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Soccer legend John Hughes dies; played for Temple and coached in Philly, South Jersey

The former Temple All-American and long-time professional player led George Washington to multiple Philadelphia Public League titles and Delran to a pair of state titles as a coach.

Current Delran High School soccer coach Mike Otto (left) and former coach John Hughes, a local legend in the sport who died recently at age 91.
Current Delran High School soccer coach Mike Otto (left) and former coach John Hughes, a local legend in the sport who died recently at age 91.Read moreCourtesy of Mike Otto

The hair had to be short.

So did the passes.

John Hughes was a stickler when it came to soccer, both in terms of his athletes’ appearance and their style of play.

“He had his way, and you were going to do things his way or you weren’t going to play,” said Rowan University women’s coach Scott Leacott, who played on Hughes’ 1988 state championship team at Delran High School.

Hughes, 91, a local legend in the Philadelphia and South Jersey soccer communities both as a player and coach, died of natural causes Friday, May 10.

“You look at all the great coaches in every sport — the John Woodens, the Vince Lombardis,” said current Delran coach Mike Otto, who also played on the Bears’ undefeated 1988 team. “Coach Hughes was that caliber of coach to his players.”

Mr. Hughes was born in Philadelphia and learned soccer at the Lighthouse boys’ club in the city’s Kensington section. He was a star player on Northeast High’s undefeated teams in 1943 and 1944.

While still in high school, Mr. Hughes signed to play for the Philadelphia Germans of the American Soccer League. During his years with the team, it was renamed to the Philadelphia Americans, then Uhrik Truckers.

“He made $5 a game,” said his daughter, Erin Blank.

Mr. Hughes served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, then played three seasons for Temple, where he was captain and a two-time All-American.

He played 16 seasons of professional soccer, including in the U.S. Open Cup, and made international appearances for a​ Pro-American all-star team.

The 1958 all-star team played Brazil’s national team, which won the World Cup that year, in an exhibition in Yankee Stadium. The Brazilian team featured a teen-aged Pele.

“My God, they were good,” Mr. Hughes recalled in a 1998 interview with the Burlington County Times. “Pele was 17, 18 years old. He wasn’t even one of their main players.”

Leacott said Mr. Hughes never brought up his playing career.

“You would never know it,” Leacott said. “He wasn’t one of these guys who would say, ‘Back in my day.’

“It was only later when you would read something that you would realize what a remarkable career he had as a player.”

Mr. Hughes retired as a player in 1961. He coached George Washington High, where the soccer field bears his name, to three Philadelphia Public League championships during his time in charge of the program from 1962-83.

“He taught everyone inch by inch, step by step, about soccer and about life,” Ron Aurit, captain of the 1967 George Washington team, said in a 2016 interview with the Inquirer.

Mr. Hughes coached Delran from 1986-98. His teams won nine league titles and two state titles.

His 1988 team might have been his best. The squad, led by Leacott, Otto, and Steve Cicali, went 20-0-1 and dominated much of its competition. The tie was a 0-0 game vs. Chatham in the Group 2 state final, resulting in the teams’ sharing the title.

Leacott scored an apparent go-ahead goal in the game, but it was nullified by an offside call.

“Bad call,” Leacott said. “You’ll never get me to believe that was offsides.”

Leacott and Otto recalled that players needed to keep their hair short to take the field under Mr. Hughes. And at a time when most high school teams used long kicks to advance the ball, Delran featured a short-passing system that seemed ahead of its time.

“I remember in a scrimmage, Mike Otto laid a ball out, maybe 50 yards, and Coach Hughes was like, ‘My God, Michael, we don’t do that here,’ ” Leacott said.

Said Otto: “He was the only person in the world other than my mother who ever called me Michael.”

Mr. Hughes retired as Delran’s coach in 1998. Otto took over the program in 1999, and has led the Bears to state titles in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, and 2013.

“I felt like I was carrying the torch,” Otto said. “He was like a father to so many of us. There are touches of Coach Hughes still all over the Delran soccer program.”

Mr. Hughes, who was a longtime deacon at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Cinnaminson, was preceded in death by his wife of 64 years, Elizabeth.

He is survived by children John Hughes, Shawn Hughes-Camp, and Blank, as well as five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Services were Tuesday morning.