He helped bring modern day soccer to Central Illinois, thus impacting the way hundreds of future players all over the area, including Montgomery County, looked at the game.
Coaching legend Aydin Gonulsen passed away Tuesday, July 6, at the age of 78, but leaves behind a legacy that is second to none.
“Coach Gonulsen will forever hold a special place in my heart. He was the best coach I ever had the honor playing for,” said Litchfield Girls Soccer Coach Dominique Byots.
Before he was a coach, though, Gonulsen was a player. A two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American, Gonulsen came from Izmic, Turkey to play soccer at Warren Wilson College, located just outside of Asheville, NC, after some Cuban students told him about the school when he visited his brother in Illinois.
“He was a character,” said Ron Deabenderfer of Hillsboro, who was a freshman soccer player for Warren Wilson when Gonulsen arrived in 1964. “When we went to the national tournament, he bothered the head coach so much on the drive that he kicked him out and said, “You better hope someone else picks you up,” which we did.”
Gonulsen’s talent was as great as his personality as he set the school’s single season record for goals scored.
“When he came to Warren Wilson he was injured and the first time he played was in a JV game,” Deabenderfer remembered. “The other coach was so upset because he scored four goals in the first five minutes. He never played JV after that.”
Deabenderfer also fondly remembers that Gonulsen was the proverbial black hole when it came to soccer, meaning that the ball went in to him, but seldom went back out.
“He said, ‘If I kept it and dribbled, I had a chance to score; if I passed it back, chances were you’d lose it,’” Debenderfer said with a laugh.
Years later, the two former teammates would meet by chance when Deabenderfer and his wife Judy were in Allerton Park near Monticello.
“I didn’t even know he was back in Illinois until he came running up to me,” the retired Hillsboro High School teacher and coach said.
By that time, Gonulsen had started his efforts in establishing soccer in Springfield, where he and brother Yavuz established the YMCA soccer program in the 1970s. In 1976, he became the first athletic director and head soccer coach at Sangamon State University, building the soccer program from the ground up, literally as he and a group of student athletes laid down the sod for the first SSU soccer field.
Gonulsen would go on to win more than 400 games at Sangamon State, which later became the University of Illinois at Springfield. His teams appeared in 20 NAIA national tournaments, bringing home national titles in 1986, 1988 and 1993.
After retiring from UIS after 25 years, he took over the reins at Blackburn College in Carlinville in 2007, winning 71 games until retiring for good in 2013. Gonulsen also hosted soccer camps in the area, including one in Nokomis in 2007 with the help of friend Dennis Umberger, who would go on to be an assistant coach under Gonulsen at Blackburn.
It was at Blackburn that Byots met Gonulsen, playing for him as a member of the women’s soccer team. There she was able to appreciate the legendary coach not just for his knowledge on the field, but for his generosity and love off of it.
“He used to have parties for the Blackburn men’s and women’s soccer teams. He would invite the entire family to his home at Lake Catatoga and his wife Suna would cook us a feast. She made the best cake I ever ate honestly,” Byots remembered. “He impacted our lives tremendously and helped shape me into the coach I am today.”
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A memorial gathering for Aydin Gonulsen will be held Friday, July 9, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Staab Funeral Home in Springfield. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 10, at Staab Funeral Home with burial to follow at Old Salem Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to the Aydin Gonulsen Athletic Scholarship by visiting www.giving.uis.edu and searching for Gonulsen.