, with his JV players now headed to varsity. “I was young – 25 – but I learned from college (then William Paterson College) and I learned very well in the two years I was in JV, and I had the players that I had at the lower level. They knew my style, they knew how I was, and I was successful in getting them to do what we all wanted to do in the end.”
Irvington competed against heavyweights like Westfield, Scotch Plains, Plainfield, Linden, and Elizabeth, the latter who they defeated, 1-0, to claim the Watchung crown. “I always loved matching wits and players against the best. That’s why you’re there – that’s why you’re there!” Osieja was named Essex County Coach of the Year for soccer.
After Irvington, Osieja took a year off and then was named head soccer coach at Clifton’s Paul IV High School. He was there from 1983 – 1987, and those were the best three years for the program. In 1983, the team won 8 games for the first time in four seasons. “I think one of my greatest assets is I get kids to believe in the program. Jump on my back, I’ll carry you.” He then adds, “We won like 20 games over three years, and they had never done that in a three-year period. I made them better on the competitive end and got a lot of respect. You get respect, and it’s not just wins and losses, it’s how you handle yourself on the field and off the field.”
Osieja’s greatest coaching success – and that’s a mouthful of a statement, considering he and his teams have been winners wherever he has landed – is bookended between those successful stops in Irvington and Paul VI in the early 1980s, and Passaic Valley in the early 1990s.
His previously mentioned 1988 Chatham High School squad, when Chatham Borough and Chatham Township combined forces for the first time ever, produced a monster 21-1-2 season. It all came together – in year one. “It was the first year of the ever-combined Chatham Borough and Township. The two most hated soccer rivals in New Jersey, and I had to combine these kids,” he says with a laugh, “who hated each other the year before. And now they’re in the same school.” Osieja finished the year by being Morris County New Jersey State soccer coach of the year.
“It was good they brought me in from the outside, because one of my quotes was, ‘I don’t know if you’re a Borough or Township kid, I just know you’re Chatham.’ So that helped a lot.”
The way Osieja saw it, for him, at age 32, it would be his greatest success or the biggest failure. The pendulum swung to the former and stayed there. “I believed in what I do and who I was, and I said, ‘I’m going to try and get these kids to jump on my back. I mean, I’m going to have real talent that I’ve never seen.’” Indeed, he had no evident weaknesses. Chatham was ranked third in the state, and also peeked its head into national rankings.
With regard to the Whippany Park loss, when he took a step back and offered no pep talk, are there any regrets in no pushing his team that day? “I have no regrets, but if I had pushed them, they would’ve been 22-0-2. But what is the real difference here? They learned from that day. That loss is the greatest loss I’ve ever had because it propelled us.”
Osieja later won the Passaic County Tournament Championship and conference titles twice at Passaic Valley in 1990 (18-3-1) and 1991 (17-1-2), and twice winning Passaic County Coach of the Year accolades. “These kids were hard, blue collar working kids. And they jumped on my back. The kids have always given me a lot of opportunity to go with it. Once you sell them, they’re yours.” The club lost in the state tournament two consecutive years, but the success achieved makes Osieja feel he brought the Holy Grail to the school. “They were winners,” he says, “with titles now, not just wins.”
Osieja, who also coached soccer at Gov. Livingston, Saddle Brook, and was head coach at Cresskill, later turned his focus to the spring and track & field, and had successful stops at Bloomfield (“We did tremendous things there.”), Pascack Valley, Hanover Park and is the current head track coach at Indian Hills. He has had numerous state, county and conference track champions at these coaching assignments, and huge things are transpiring at Indian Hills. “Big time program,” he says, “Boy and Girl distance programs are one of the best in the state. Our girls’ 100-meter relay is 15th in the nation, and they’re all back next year. You’re not going to get a better track and field coaching job than I have right now.”
Osieja, who has been married for 30 years to his wife, Eileen, and is a Dad to three children – Rob, 36, Elizabeth, 34, and Melisa, 20 – speaks to his Hall of Fame selection. “You never dream of this. I grew up in Irvington, blue collar. I was going to be an FBI agent, my Dad was a detective, my brother was a Chief of Police before he passed away. You see my background. I had a calling. I was coaching my brother’s team, I was drawing up plays for him – I was like a sophomore in college – and they were working, and the kids were doing and were successful and I’m like, ‘I really like this.’ All of the sudden the bell hit, and I said, ‘I think I’d rather do this: be a teacher coach. You’ve got to be a teacher to coach.”
Why has he coached for 41 years? “My wife said to me, ‘Rob, do you know what you’re doing now, besides that you love the kids? You are now giving back as a coach to other coaches. The young coaches. I see what you’re doing with the young coaches that you have at Indian Hills. You’re training and teaching them so that they can come along like you did, giving them the best knowledge you have, trying to lead them the right way.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right; and I love it. I’m teaching young coaches how to be good older coaches someday.’ The other is the love of the kids. There is nothing like leading a group of people in a singular bond for a singular cause, win or lose, and you all stick together.”
He then beams, and says, “Here I am, being asked about a felt soccer ball 30 years later. What does that tell you about a bond?! He never mentioned about the wins. He said, ‘I’m still waiting for that soccer ball.’ There it is – bingo! How’s that?!”