University of Akron President Luis Proenza began coughing midway through his tribute to departing men’s soccer coach Caleb Porter on Wednesday night at InfoCision Stadium, prompting a member of the catering staff to deliver water to the podium.
“It’s not my throat, it’s my emotion,” Proenza said.
Those feelings eventually overcame Proenza. While recalling the celebration after UA captured the school’s first team national championship in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2010, Proenza said Porter gathered his players and delivered “one of the most impassioned, emotional communications of teamwork and family that I’ve heard.”
Recalling the scene and Porter’s words, Proenza broke down and cried.
“I don’t know why, it’s been two years,” Proenza said as Porter came onto the riser to hug him.
Even after the two-hour event ended, Proenza couldn’t explain what had happened, barely able to choke out a few words about the special bond he felt with Porter.
More than 300 fans, university officials and current and former UA players packed the FirstMerit Foundation Club Level lounge to thank Porter for his seven years, in which he compiled an .832 winning percentage, fifth-highest all time in collegiate soccer.
Porter, his wife Andrea, whom he called “my personal hero,” and their three young children will fly Monday to Portland, Ore., where he will take over as coach of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers next month. Porter announced he was leaving one game into the 2012 season, but coached the Zips into the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
Jared Embick, Porter’s assistant for six years, will take over.
With ex-Zip Darlington Nagbe getting married in Cleveland on Saturday, the crowd included several of Porter’s players now in MLS. Among those attending along with Nagbe, a forward/midfielder for the Timbers, were Steve Zakuani, the program’s first No. 1 overall draft choice, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, his first blue-chip recruit who now plays professionally in Thailand, Michael Nanchoff and Kofi Sarkodie.
Near the end of his 25-minute talk, Porter called forward all who had played for him and was joined by 23 men. Then he asked for others who had been members of the UA team and a few more came forward.
“This program has a long tradition of excellence,” Porter said. “It’s bigger than any coach, any player. I have no doubt in my mind that there will be another national championship down the road, I’m hoping in Jared’s era. I know there will be outstanding players and people who act like champions, representing the university in a first-class way and continue to pursue championships and build lifelong memories.”
Proenza made Indiana University graduate Porter an honorary alumnus. The university also presented Porter with a large frame that included an Akron jersey (front and back) bearing his name and the number 1, a picture of the national championship team and an engraved list of his accomplishments. Andrea was given a piece of UA jewelry, along with stuffed Zippys for their children.
Also speaking were UA Director of Athletics Tom Wistrcill and Zips co-captain Chad Barson. As Wistrcill read Porter’s achievements and noted that he was Mid-American Conference coach of the year six times, Wistrcill quipped, “I can’t see how you give it to someone else.”
He also recalled swimming in the “ice cold” Pacific Ocean across from the team’s hotel after winning the national title. “You needed one fat guy there with all the skinny people,” he said.
Barson called his time at UA “magical” and said Porter taught him how to be “a man, a great leader, a mentor and a friend.”
“We could have easily thrown in the towel when we found out that Caleb was going to the Portland Timbers,” said Barson, a senior from Lewis Center, Ohio. “But there’s no way we could do that because we saw the drive and determination, the commitment and the relentless effort to be the best from Caleb. He showed that every single day. Learning that Caleb was leaving brought everyone closer together.”
Wistrcill spoke of how he came to appreciate Porter’s “attractive, yet dominant” style of soccer.
“It’s fun to watch,” Wistrcill said. “It attracted people like me who had never been around soccer to come enjoy and fall in love with a great game. And that’s been because of you.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.