Erich Dietrich

Soccer was foreign concept when Erich Dietrich arrived on campus in 1970

Dietrich and teammates are credited for the start of Green Bay youth soccer

When Erich Dietrich arrived on the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay campus in the fall of 1970 soccer was somewhat of a foreign concept.

With the sport in its infancy in this country, college teams reached out to foreign-born players like the native of Forchheim, Germany to fast-track their programs. Teammates came from Italy, Greece and Nigeria.

The campus looked nothing like it does now.

“It was very barren,” Dietrich recalled. “The only thing that stood out was the library in the center. We had two other buildings that were off to the side. Thank God in the wintertime we had an underground connection — we would have frozen to death going from building to building. But it was a beautiful campus with the scenery alone being next to the bay.”

That foreign concept paid off as forward-midfielder Dietrich helped the Phoenix to a 36-13-6 record from 1970-1973, leading the team in goals (36) and points (79) in his last three seasons. UW–Green Bay was NAIA Area III champion from 1971-1973.

“Erich was an outstanding forward with good ball control,” former assistant coach Aldo Santaga (and later head coach of Phoenix soccer) said. “He was very mobile and a great shot with either foot. That combination made him a great goal scorer.”

“We had a very good team as far as harmony,” Dietrich said. “Trying to make a success of the program was our goal. Those were unusual years for a group of young fellows who really didn’t know each other that well from different cultural backgrounds. We meshed very well into a team.”

So much so that at one point, the Phoenix were ranked second in the country right behind St. Louis University, a team they surprised 1-0 in 1973.

“They were the powerhouse in the United States,” Dietrich pointed out. “When we beat them here, it was the biggest upset in the history of college soccer. It was amazing. The field was full of people, especially after the game was over.”

Despite those heady statistics, the impact Dietrich made in his four years in a city more known for the American version of football was much larger than that and is still being felt today.

He not only displayed his talents for the estimated 4,000 fans who turned out for home games, but started a Green Bay Kickers Soccer Club that has grown from a single team of 15 boys to 40-plus boys and girls teams at the recreational, club and state level of 600 west-side children today.

“It’s thriving,” Kickers president Matt Gage said of the organization. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s amazing.”

Dietrich reaches back in his memory banks some 46 years to recall how it all began.

“I lived over on Ninth and Ashland,” he said. “I used to go to Colburn Park and do a little running around there. Some kids came up to me with a soccer ball. One particular evening, I had four or five of them ask me if they could form a team. I said ‘Sure, get a whole bunch of kids together.’”

Despite a travel-heavy schedule that included games at the Air Force Academy, Colorado College, Kansas and Michigan State, Dietrich and teammates Horst Stemke and Desi McCullagh found the time to get the Kickers incorporated.

Another teammate, Ray Gumpert of Philadelphia, was starting a program on the east side of town.

“The programs fanned out and started growing in different directions,” Dietrich said. “You plant a little tree and you hope it grows into something really solid.”

At the time, McCullagh made an accurate prediction to the Green Bay Press Gazette: “The potential of something of this nature is immeasurable,” he said. “The success or failure depends on the enthusiasm of the people responsible for running the program and the enthusiasm of those actually participating.”

“We started practicing and charged the kids 25 cents a practice,” Dietrich said. “In a few months, we had enough money to buy them shirts — the players bought their own shoes and shorts. We had incredible support from the parents — four of them became board members.”

That initial Kickers squad traveled on Saturdays to play Northeastern Wisconsin Central Junior Soccer League opponents Appleton, Oshkosh, Neenah-Menasha and Manitowoc.

“Once we had that first team going, we started a second team,” Dietrich continued. “Then, we started a girls team in 1973. Girls were not supposed to play soccer. But the girls were there because a lot of the boys had sisters. They said ‘How come, we can’t play?’” I told them there was no reason they couldn’t. That was a little more difficult because there weren’t any teams to play against. So, we had to scrimmage a lot of times against the boys.”

Unselfish efforts like Dietrich’s helped put fans in the stands at Bay Beach and Johannes Parks.

“We wanted to connect with the community,” Dietrich said. “We figured we could get a lot of people to come out and watch us. They did. Almost every parent of the kids came to every game that we played. You give and then you get back in return. We had a real connection between the university and the town.”

Mission accomplished.

“Erich has really started up something that is a nice part of town,” Gage said. “It’s just a treasured program in the area. I always look to carry on what he’s done — we offer free clinics on Saturdays in the spirit that he started out.

“Quite simply put, the best part about it is the relationships the kids forge with fellow players, coaches and opponents,” he continued.  “My four girls have all gone through the program and now I’ve got a grandson who will find out when he goes through.”

Dietrich applauds men like Gage, who have helped take the Kickers to the next level.

“It takes a certain quality of people to keep things going,” he pointed out. “They have to be willing to spend the time to give to the children. Especially in our age, time and place, it’s very, very important to do that. I’m extremely pleased it has turned out this way.”

For Dietrich, who finished his German schooling at age 14 and his 3 ½-year pastry chef apprenticeship (working and attending classes) in Bamberg, Germany before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play for United States Amateur Soccer Association clubs in Chicago and Milwaukee, soccer has truly been a lifelong sport.

At age 68, he is still playing for the aptly-named Denver Kickers. The team has traveled to Las Vegas the past 22 years to play in the prestigious King Cup Soccer Tournament, which bills itself as the largest such event in the United States.

“We keep kicking as long as we can,” Dietrich said. “Once we don’t have any legs anymore, we quit.”

After he graduated, Dietrich carried over his pastry talents for a couple of years at the famed Kaap’s Restaurant in downtown Green Bay before moving on to a 40-year career owning his own chocolate and espresso shop in Denver. He retired from the business two years ago.

Dietrich’s namesake and first son, Erich Joseph was born while he was still in Wisconsin and working with the Green Bay Kickers.  His second son, Christopher Stefan was also born in Green Bay while Dietrich owned Kaap’s.  His daughter, Sylvia Jane, came later after he moved to Denver.

“I am grateful for each of them. They enrich my life,” he said.

And today, that “foreign concept” that once included an unassuming pastry chef from Germany remains a sweet recipe for success on the UW-Green Bay campus.  This year’s edition of the Phoenix men’s soccer team includes players from Canada, Denmark, Guadalupe, Israel, Serbia and Spain. And, instead of three interconnected buildings, the University now occupies a square mile.

To hear an oral history interview with Dietrich, listen here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Erich Dietrich

Erich Dietrich with former players and coaches at the Alumni Game in October 2017.

Erich Dietrich

Erich Dietrich an an informal gathering of former Phoenix player and coaches at the Lorelei Inn, Green Bay in Fall of 2017.

Erich Dietrich

Erich Dietrich with friends (Dean) Susan Gallagher-Lepak and her husband Steve Lepak having lunch at the Shorewood Club after a campus tour in Fall of 2017.

Erich Dietrich

Erich Dietrich and his wife Christine visiting The Village Grill Allouez, and the original Kaap’s Restaurant booths.

Erich Dietrich

Left to right: Erich Dietrich, former Phoenix coach Aldo Santaga and teammate Horst Stemke.

By freelance writer Jay Lillge, for UW-Green Bay’s Office of Marketing and University Communication
Featured photo by University Photographer Dan Moore
Other photos submitted by Dietrich family

Interviewer, Jane Rank, chair of UWGB Retiree Association Oral History Committee. Technical support from Roger Vanderperren