It’s all about soccer, soccer, and more soccer for Vaso Vujanovic, as he heads to the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame.
Vujanovic is being recognized by the city for his work as head coach of the Durham Lords soccer programs, and the Ontario Tech University (then known as the University of Ontario Institute of Technology) men’s program.
The now retired longtime coach has been integral to the world of soccer in Oshawa – he’s even been inducted into the Durham College Sports Hall of Fame, and has seen multiple teams he lead inducted as well.
Those who drive through the intersection of Harmony Road North and Conlin Road will see Vujanovic’s name forever immortalized as they pass Vaso’s Field at the Durham College/Ontario Tech sports field.
As he is now one of five inductees heading to the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame in 2020, Vujanovic says he’s excited, but it isn’t really anything new for him.
“For me it’s not the first time, I was inducted into Durham College’s Hall of Fame in 1997, and my two teams, both men’s and women’s at Durham College [were inducted] as well,” he says. “I was also inducted into the Ontario College Athletic Association Hall of Fame.”
Despite these earlier accomplishments, he still notes it’s a “great achievement,” and he is quite happy.
“I’m excited because you work hard, and… I’m almost 79, so when the city recognizes you, you feel proud of yourself because you feel inside you did as much as you could to whatever you were doing, and in my case, it was soccer,” he says.
Vujanovic was one of the first graduates from Durham College, as he earned his diploma in 1970.
“[The college] offered me a job, and I stayed there until I retired [in 2002],” he explains.
He then became the director of finance with the college, and since he was in a management position, he was able to spend time on other projects in the school’s community.
“They called me ‘soccer nut’ because I always talked about ‘soccer, soccer, soccer’,” he says.
According to Vujanovic, Dave Stewart, who was the athletic director at the college, told him, “You’re a soccer nut anyway, so start a soccer program.”
The rest is history, with Vujanovic noting it was a “long journey,” but is something he’s very proud of.
“Some people work for 30 to 35 years, and after retirement they go, ‘So, what’s next?’” he explains. “I worked, I retired and I still coached until I had to stop because of my back.”
Vujanovic explains while he knows he needed to retire, he’d love to still be on the pitch.
“I miss it. I would love to be outside on the field because I spent all my life outside – I grew up on a farm, so I was always in nature,” says the veteran coach.
While his adulthood was spent with a soccer ball at his feet, Vujanovic comes from Bosnia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, and grew up in Europe after the Second World War.
“I was born in 1941 when World War II had erupted… and after the war, the Communists took over Yugoslavia, and anybody who didn’t support the regime paid the price,” he says.
He notes his family had been supporters of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and since the Partisan army (the Communists) won, his family had to surrender, or get out.
“My older brother was a general in the kingdom army, so he didn’t want [to surrender],” he says. “So, in 1946… they took my family to the jail camp, and because I was only five… my father found a family, and left me there because my mother couldn’t handle two kids.”
After being separated from his family, he says he didn’t see his parents again until he was 13 or 14-years-old.
He became especially close with his foster grandmother, and he explains she taught him about leadership, and saw something special in him.
“Finally, she said, ‘Go child, go. There is nothing for you here. You’re strong, God gave you health, go’.”
He then went to school for hotel management, and worked for a couple of years, but at the time, Bosnian men had to enlist in the army for two years when they were 20.
“I didn’t have a choice. It was join the army or walk across the border and seek asylum, but I wasn’t ready for that yet,” he explains.
After he left the army, he went to Vienna, Austria, and worked with a group of fellow Bosnians in a factory.
“We were [in Austria], and we decided, ‘Let’s go to Canada,’ and that night we were playing poker and having a drink, and then I came to Oshawa directly from Austria because one of my friends had a brother here,” he explains.
“I worked in a [furniture] factory, and then I applied to the ‘education for immigrants’ program at Durham College,” he says.
Vujanovic arrived in Oshawa in 1966, one year before Durham College would open its doors.
“When I’d established myself for a year, I went to a program called, ‘Upgrading basic English’,” he explains.
When he went to school to learn basic English skills before going to receive his high school education, he was highly praised by his teacher.
“She said, ‘You’re too smart here, you’ll go to Grade 9. I’ll make sure they take you there’,” he explains. “I couldn’t speak English, so they threw me in, and it was mostly Canadian teenagers who grew up in the school and went to work and get money… but they came back [to school].”
His wife Barbara was in one of these classes with him, and he says this is how they met.
“I call her my ‘high school sweetheart’,” he quips.
When he finished high school, he had a choice.
Vujanovic had been offered a job at General Motors through a friend, or he could go to college and continue his education.
“My wife said, ‘No, you go to college. I’ll work.’ So I applied [at Durham], and I got in,” he says.
He attended the school for two years, and got his diploma in the finance program.
“Meanwhile, I was involved in local soccer, but I didn’t have too much time because I had to work nights, part-time jobs, and go to school. Then we got married, and the kids arrived one, two, three… so it was tough,” he says.
This was the beginning of a stable life for Vujanovic, as he has a son and two daughters, one of whom has kids of their own, and is still married to Barbara.
He went on to coach the Lords for 17 years beginning in 1973, leading the men’s team to 128 victories, 35 losses, and seven draws. He won two Ontario College Athletic Association (OCAA) championships in 1980 and 1988, and earned three silver medals, and five bronze, while hitting the national championships twice.
Vujanovic returned to the sidelines for Durham College in 1999 as coach of the women’s team, where he claimed four OCAA championships, and one national bronze.
Overall his record with Durham was 238-66-17.
Later he became the first ever men’s soccer coach at Ontario Tech University, where he helped the team win their first ever playoff match against the Carleton Ravens during the 2014-15 season.
He would guide the team back into the playoffs the next season, which ended up being his last.
Today, Vujanovic says, with the encouragement of his children, he is writing his autobiography, while still living happily with his wife in the house they bought together decades ago.