Montana’s new soccer coach, just the fourth in program history, was reminded of his dream job each time he set foot in his kitchen in Grand Forks, ever since his first trip to Missoula in October as the associate head coach at North Dakota.
“I instantly fell in love with the place. We got off the plane, got on the bus and stopped at a restaurant to eat. I called my wife while I waited outside,” says Chris Citowicki, who was in Missoula for on-campus interviews 10 days ago and was offered and accepted the job on Friday.
And before leaving town last fall, he purchased a Missoula magnet for his home refrigerator, “as a reminder of where we would want to end up one day.” His first day on the job will be June 4, pending approval of his contract by the Montana Board of Regents.
North Dakota lost that match at South Campus Stadium to the Grizzlies, which only added to the allure of place and program for Citowicki (CHEE-tah-VITZ-kee), who worked six years as the head coach at Division III St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., before spending one season on staff with the Fighting Hawks.
He takes over the Big Sky Conference’s most successful program, next in line in a coaching succession that began with Betsy Duerksen in 1994 and extended to previous coach Mark Plakorus, whose seven-year run included six trips to the league tournament, one NCAA appearance and three conference titles.
“It’s a tremendous program with such a good history. The challenge will be to come in and not splash too much. It would be a massive mistake to come in and say we’re changing everything. There are too many good things going on,” says Citowicki, who will retain assistant coach Katie Benz on his staff.
“It’s being able to recognize the program’s strengths and put the picture together with Katie, who’s a wonderful asset to have. It becomes little tweaks here and little tweaks there. Then let’s motivate everyone, make sure everyone is having a good time playing soccer and see where it takes us.”
As appealing as Missoula and the Griz soccer program were from the outside, Citowicki’s day on campus a week and a half ago was more than Montana interviewing a candidate. It was a two-sided examination.
Citowicki’s coaching style is not unorthodox but it’s different enough that he knew he needed a school and department that were the right fit, because he’s bringing a high-energy, long-cultivated and well-considered mode of leadership to his new program.
“I wasn’t sure how my philosophy and approach would fit in,” he says, “but it was a perfect fit, between my values and those of the athletic department. What they want to strive for is being successful but being successful the right way.
“To me, that’s not just winning on the field and chasing results but focusing on the process. If I can create winners in life with great people who are hungry to achieve and be successful, then that easily translates to the field, which will lead to great results.”
In one sense it’s a nontraditional hire. Citowicki played one season of college soccer at Lock Haven, a Division II school in Pennsylvania, from which he earned a degree in sports administration in 2006.
He spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Division II Bemidji State, from which he earned a master’s degree in sport studies in 2008, and one at Division III Augsburg, two schools located in Minnesota, before taking over the program at St. Catherine.
The 13 months he spent at North Dakota prior to being named Montana’s next head coach was his only time working at the Division I level.
“I’m very confident in the way I want to run a program and how I want to do it, because it’s been successful before,” says Citowicki, who took the Wildcats from 1-17 in his first season at St. Kate’s in 2011 to 9-8 in 2012, the biggest turnaround that season in Division III.
In Citowicki’s final season at St. Catherine, in 2016, the Wildcats went 11-6-2 and advanced to the semifinals of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament for the first time in program history.
With the foundation in place, St. Kate’s won the MIAC last fall and advanced to the NCAA Division III national tournament.
And though he was in Grand Forks for just one season on Chris Logan’s staff, the Fighting Hawks were the better for it. They had a four-win improvement from 2016 to ’17 and came within a tiebreaker of advancing for the first time to the Big Sky Conference tournament.
“I know that if I am in the right athletic department with the right people, and if they believe in what we’re doing, then I can be successful no matter where I am,” says Citowicki.
“If you sit down with me and talk about the approach I’m going to take and my philosophy and my vision and how I’m going to operate my program, you can feel the energy and the passion. I’ll show you what it’s going to be like and have you buying into the dream.”
Director of Athletics Kent Haslam, who is concluding his sixth year in that position at Montana and has now hired all but two of the department’s head coaches to their current roles, certainly did.
“Chris brings a high level of energy and a real passion for the overall development of his student-athletes. I was very impressed with his knowledge of soccer, but I was equally impressed with his enthusiasm and leadership ability,” says Haslam.
