George Tarantini had a talent for soccer and coaching the sport and motivating his players.
He won an ACC title as the coach of N.C. State’s men’s team, once led the Wolfpack to a No. 1 national ranking and the Final Four and mentored one of the greatest players in U.S. soccer history.
But Tarantini’s true gift was with people. He could connect with young or old, in English or Spanish, about soccer or culture or especially about food and a good red wine. Tarantini passed away at his Raleigh home on Wednesday, his wife, Page Marsh, has confirmed to The News & Observer. He was 70.
Tarantini retired after a 25-year career as N.C. State’s head coach in 2010. He won more games (243) than anyone in school history and led the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament nine times, including an appearance in soccer’s version of the Final Four in 1990.
“We, as a team, didn’t always know what he was doing but Coach was always a step ahead of us,” said Robert Gibbs, who played for Tarantini and was President Barack Obama’s press secretary and is now the chief communications officer for McDonald’s. “His ability to take a bunch of kids and turn us into what we were in 1990 was nothing short of amazing.”
Tarantini lived the American Dream
Tarantini was a real live version of the American Dream. He was born in Italy in 1949, grew up in Argentina and came to New York with only a passion for soccer.
His brother, Alberto, was a star for Argentina’s 1978 World Cup championship team. But George’s coaching career began by accident in New York. His plane to Italy stopped in New York. He never took the connecting flight back home.
He worked construction jobs and odd jobs and taught himself English. He broke into the youth soccer circuit in upstate New York and got his first job at a community college in Poughkeepsie.
John Rennie, a longtime soccer coach at Duke and one of Tarantini’s best friends, was at Columbia in New York City in the late 1970s when he first interacted with Tarantini.
“He called me out of the blue,” Rennie said on Wednesday. “I could hardly understand him. But that was George, if you ever talked to him or met him, you remembered him.”
Tarantini had an out-sized personality of a different coaching era. He never lost his accent or his wide-eyed wonder for the possibility of this country or what its opportunities meant. He was from a time when coaches were characters and practice was a test of wills. He was a master psychologist who knew how to get the best out of his players because he cared so deeply about them.
“He loved the game, he loved life and he loved people,” Rennie said. “It’s hard to put into words what he meant. I’m going to miss him.”
Tarantini, who was an assistant coach with the U.S. Soccer youth national team, had impressed Larry Gross at N.C. State. Gross coached both the men’s and women’s teams at N.C. State, and hired Tarantini as an assistant in 1982.
Four years later, N.C. State basketball coach and athletic director Jim Valvano made Tarantini the head coach of the men’s soccer team.
Valvano and Tarantini were wild dreamers cut from the same coaching cloth. They became fast friends when the N.C. State athletic department was dominated by coaches of Italian descent.
Sam Esposito, the school’s longtime baseball coach, was the capo di tutti. His office is where Valvano, Tarantini and wrestling coach Bob Guzzo would solve their coaching problems.
Valvano used to love to tease Tarantini about his backstory.
“You can be a taxi driver or you can coach at N.C. State,” is what Tarantini remembered, in a 2016 N&O interview, Valvano would say to him.
A knack for developing talent
Tarantini had a knack for developing talent. He coached 12 All-Americans at N.C. State, including Tab Ramos, who had one of the most decorated careers of any American soccer player. Ramos, Henry Gutierrez, Roy Lassiter and Pablo Mastroeni all flourished under Tarantini’s tutelage.
“He could see things in players that a normal coach couldn’t,” said David Allred, who was the goalkeeper on N.C. State’s 1990 team and twice worked as an assistant coach for Tarantini.
Tarantini was not without his flaws. He was loud and passionate and took stubborn to a different level. But even that had an endearing quality.
“You enjoyed the stubborn part about him,” said Jose Cornejo, Tarantini’s friend and soccer coach at Saint David’s high school. “He had a way to disarm you with his stubbornness.”
And a way to get the best out of people, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.
“I don’t know where any of us would be where we are now without his influence in those four years of our lives,” Gibbs said.
There will be a memorial gathering at Mitchell Funeral Home in Raleigh (7209 Glenwood Ave.) on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.