I don’t know anyone else like Nick Markulin.
If you knew him, I highly doubt you do either.
Markulin, the legendary soccer coach at Br. Rice High School, died on Oct. 24 at age 72. He had been battling serious health issues for several months.
Anyone reading this who knew Markulin might also be smiling right now because there are countless ways to describe the man who had an incredible passion for soccer, and it’s hard to decide which story to start with.
Markulin was a mad genius.
Let’s just rattle off some of his accomplishments quickly: over roughly 30 years coaching the Crusaders, he took them downstate six times. They finished fourth in the state twice.
I played for Markulin in 1999 and 2000, my junior and senior years. The man demanded results or you would be pulled from the game in minutes, if not seconds. He emphasized fundamentals.
And, he knew how to win.
I actually met Markulin about five years before he coached me. And to be clear, the following story is not me bragging—it is just a testament to how Markulin could appeal to young players and attract talent to Br. Rice.
I was on a club team that was serving as ball boys during a doubleheader of games at Br. Rice. The Crusaders hosted Mt. Carmel that evening, and the University of Notre Dame, which featured former Crusader star Billy Savarino, played someone—I forget which school—in the other match.
During a break in the action, my teammates and I went on the field and were knocking the ball around. I was sending long passes with my left foot toward teammates for them to knock into the goal.
I was summoned over to the sideline, where a brash spectator in a cowboy hat and sunglasses firmly shook my hand and told me I had the best left foot he’d seen since Jim Harkness, an all-state player at Br. Rice in the 1980s. I remember shaking this man’s hand and looking down the sideline at my dad. We were both smiling. It was great. I was on top of the world.
Again, anyone reading this is smiling right now—because Markulin would praise hundreds if not thousands of young players he met; he’d tell them he’d turn them into All-Americans. You’d enter Br. Rice thinking you were the greatest player on the South Side.
Markulin and I had some wild moments during my two years playing for him. He was brash with his comments—and funny. My junior year, he told me to go into a playoff game as the clock trickled to under 10 seconds left in the first half. As I was walking toward midfield to check in, I pointed toward the clock and told him the half was almost over. I thought he would admire my attention to detail. Instead, he grabbed my arm and pushed it away and told me not to point a finger in his face.
Of course, that was not my intent at all. As we walked toward the locker room, he told me I wasn’t playing the rest of the game—he yelled, “You’re done!” I think he told me to take off my spikes and/or shinguards. I was in shock for a second and couldn’t fathom that I might not play again in a state playoff game—then realized none of this would happen. I did indeed play in the second half.
That game took place at Eisenhower High School, in a sectional semifinal.
A year later, at the same school, in the same round, Markulin told me to enter the game in the final minutes of the second half. The problem was I yelled out for a player who wasn’t in the game, and I ran off when I was told he wasn’t in the game. I was pretty upset I wasn’t in for the final seconds, but as the clock wound down and we won 3-2, I was next to Markulin as, with his teeth clenched, he belted out, “The Br. Rice Crusaders are back!”
The Crusaders were certainly on their way back. They reached the Sweet 16 in 2002, then finished fourth in the state in 2003.
It was not easy being an upperclassman knowing such a talented group of younger players were on their way up through the program. Markulin loved younger players and would play them in a minute, especially if older players made mistakes.
That was a beautiful life lesson: nothing is ever handed to you, and you better produce results.
If a player ever did something stupid, Markulin would chastise him for his misstep, but he would often begin his comments with a qualifier.
“I think the world of you, son; I really do. But …”
Markulin and I had some great talks during summer practices. The summer before my senior year, we sat at a picnic table near our practice field, and I told him that all I wanted to do was win a sectional title.
That 3-2 win a couple months later put us in the sectional championship, and we lost 2-0 to Argo in just a terrible game. We fell into an early deficit, and sure enough, Markulin started subbing in younger players.
Markulin was known as the “Croatian Sensation” by thousands of people, as he played for the Croatian national team.
About 10 years ago, Br. Rice students made a humorous video calling him the most interesting coach in the world, a play off the Dos Equis beer commercials.
There is absolutely no one like Coach Markulin.
Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of former players who think the world of him.
Rest in peace, Coach.