Santaga’s impact felt on Green Bay soccer
Former coach remembered for being demanding, but also being a players’ coach
By Greg Bates
It’s safe to say Green Bay area soccer wouldn’t be where it is today without Aldo Santaga.
Perhaps best known for leading the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s soccer team from 1978-92, Santaga passed away on Nov. 12 at the age of 87.
During his time at Green Bay, Santaga had an overall record of 148-102-21.
His 148 wins are more than double the number of wins of the second-winningest coach in Phoenix history.
He also later led the women’s program for a season in 1991.
More so than his coaching ability, current Green Bay men’s soccer coach Jeremy Bonomo said, “Santaga was a great human being.”
“We certainly lost a legend,” he said. “Aldo and his entire family were warm and welcoming, even before I moved to Green Bay. Aldo and two of his sons reached out to me before I got here — there was an immediate sense of caring.”
Bonomo said once he accepted the soccer job in 2014, Santaga was “nothing short of spectacular.”
“He would sporadically come to training — sometimes not even telling me and sit in the stands and watch,” he said. “He’d come down after and talk to the team and share stories. Sometimes, I’d walk away because the stories were so good. He was always a positive influence on me and the team and cast a positive shadow over the program for a long time. He’d always reach out before games and then after — win or lose. From what I’ve heard, Aldo was demanding, but also a players’ coach because he was a player himself.”
Born in Tripoli, Libya, Santaga came to the United States at the age of 22 and later married Janet Drankoff in 1959.
The couple spent the next 63 years together.
The pair settled in Green Bay after some time in Milwaukee where Santaga was a member of the Croatian Eagles Club from 1958-65.
“All of Phoenix country is deeply saddened with the passing of Aldo Santaga,” said Josh Moon, director of athletics at UW-Green Bay. “Aldo was a pillar of UW-Green Bay and put our men’s soccer program on the map. He positively impacted thousands of student-athletes and youth over the years, inspiring so many. Aldo was a kind soul who welcomed me to this university and the soccer community with open arms. He will be greatly missed by all.”
His impact on Green Bay area soccer
During his tenure at Green Bay, Santaga led the Phoenix to eight double-digit win seasons and two NCAA Tournament appearances — one in Division II (1978) and another in Division I (1983).
His reach went beyond the Green Bay campus, as Santaga helped the St. Norbert College program get off the ground and did the same for Premontre High School (now Notre Dame Academy) and the Green Bay Kickers club team.
“Green Bay soccer — not just at the university — is synonymous with Aldo Santaga,” Bonomo said. “It would be nowhere what it is today without Aldo’s efforts.”
For all that he did for the soccer community, Santaga was inducted into the Wisconsin Soccer Association Hall of Fame, Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame, the UW-Green Bay Sports program Hall of Fame and the Croatian Eagles Soccer Club of Milwaukee Hall of Fame.
Santaga also played a key role in finding financial support for Phoenix Field, where the Green Bay soccer team played its games.
In August 2018, the university dedicated the men’s and women’s soccer field in his honor — naming it “Aldo Santaga Stadium.”
A former player’s view
Erich Quidzinski, a doctor in the Green Bay area, grew up in Chicago but played for Santaga from 1984-87.
Quidzinski was named an all-American during his senior year with the Phoenix.
“Aldo was basically the sole reason I came from Chicago to Green Bay,” he said. “I was playing in a tournament in Chicago, and Aldo came and watched me play. He stayed in contact with me after that — I loved him as a person and as a coach.”
Recruiting was much different back then compared to today.
“We didn’t send tapes or post film on social media when I played,” Quidzinski laughed. “Times were much simpler. Aldo said, ‘I love the way you play, and I hope to see more of you. I hope you consider coming to Green Bay.’ It was all in person — there were no camps to attend.”
Quidzinski said Indiana University was also interested in him.
“Lots of recruiting was by word of mouth,” he said. “At the time, Indiana was a top-five program in the nation. I went on a recruiting trip there, but I felt more comfortable at Green Bay — Aldo was a big reason for that.”
Quidzinski said because Santaga was a genuinely caring person, it helped the team find success.
“We had great camaraderie and did things off the field together,” he said. “Aldo didn’t want individual players. He wanted what was best for the team. We had a competitive team, and Aldo put together a great schedule.”
During his senior year, Quidzinski said he remembers playing No. 1-ranked Fresno State and San Francisco.
“He didn’t shy away from playing hard teams, but I think some of that was because other top programs respected Aldo,” he said. “My first three years, we were around a .500 team, but my senior year, I think we were 14-6-2. We played some tough competition.”
Quidzinski said Santaga “was somebody who really cared about you.”
“It wasn’t only about soccer but about life in general,” he said. “If he knew you needed something, he would make sure you got it. He knew who was homesick and who wasn’t, so we had several team meals together. He could figure out what your strengths were and develop that within the team. He knew when to yell at you and when to praise you.”
Over the years, Quidzinski kept in touch with Santaga.
“I’d see him often,” he said. “I have four kids, and he was basically the local grandfather for them. He’d come to soccer games and birthday parties. He will be sadly missed. If you knew Aldo, you knew you had a friend for life in him — through the good and bad times.”