Soccer is a family affair for Francis Okaroh. The Boston University men’s assistant coach treats the game like a brotherhood, and continues to cherish the bonds he’s formed with teammates and coaches – some 30 years later.
He still roams the field he once played on in the early 80s, works alongside his former college head coach and runs a New England-based soccer club with his brother.
The 54-year-old Nigerian native says soccer is in his blood. When did he start to love the game?
“The first day I showed up on this planet,” he says.
For one who’s found the success in the game that Okaroh has, he’s quite humble. He played six seasons in Major League Soccer – two of which he was awarded Defender of the Year, reached the MLS Cup finals in 2000 with the Chicago Fire, played on the 1985 Boston University team that still holds the team record for fewest goals allowed in a season and is a member of the New England Soccer Hall of Fame.
But now he has another hill to climb: leading the BU soccer program to new heights.
This past season was Okaroh’s 11th as a member of Neil Roberts’ coaching staff. He understands that his reputation as a player may precede him, but he shies away from that attention.
“When these guys come, they probably hear about my story and realize that it can be done,” Okaroh says. “And me being there and coaching them, they obviously respect me given what I’ve achieved, and hopefully they respect me knowing that I know what I’m doing as a coach. And it’s not about me as a player because I don’t wanna be judged anymore as a player. I wanna be judged as a coach.”
That doesn’t mean Okaroh is not reflective about his playing career. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. He often stares at the plaques of the BU Athletic Hall of Fame, of which he is a part, and marvels at the talent. He’s quick to point out that back in those days BU had a football team, so to be chosen among that group is something special.
For some, a diploma is all one needs to disappear from a university for good. Not for Okaroh. He’s stuck around BU and Boston, and though he grew up in Nigeria, he still cherishes the opportunity to come to Comm. Ave. and help develop new generations of Terriers every day.
“This is pretty much my home,” he says.
And it’s become his home thanks in large part to the man who coached him more than 30 years ago.
When Okaroh first came to the states, he says the transition wasn’t as shocking as people might expect because he had spent his teens travelling with the prestigious Nigerian National Team. Nonetheless, it was difficult. Alone in a new country, no family around. “I was the lone soldier,” he says.
But the adjustment was aided by Roberts, who at the time was just a 24-year-old assistant on legendary Hank Steinbrecher’s staff. Roberts and his family would invite Okaroh into their home for every holiday, which helped him realize that he would call this place “home” for a very long time.
His connection with the Roberts family extends beyond BU’s longest-tenured soccer coach. Okaroh played with Neil’s younger brother and the two became best friends. For Okaroh’s final two seasons with the Terriers, Roberts had taken over the head-coaching job.
The team made the NCAA Tournament in both of those years, and Francis anchored the Terrier defense. Roberts, whose network of former players is as wide as Nickerson Field itself, remembers every one. What does he remember about Okaroh?
“He was intense,” Roberts says with a laugh. “He was a leader, he was a hard worker, he was obviously a very talented player but he was definitely an intense player.”
In all his years coaching, Roberts has come across few players with Okaroh’s unique blend of skill and determination. Two that he likened Okaroh to are Colorado Rapids forward Dominique Badji and BU senior Anthony Viteri, whose career was cut short due to concussions.
“Anthony was a lot like Francis where he was probably quieter as a person, but the intensity as a player and a person that trained really well was there,” he says.
That intensity paid off, as Okaroh helped lead his team to the Final Eight in 1986. The tournament run legitimized the program and helped to make BU an international soccer destination.
For Okaroh, it was even sweeter because he accomplished it with his younger brother. Ben Okaroh came to the U.S. two years after Francis – also with a wealth of experience. He too played on the Nigerian National Team and came to Boston fresh off a stint with Rangers International FC, the largest club in Africa.
“That was the highlight of my collegiate career because for any player, you wanna play with the elite,” he says. “You wanna be recognized for your achievement. And then you wanna keep some kind of a standard when you leave. So it was fantastic. And also I did it with my brother so that’s even a bonus.”
Okaroh’s lone regret from his college playing days is falling short of a national championship. But he’s now determined to capture that dream as a coach. “I have to improve, which I’m working on as we speak, to make my impact at the college level in terms of taking a team with my colleagues and going higher than we have so far,” he says.
And if there’s any group poised to take BU to the next level, it’s this coaching staff. Roberts will enter his 34th season at the helm next year, and both Okaroh and associate head coach Scott Black have been with the team more than a decade. Add in the expertise of former MLS midfielder Andy Dorman, and it’s an impressive collection of soccer minds.
Roberts says that BU is “fortunate” with its staff, but Okaroh went one step further.
“I’m sure everybody says this, but in my case I think they’re lying,” he says. “I think we have the best coaching staff in terms of chemistry. We have a balance.”
That chemistry proves crucial both in the recruiting process and on the pitch. Though the season just wrapped up, the staff is already preparing for next year (there’s a recruiting trip planned for next week). Borrowing a line from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Okaroh says that building a contender is “an ongoing process,” and it’s one Roberts is happy to go through with this group.
“I wouldn’t say we argue, but we we have these discussions tactically and player-wise and it’s good that everybody feels they can say what they wanna say openly and we get to the point where we know what each other’s gonna say before we say it,” Roberts says. “You don’t get that a lot in college that these guys have been with you for so long.”
All this lends itself to a good environment for staff and players alike. Okaroh gripes about players’ lack of commitment today, but maybe that’s just because he’s wired differently.
He’s not like the average player, nor the average person. He could have taken his plaque on the BU Athletic Hall of Fame wall and never returned. He could have left soccer behind, but that’s not like him. It wouldn’t be surprising if he bleeds scarlet and white.
For a man who’s accomplished so much on the pitch, he recognizes that there is still more to be done to elevate BU soccer – and he wants to be part of it.
“For my coaching career, I would say that the best is yet to come,” he says.
To hear more from Roberts about the future of this Terriers, take a listen to this Soundcloud link.