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Soccer Poet

Good Things on Threes?

Good Things on Threes
This afternoon we arrived in Austin, TX to prepare for our season opener against the Longhorns on Friday night. The stadium at UT is utterly massive. I mean this thing is enormous, and when it is empty, like it was today, it becomes enormous in a post-apocalyptic way. It’s the place where the survivors would congregate when the zombies rose from their graves.

When I first started coaching I had no real ambitions other than to keep coaching so I could keep eating. I was never hellbent on being a corporate climber. I went to a small high school and then a small college and then began coaching at a small college and I never really pined for coaching’s ‘big time.’ I was perfectly content to coach for and against schools that my friends in New Jersey had never heard of. When I was barely scratching out a living at Wheeling Jesuit College, I never dreamed that one day I would be coaching against one of the biggest universities in the nation. Heck, I never even really tried to get to this stage. I just sorta kept falling forward until well, boy howdy, here I am.

What’s funny is that it’s really no different… the coaching I mean. You don’t coach players at the University of Georgia any differently than you would coach players at Wheeling. Sometimes it just feels like I walked into the wrong classroom after a bathroom break and decided to stay because I liked the teacher.  

Anyway, the vastness of the Texas stadium couldn’t help but remind me of the early days and the small schools and the van (not airplane) rides and the fast food (not  Carabbas, Olive Garden or Cheesecake Factory) and the hotels not named Marriott, Hilton or Hyatt. It also reminded me that this is 2013, which gives me an added sliver of optimism, as this season is an anniversary of two very good years.

This is my 23rd season as a college coach. I’ve enjoyed many fantastic seasons, and I’m not speaking specifically from the perspective of wins and losses. But every coach is going to have those seasons that will stand out as particularly special,  and if I had to make a short list of my Top 3 favorite soccer seasons, well, 1993 and 2003 would have to be on it. Both involved teams with very small rosters, 15 and 13 players, respectively, which means both teams played through an inordinate amount of pain and injury. Both featured amazing team chemistry with rosters filled by wonderful people who treated one another as family. And both teams overachieved in an epic sense.

The ’93 team won its final game on a muddy field in Midway, KY. It was our third straight regional championship and it punched our ticket to our third straight NAIA national championship tournament.  It was supposed to be the year we were dethroned. It was supposed to be someone else’s turn. But on that November afternoon, our kids gave one of the most inspiring performances I’ve ever witnessed. It was the culmination of a season where a group of kids kept finding ways to win games they weren’t supposed to win. They had played every game with heart and fury and I would have been proud of them even if the results hadn’t followed.  But on this particular day, caked in mud, they played with something just a little bit more.

Have you ever seen the episode of Gilligan’s Island where Mrs. Howell eats the radioactive sugar beets and then flies around in fast forward with boundless amounts of energy? Well, during that regional championship game, our team looked like it had gotten into those beets.

We all knew it was my last season at Wheeling, and on that day, as the game wore on and I watched our team fueled by some type of cosmic propeller, I sensed that their performance was their goodbye gift to me.  Later, at the championship ceremony, when the captains collected the trophy and brought it straight to me, I sobbed with such conviction I was practically convulsing.  Even as it was unfolding in real time, I knew it was a moment that would be memorable and rare. I knew it was a moment I would hold onto forever. It was the best day I’ve ever had in college soccer.

Ten years and two colleges later, I experienced an almost identical season. A team even lower on numbers somehow managed to win a conference championship and to this day I have no idea how that actually happened.  How does a team with 11 field players navigate a two-month season and end up as champion?  It shouldn’t seem possible. It shouldn’t be possible. But it was. Somehow those kids, battered and bruised as they were, kept inventing ways to disregard pain and win soccer games. The iconic moment of that season isn’t found in what did happen, but in what didn’t.  For the entirety of that season, only one player ever came off the field with an injury. Over the course of 18 games, one player missed one half of one game. That’s it. That might be the most remarkable statistic ever not recorded in the annals of college soccer.

It was a season of dramatic finishes. With our lack of depth, we knew we weren’t built to concede a lead and chase down the opponent. We had to score first and then hang on for dear life. We did a lot of that. And we did a lot of that late. It seemed that we would habitually score the go-ahead goal in the final ten (or five) minutes and then batten down the hatches. It was nerve-wracking at first, but by the end of the season I’d grown accustomed to winning games in the waning moments. It was befitting of such a team and such a season to win the conference championship in double-overtime.  Always drama with that group.

That team’s season ended in a penalty-kick shootout in the regional semi-final. We knew going in that our opponent would outmatch us in talent and speed, but on that night we put on one heckuva show and fought to the bitter end. I couldn’t possibly have been any prouder.  I couldn’t have been prouder of how we played and how we battled; and I couldn’t have been any prouder of how the players looked after their teammates who had missed their penalties. My players left that field with a clear conscience and I left there with another priceless memory.

I was too green to realize it in 1993, but the 2003 team helped to form my most unshakeable tenet of competition: Players don’t win championships; people do. Good players are everywhere, but the players who claim championships bring more to the table than just talent. They bring goodwill and selflessness and compassion to their teammates (not just their roommates). They bring toughness and heart and a pathological aversion to defeat. The people who win championships never, ever quit. That’s why they do just a little bit more than what people think they should be able to do. And that’s why we love them.

It couldn’t be just coincidence that ESPN aired the '99ers as part of its 9 for IX series this past week.

There was a reason we fell in love with that '99 team and it wasn’t just that they won and it wasn’t just Mia Hamm. We loved that team because it embodied what we believe a team, at its best, should be. It was a group of people who, in addition to being superb at what they did, carried themselves with grace and dignity; who put the team ahead of any individual player; and who had each other’s backs. To be connected with that team, who wouldn’t happily ask for two fillings? That’s the type of people that make up the type of team that wins championships.

The scene from the '99ers that I found most compelling was when they were talking about the dynamic of being Mia Hamm. As far as media coverage went, if that team was a band, Mia was the lead singer and everyone else played bass. I’ve coached enough soccer to know that very few teams wouldn’t implode if faced with the same circumstance. There would be too many bruised egos to accomplish anything. But Mia didn’t want the attention. She deflected praise onto her teammates with every passing breath. She didn’t want it to be about Mia. She desperately wanted it to be about her friends.

Her friends knew that. They knew Mia wasn’t hogging the spotlight as much as the spotlight was hogging her, and they didn’t resent her for it. They accepted that Mia was the face of the team and they wanted her out in front because it raised an awareness that benefitted all of them. So Mia stayed out front to help them and they stayed selflessly in the shadows to help Mia. I reiterate that it would be nearly impossible to duplicate that dynamic on another team without the roof caving in.

So yeah, the year and the very bigness of the UT stadium reminded me of all that. As does this current group of players now calling themselves the Georgia Bulldogs. There is a noticeable difference in the spirit of this team, and I mean that in the most positive sense. Some players have left; some have matured; and the rookie class is fun and enthusiastic and has breathed some fresh air into our locker room. It’s far too early to tell what this team will ultimately be, but there’s no doubting its potential. In my coaching career, good things have come on 3s.

Here’s to hoping.

Go Dawgs!

Incidentally, if you enjoyed this blog, I hope you’ll consider buying my book, Soccer iQ. Click on the link below if you’re interested. Thanks!