June 26, 2019 | 82° F

UConn legend makes huge impact on Rutgers

Photo by Edwin Gano |

Senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor learned a lot from his grandfather, UConn legend Joseph J. Morrone, who he affectionately referred to as poppa.

With 35 minutes remaining in the Rutgers men’s soccer team’s match against Loyola (Maryland) earlier this season, senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor placed the ball about 30 meters from goal and lined up for a free kick. 

He took a deep breath, stepped up and unleashed a vicious strike that bounced off the inside of the near post and ricocheted into the goal past goalkeeper Tyler Beaudoin.

While the goal was insignificant for the Scarlet Knights — they had been up 4-0 prior to the score — it was the most important goal of Taintor’s career.

On Sept. 16 two weeks earlier, Taintor's grandfather, former legendary men’s soccer head coach Joseph J. Morrone, had died at age 79 from pancreatic cancer.

He missed two games following the passing, and Loyola was his first game back. Scoring a goal he commemorated by lifting his shirt and patting the tattoo he has on his ribcage dedicated to his grandparents — or Poppa and Nonna as he called them — was a special moment for the senior.

“Free kick goals are always special to me for my grandfather because when I was probably 12 or 13, he surprised me with a huge bag of balls to help me work on free kicks and then he bought me those men you stick in the ground that pose as the wall,” Taintor said. “So free kicks always make me think of him and it was kind of ironic that the first game back, I scored on a free kick.”

Many consider Morrone to be one of the most important figures in the history of collegiate men’s soccer. 

Considered by some to be the John Wooden of his sport, Morrone was at the helm at UConn for 28 years. He reached three consecutive NCAA tournament semifinals between 1981 to 1983, winning the national championship in 1981. 

His impact on the sport he loved was recognized by both the program he built — the venue where the Huskies play was named Joseph J. Morrone Stadium in 1997 — and by his peers, who elected him into the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame.

While he dedicated his career to building the program that has dominated the Big East long past his retirement, Morrone’s influence has traveled down the East Coast to a former conference rival.

Along with his grandson being a key player throughout his career on the Banks, one of his former players has led the Knights to one of their best seasons in recent memory. 

Head coach Dan Donigan played under Morrone at UConn — where he was a three-time All-American — between 1985 and 1988, and coached alongside him for three years.

It was Morrone who gave Donigan his first chance in coaching after he completed his nomadic career in the early days of professional soccer in the United States, an opportunity that changed his life.

“He got me kickstarted in my profession as a coach,” Donigan said. “I love the game and I thought I had a natural instinct to teach the game and be a coach, so I went back to UConn as his assistant coach. That was my first job and I just fell in love with the job, the responsibilities, the day-to-day, the lifestyle, everything about it.”

Donigan credits a large part of the success he’s had in the world of soccer to Morrone. While he picked up some things from his former coach, Donigan believes he’ll never be able to repeat Morrone’s success.

“Coach Morrone was very detail-oriented, a very old-school disciplinarian, communicated very well,” Donigan said. “I couldn’t possibly be able to run my program the way he ran his. He was a special person, trying to emulate exactly what he did would be impossible.”

The respect among the two was not a one-way street.

Donigan and Morrone built a strong friendship, and Morrone was never hesitant to praise his former pupil.

“Growing up, my poppa would talk about Dan (Donigan) even before he knew I was going to Rutgers,” Taintor said. “He would always talk about how Dan was so fast and such a great player. They always had a close relationship.”

Taintor also developed a relationship with Donigan as a result of him working with his grandfather. Hearing so much of Donigan throughout his childhood, Taintor always planned on playing for him when he graduated high school. 

Around the time where the Storrs, Connecticut, native was committing to a school, Donigan had made the move from Saint Louis to Rutgers.

And Taintor followed him to Piscataway.

Having known the family before Taintor arrived on campus, Donigan was aware of the work ethic and loyalty he could expect from the recruit. Training the grandson of a former coach isn’t something many coaches have done, but Donigan has enjoyed the experience.

“It’s really cool,” Donigan said. “It’s a very unique situation and I’m very thankful to have had Mitchell in my program for these last four years. We’ve had our ups and downs in the program and Mitchell’s stood by me and kept his loyalties to me from day one, and that’s something I’ll never forget, but its also what I expected from Mitchell knowing his family and his grandfather. I wouldn’t expect anything less (from) him.”

Taintor has had a successful career at Rutgers, scoring 10 goals and providing five assists. But had it not been for his poppa, Taintor isn’t sure he’d be playing the game he loves.

“I don’t even know if I would’ve been playing soccer if it wasn’t for him,” Taintor said. “He always told this story of when I was 2 years old, he’d be in the yard with me, he’d roll me a ball and I’d kick it back to him — one touch and stuff like that. He’d tell my mom, ‘You know, he’s going to be a good soccer player, he’s one-touching the ball right back to me.’ Even throughout the year, he was driving me to my practices if my parents couldn’t, every game he’d give me advice, talk on the phone about soccer with me, watch soccer with me. So yeah, he was a huge reason why I’m playing soccer.”

Taintor's teammates are grateful to Morrone for molding him into the player he is today. A captain in his final season on the Banks, Taintor's influence on the team is evident.

"Mitch is a vital part of our team," said junior midfielder Erik Sa. "He's a guy you'd like to have playing with you and on your team. He's been big for us not only this year, but in the past few years."

Achieving the level of quality it takes to play for a Division I school is a long hard road. Having a Hall of Fame grandfather made Taintor’s path a tad easier. 

But before he became the player he is today, like most other players growing up, Taintor was anxious about his future. 

Whenever he had doubts about the path he was taking, Taintor would remember what his grandfather would preach to him.

“He had a lot of sayings,” Taintor said. “‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going,’ that’s the one I remember the most because the road in athletics is never easy and there’s going to be a lot of adversity all the time, especially at a higher level, so that’s what he’d always remind me of. It’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it.”

When Taintor learned of his grandfather's passing immediately following the Knights 0-0 deadlock with Monmouth, Donigan was the first person to go to his side and comfort him. Donigan let Taintor know he was there for him just like Morrone was there for him.

"For a young kid who’s still maturing and developing as a person, (losing someone close) can be pretty devastating," the sixth-year head coach said. "So I just wanted to let him know I was there for him and we’d be talking about some of the funny stories that we have about Coach (Morrone) and the great things about him and keep his memory living on."

UConn fans have Morrone to thank for creating a culture of success in Storrs. And Rutgers fans have Morrone to thank for two of the biggest pieces of the first team in program history to lead the Big Ten standings. 

Most importantly, Taintor and Donigan have Morrone to thank for his endless love, support and influence on their careers and lives.

“He was incredibly influential. Outside of my father, probably the most influential and impactful person I’ve had in my life,” Donigan said. “I’ve always been indebted to him for my career and he basically helped get me going with the real world after soccer, after playing. (Coach Morrone was) first class in everything he did.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Brian Fonseca

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