Green Bay soccer legend Aldo Santaga leaves behind memorable legacy | Green Bay Press Gazette
GREEN BAY – Aldo Santaga left behind a legacy that is far bigger than the notable things he accomplished during a legendary soccer career.
Perhaps more importantly, it was the impact he had on so many others during his 87 years before he died earlier this month.
He was a husband. A father. A coach. A friend. A mentor.
Those who were part of Santaga’s world — the number likely reaches the thousands — often were left with the same impression. They were an extension of his family. He cared far more about them as people than anything they could do for him as an athlete.
Santaga led the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s soccer team from 1978 to 1992, going 148-102-21.
He was at the helm when the program moved to the Division I level in 1981, and he was there to lead the Phoenix to the NCAA tournament two years later.
“Aldo was somebody you wanted to play for,” said former UW-Green Bay standout Chad Johnson, who played for Santaga from 1988 to 1991 and was the team MVP and an all-conference player his first season. “You played because you loved the game, but Aldo was a coach you played for because you loved him.”
Even after spending 10 minutes talking about how much Santaga meant to him, Johnson still felt guilty that he didn’t say all the things he felt needed to be said. Truth is, he could have talked for hours about the man they called “Chief,” and it still wouldn’t have been enough time for him to express all his appreciation.
“I will always remember the thousands of firm handshakes and hugs he gave me,” said Johnson, who later became a coach at both UW-Green Bay and St. Norbert College. “UW-Green Bay is where my playing career ended due to injury, but it’s where my passion for coaching took off because of Aldo.
“Now I’m blessed with three amazing kids and an incredible wife. The Santagas, especially Aldo, taught me a lot about the importance of family. I’m forever grateful for this. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if not for Chief.”
Santaga was born in Tripoli, Libya, and arrived in the United States in the mid-1950s. He was 22, had less than $100 in his pocket and couldn’t speak a lick of English.
None of that stopped him from prospering.
Santaga previously was a pro soccer player for the Libya National Team, and after he arrived in the U.S., he was a member of the Croatian Eagles Club in Milwaukee from 1958 to 1965.
He went on a blind date his first year in the city.
Aldo Santaga and Janet Drankoff were so fond of each other after that date that they got married in 1959 and spent the next 63 years together. She was at her husband’s side when he died Nov. 12.
The couple settled in Green Bay after their time in Milwaukee, and Santaga’s soccer legacy continued to grow.
He wasn’t just the coach at UW-Green Bay, first with the men and then with the women for one year.
Santaga helped the SNC program get off the ground and did the same for Premontre High School and the Green Bay Kickers club team.
He served a key role in finding financial support for Phoenix Field, where the UW-Green Bay soccer team played its games. It was only fitting it eventually was renamed Aldo Santaga Stadium.
Plenty of his family followed in his footsteps in the athletic world.
The partial list includes two sons, Greg and Scott, who both played soccer at UW-Green Bay. Greg is one of the best in program history.
Two of his grandchildren, Anthony and Kristina, also played soccer in college. Another grandson, Johnny, joined the University of Minnesota football team in 2017 as a walk-on after a standout career at Green Bay Notre Dame.
Santaga is a member of the UW-Green Bay Athletic Hall of Fame as well as the halls of fame for the Wisconsin Soccer Association, the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches and the Croatian Eagles Soccer Club of Milwaukee.
“My experience with Aldo is probably similar to a lot of the other fellas,” said Eric Urben, who played for Santaga on a club team in the late 1990s that included former Bay Port and United States World Cup player Jay DeMerit. “Aldo coached me when I was an impressionable player. I was forming my mentality as a player and looking for new ideas, and Aldo was that guy. He was introduced to me through UW-Green Bay soccer alumni, as well as my father, as being one of the fathers of soccer in Green Bay. He was just one of those guys who knew footy.”
If there is one thing about Santaga that Urben wants people to know, it’s how he naturally stood out above everyone else. In a group conversation among those who know soccer, when it was time for Santaga to speak, everyone stopped.
“It didn’t matter if your name was Eric Urben, Scott Santaga or Greg Santaga or (UW-Green Bay soccer Hall of Famer) Erich Quidzinski,” Urben said. “If you were an all-American or just a first-year player, when Aldo spoke, people listened. The biggest reason was just the way he spoke. He was always calm. Collected. He knew how to connect.”
Johnson is a shining example of just how well Santaga connected with his players.
He was a standout high school player in Colorado who started to get noticed as a senior. He spent his holiday break that year visiting schools, including UW-Green Bay.
Johnson was picked up at the airport by Phoenix coach Terry Powers, and after getting a bite to eat, he was brought over to meet with Santaga.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to realize his future coach was the real deal.
“It was on the spot,” Johnson said. “It was within the first couple hours of meeting him. Especially after visiting some other programs. I saw with him that the game was important, but he made you feel more valuable than just being a player. He made you feel like immediately you could believe in him. You could trust him. That’s a lot to say about a coach in the first couple hours.”
Santaga also made certain his players appreciated their loved ones. Like that moment after a game at the University of Portland, when the team was at the hotel and boarding the bus to go to the airport.
Santaga insisted Johnson get off the bus and kiss his mother goodbye before they departed.
Yes, when it was time for Santaga to get after his players, he would do it. When it was time to give them a compliment, he’d shower them with some.
But the message at the end was the same.
“He always reminded us, every time, how much he loved us,” Johnson said.