“He will be a great addition to our department and the University of Montana.”
If Citowicki’s path to becoming a Division I coach was somewhat nontraditional, it has nothing on his backstory.
Citowicki was born in Poland in 1983 and fled the communist country with his parents two years later. After one year living in a refugee camp in Italy, the Citowickis moved to South Africa for five years, when racial tensions had them leaning toward relocating to Canada.
But on the day they went to visit the country’s consulate in South Africa, they found operations were shut down for the lunch break. So the family crossed the street, found a welcoming Australian consulate, and on simple twists of fate do lives change.
The Citowickis ultimately settled in Canberra, where their son was able to develop his love of soccer. He later applied for schools in the U.S. and enrolled at Lock Haven.
It was another twist of fate that got Citowicki into coaching, this one after a friend suggested they watch the movie “Miracle.”
“I said, ‘I don’t want to watch it. I don’t care about hockey.’ But I watched it and fell in love with the idea of Herb Brooks,” says Citowicki of the coach who led the U.S. to a gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
“After that I wanted to learn anything and everything about coaching. And that’s why I moved to Minnesota, to chase the spirit of Herb Brooks. He was from Minnesota, Bemidji was in Minnesota, so of course I wanted to apply for that position.”
He devoured every book on every coach he could get his hands on. John Wooden, Tony Dungy, Alex Ferguson. The list grew, and it didn’t matter the sport. He just wanted to discover their secrets and find a way to apply them to the sport he loved.
There were common threads that ran between all those successful coaches, but Citowicki needed something that would be his own. So he took what he read and what he learned under the coaches with whom he worked at Bemidji State and Augsburg and began putting it into place at St. Catherine.
“I had a general philosophy when I arrived at St. Kate’s. What those six years allowed me to do was have six years of experimentation to make mistakes and figure out what I believed in,” says Citowicki.
After enjoying Division III’s best turnaround in 2012, St. Kate’s won 14 matches across the 2013 and ’14 seasons.
The program would take its next jump after Citowicki discovered the lessons being imparted by Dr. Ralph Pim, a professor at West Point and the campus’s Director of Competitive Sports, whose Twitter bio simply reads: Building Teams of Significance and Cultures of Greatness.
“The culture on your team has to be as important as the fitness and the soccer,” says Citowicki. “When I began applying Dr. Pim’s methods those last two years, that’s when we took off. That helped me figure it all out. That made a complete picture of what I believe in and how I want to run a program.”
Citowicki took what he learned at St. Catherine and added it to Logan’s staff last year at North Dakota, his first at the Division I level. It was also Logan’s first season at North Dakota after previously coaching at Northern Iowa.
North Dakota went from 2-14-2 in 2016 to 6-8-4 last fall. In Big Sky matches, the Fighting Hawks improved from 1-9-0 to 4-5-1, with a final-day chance to make the Big Sky tournament. Records were set across the board, on offense and defense.
“I would say congratulations to Montana on appointing not only a great coach but a fantastic human being,” says Logan. “The impact Chris has had on and off the field at North Dakota has been incredible. I know he’ll have the same impact at Montana.
“Chris really cares about his student-athletes and always has their best interest at heart. He’s just a man of great principles. I’m disappointed for us but excited for the sport of Division I women’s soccer to have a coach like Chris leading one of its programs.”
Names are important to Citowicki and not just because he has one that will cause anxiety to every soccer public address announcer in the Big Sky Conference and beyond.
He believes given names have great meaning and carry a purpose. That’s why he and his wife, Aryn, named their daughter, who is now four, Vivia, or a giver of life. “When you see her, she fills you with life and happiness,” says Citowicki, who also has a two-year-old son, Sebastian.
And then there is Citowicki himself, who shares a name with Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
Legend has it that Christopher, because of his abilities, was tasked with helping people cross a dangerous river, where previously they’d been losing their lives in the arduous attempt. They just weren’t aware of the perils that lie ahead, many hidden from view. They needed a guide.
And that seems a perfectly apt descriptor of a coach, especially one who believes he was born to work in the profession he’s chosen, even if it took a chance, cinematic encounter with Herb Brooks for it to get started.
“That’s what I want to do with my life,” Citowicki says. “I want to help people get from one stage of life to another.”