As head of school for The Village School of Naples, Dennis Chapman receives a significant amount of resumes and fields a lot of calls about job openings.
All the more so because the school, founded in 1985 as a preschool, has been in expansion mode. It added a middle school in 2009, and an upper school for high school students in 2017. It’s renovated and expanded its campus and athletic facilities, and in June 2020 the school celebrated its debut graduating class of seniors. The school has 135 upper school students this year, and 33 are in line to graduate next spring.
In hiring the teachers and staff to support that growth, it’s unlikely Chapman encountered someone like Piotr Nowak. Nowak is one of the greatest Polish-born soccer players and coaches of all time — with a trophy and awards case to back it up.
In playing and coaching in Europe and the U.S. for some 40 years, Nowak, now 59, was captain of the Polish National Team; named Polish Player of the Year in 1996; a three-time All-Star and three-time team MVP with MLS’ Chicago Fire; and, in his first year as a head coach, led the D.C. United to an MLS cup in 2004. Other soccer career highlights include coaching the U.S Men's’ Under-23 team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and serving as team manager and executive vice president of the Philadelphia Union, an MLS startup team. His resume goes on with many more accolades.
Chapman learned about Nowak from a mutual friend. Nowak had lived in Naples since the late 1990s, even while playing and coaching. Chapman says he went into the first meeting with Nowak girding for a one-and-done chat.
“Sometimes when you meet celebrities like that, they are really full of themselves,” Chapman says. “Piotr is just the opposite. I told our friend that I would know now within five minutes if he’s someone we would like to hire. I knew right away (he was.)”
Chapman hasn’t been disappointed.
Named head boys varsity and middle school soccer coach and athletic department consultant in September, Nowak has impressed the school not only with his skillset and soccer knowledge. He’s also impressed others with his humility — down to painting soccer lines himself on the fields. “He’s already literally rolling up his sleeves,” Chapman says. “He’s been a great leader and a great example for the students.”
In a recent Zoom call interview from The Village School of Naples campus, Nowak talked about his leadership experience and lessons from his decades in soccer.
He says a key lesson he’s learned in his career about leadership lies in consistency. “Coaching isn’t about a pep talk,” he says. “Anybody can do a pep talk.”
Instead, Nowak says, success comes “when you stay consistent in how you train and everything else you do, and develop a good routine. I’m still learning. I still have my flaws.”
Nowak says he wasn’t seeking out a job in youth soccer. But after meeting with Chapman and others at the school, he says he wanted to work with the fledgling program, motivated to provide a unique, and lasting, impression for the students. "If you ask the world‘s best soccer players today, 'Who is your first coach?'" Nowak says, "90% of them will remember."
Scream and shout
Nowak says he’s played for soccer coaches with a variety of styles, and each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Some raised their voices a lot, others never did. One coach, in Germany, was “an autocrat whose word was more than the Bible.” Nowak says he prefers to adapt his style to the team he has. “You have to find what works for you to get the best out of your players,” he says.
Nowak’s first coaching gig was a resounding on-the-field success, with the 2004 D.C. United team that won the league championship. When the team hired Nowak, who had recently retired as a player at 39 years old, it tasked him with turning around the squad after four straight losing seasons.
Nowak’s coaching strategy, according to a 2004 story in the Washington Post, right before the season kicked off, was “no-nonsense” and old school. Players, for one, were told to take off muddy cleats in an RFK Stadium hallway, not the locker room, and clean them with a brush in a tub of water. A ringing cell phone in the locker room or during a team function would result in a fine, the Post reported.
One player on the team, Mike Petke, told the Post: "I played against him many times and he was a tough SOB, and he's the same type of coach. He'll get in your face and tell you what you did wrong. I love that. A lot of guys, whether they like that approach or not, needed it."
Nowak relishes the memories of the coaching championships and success — but he also says he knows his place and recognizes that while coaches can set up teams for success, they aren’t on the field. “In soccer,” he says, “do you see any coaches in any leagues carrying the cups? No. Those are for players.”
Nowak grew up in Warsaw. His mom worked in a clothing factory and his father was a printer and “a slick right wing who played professionally,” the Post story states. The Nowaks were a soccer-mad family, living, for a time, in an apartment next to a stadium in Poland.
Nowak turned pro at 15, and later played for four clubs in Poland, in addition to his country’s national team. He would go on to play in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany, including stints with Dynamo Dresden and 1860 Munich. Nowak moved to the States in 1998, and played five seasons with MLS’ Chicago Fire, retiring in 2003. (Nowak says he loved playing for Chicago, but when he and his family moved to America, they sought a warmer climate to live in. They settled in Naples, where they built a house.)
Be like Mike
Nowak’s success as a player and a coach can be traced, in large part, to a constant desire to be better — a requisite for a good leader. Two stories illustrate that hunger.
One, according to the 2004 Post story, is playing one-on-one soccer with his dad in a clearing in the woods outside their home in Poland. He started playing against his dad when he was 9. It took him 13 years to beat the elder Nowak. "He told me we're not going to stop until you beat me," Nowak told the Post. “I beat him for the first time when I was 22 years old. Every Sunday, every week, year after year, he embarrassed me in front of my friends, in front of my girlfriends, in front of my neighbors. I was upset, I was crying, but it made me stronger.
Then, as a budding star player, he recalls he would get scolded by some coaches about not doing more to make players around him better. “I told them 'I was pretty happy with myself,'” Nowak says in our interview. But as he approached 30 years old, Nowak says he learned what his coaches were telling him, that he had to not be as selfish and model his game after another 1990s Chicago sports superstar known for both his skills and elevating the play of his teammates: Michael Jordan. “I had to get called out by some coaches,” he says, “to learn that.”
Nowak says his favorite coaching metaphor, to illustrate the idea that great things can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit, is in a cake. “I want the players to think of success like a big cake,” he says. “Everybody can get a slice of cake if everybody works together.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.