Hackworth in his element atop Union technical staff
CHESTER, Pa. -- To say that John Hackworth has been busy the last few weeks would be a major understatement.
Hectic is more like it.
Hackworth’s life was altered on June 13 when the Union parted ways with Peter Nowak and his former assistant subsequently was elevated to interim team manager of the Philadelphia Union. Ascending to the top spot on the technical staff is quite a change.
The responsibility increased. The hours increased. The pressure increased.
In that time, the Union lost a hard-fought 1-0 match to D.C. United. They came back, defeated Sporting Kansas City 4-0 and followed with a 5-2 victory over the Harrisburg City Islanders in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. On Saturday, the Union fell to the Houston Dynamo 2-1 on the road after a controversial penalty kick was awarded to Brian Ching.
Looming next is a match on July 4 against the LA Galaxy at The Home Depot Center.
There hasn’t been much time to stop and reflect on the job change.
“As opposed to [the first week on the job], when I was probably dead-dog tired, I’m getting a little more rest,” Hackworth said. “But it’s been a tough time and a great time — a tough time because of the circumstances and the fact that I still have a job to do and I have to earn the opportunity to be named team manager on a full-time basis.
“But whether it’s friends, or coaches or colleagues, or our own staff, all we can say is, ‘Look, we’re going to do our job. We’re going to work hard.’ And we’ve done a really good job of that.”
Hackworth has reveled in the countless hours of preparation, training and other duties. After all, this is an opportunity the 42-year-old has been waiting for his whole career.
“I’m enjoying the (heck) out of it,” said Hackworth, who spent four seasons as the head coach at the University of South Florida and five years as the top assistant at Wake Forest University earlier in his career. “It’s hard. ... I can remember being at a World Cup qualifier and I shook off this interim label I had with the U-17s. Tremendous pressure. The Under-17 team, we were the only country to qualify for every World Cup and we had to play Costa Rica in Costa Rica and beat them — not tie them, but beat them — to qualify for the World Cup.
“You talk about a room feeling small, I mean, I couldn’t sleep. I was pushing … what’s that movie where the room shrinks? The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland. Remember when the room is shrinking? It felt like that in Costa Rica. I’m just giving you some background. When you go through those things as a coach, you start to just trust yourself more and you start to understand that, if you work as hard as you can and you give the players the best chance they have to be successful, it’s really all you can do.
“When it comes to game day, you have to be really smart about some of your changes, but the work is done well before you get to the game and probably well before you even see me.”
While Hackworth had never been a head coach in Major League Soccer, he has been able to draw on plenty of other experiences from his past. Not to mention the handful of opportunities he's had to man the sideline in Nowak's stead over the past few years.
That has helped to ease the transition to this new post.
“Honestly, I’ve been preparing for this and I feel like I’ve done this before,” Hackworth said. “When I was with the 17s, I had 40 teenagers that I was in charge of. We had 10 full-time staff plus some ancillary staff so you want to talk about a big job and a huge responsibility; that’s not (telling) a 15-year-old to go back to your room after training.
“It’s another aspect of the job, whether it was a sickness or whether it was incidents in the family or homesick, the managing of that staff and that program really was unbelievable preparation for how to manage a professional team as well. ... Watching how Peter’s done things and taking some things I knew I would implement differently and noting all the things I knew would work really well. All of that, that’s just how I think.
“I’ve always had the goal and Peter knew it all along that I wanted to be a head coach in MLS, so I think I’ve been waiting and ready for this chance for a while.”
Hackworth received a standing ovation from the crowd at PPL Park during his debut against D.C. United. One week later, he earned his first victory as interim team manager.
Soon after, Hackworth’s e-mail account was filled with positive messages from friends and colleagues.
“It was overwhelming, which is fantastic,” Hackworth said. “I’m just so thankful that there’s people out there that are kind enough to follow me and support me in this and that’s really nice. I hadn’t heard from some of those people in a long time so just the fact that they reached out means a lot to me and it’s nice.”
Watching the Union’s offense come alive recently has been nice, too.
“Look, soccer is a game of mistakes, and I don’t want them to feel or think about making a mistake,” Hackworth said. “What I want them to think about are reactions. When we make a mistake, how quickly do we respond to it? The way we’re playing, it’s so important that we do that. When we don’t do that, it allows us to be opened up a little bit. When we react as soon as we make a mistake, it’s hard for the other team. The more we can do that over the course of 90 minutes, the more successful we will be.”
Hackworth credits his entire technical staff for helping to facilitate a smooth transition.
“The staff is a little trimmed down and we’ve reorganized responsibilities and delegated certain things,” Hackworth said. “Both Rob (Vartughian) and Brendan (Burke) have been fantastic in this transition, but so has everybody else — Josh Gros, Paul Rushing, Tim Cook, Dan Nolan, Steve Hudyma, Kevin Miller, name ‘em all.
"In the front office, Nick (Sakiewicz) ... he’s given me full trust, the same kind of full trust he gave Peter. That support and interaction has been really important to us and the feeling around here, whether it’s an intern in the front office, I think they really feel connected to everything right now.”
Right now, Hackworth is doing what he enjoys the most professionally – coaching. It can take 25 hours in a 24-hour day, and Hackworth realizes the importance of balancing the time duties of the job.
“You have to balance it,” Hackworth said. “I love a story about (former Pittsburgh Steelers coach) Bill Cowher when he was at Pittsburgh. He, to me, epitomized a guy who worked incredibly hard and he valued family. At the same time, this is what I do. This is my job and the only other thing that I want to make sure of is that my family is in a good position. They are my two priorities.
“The story is Bill Cowher goes to this banquet and he sits down at a table and he leans over and he introduces himself to the person next to him, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Cowher.’ And the person looks at him and says, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Bill’s like, ‘Who are you?’ I think it was the mayor of Pittsburgh. The person said, ‘Hey, I’m the Mayor of Pittsburgh.’ And he says, ‘Oh, geez, I’m so sorry. That’s just me.’ I think of two things: I think of the Steelers and I think of my family. That’s it. So, long story short, I have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world. I don’t know anything that’s going on, but I know what’s happening here.”