Aug. 22, 2006
By Jon Wilner
San Jose Mercury News
Of all the victories Jerry Smith has amassed as the women's soccer coach at Santa Clara, one stands above the rest. It's not his first regular-season victory or his first postseason win or even the 2001 national championship. For Smith, the breakthrough came the day he benched his best player -- the day he benched Brandi Chastain.
On Sept. 13, 1989, Chastain did not play against highly ranked Cal because the artificial turf in Berkeley posed a danger to her surgically repaired knee. Chastain was not happy -- she had started her career at Cal and was eager for a shot at her former team -- but Smith held his ground. The upstart Broncos rallied around their injured star and stunned the Bears 3-2.
``That was the first time the players started to believe,'' Smith, who begins his 20th season at Santa Clara on Friday, recalled. ``They started to think, Coach might be right. Maybe we can go to the NCAAs.''
The Broncos made the tournament that year -- and have every year since. With Smith at the helm, little old Santa Clara has reached the national semifinals 10 times, won an NCAA title, visited the White House and been featured in the movie ``Bend It Like Beckham.''
Smith built a powerhouse by combining his tactical knowledge and recruiting touch with a willingness to change his methods. His approach is to ``jump with both feet onto the fire and then figure things out,'' and he has done so repeatedly -- whether it's figuring out how to beat Cal without Chastain, how to coach women, how to recruit against the heavyweight schools or how to persuade SCU officials to give him three additional scholarships.
``Jerry is an extraordinary coach who understands the game and how he wants his teams to play,'' said Anson Dorrance, who has coached North Carolina to 18 NCAA titles. ``He's done a remarkable job at Santa Clara, but I think he'd have success anywhere. Should the national team come calling, he'd be a fine choice.''
Smith, 45, has no plans to leave Santa Clara -- at least not anytime soon. He is a devotee of the book ``Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,'' which encourages managers to set ``big, hairy, audacious goals.'' And Smith's goal is to make Santa Clara the dominant soccer program in the country.
If that seems, well, audacious, consider how far Smith has taken the Broncos. When he was hired in April 1987 to coach the women's team, it was a part-time job that paid $2,400 a year. Smith's office was in a trailer and his team practiced on the intramurals field. He had no scholarships, no assistants, no equipment, no recruiting budget and no money for travel. The Broncos played only games the players could get to by car.
Fueled by the Chastain-less victory in Berkeley in September 1989, the Broncos became the first women's team in any sport at the school to reach the NCAA tournament. They were even better the following year, reaching No. 1 in the rankings as well as the national semifinals. It should have been a season to remember. But behind the scenes, there were problems.
``Jerry is a very non-emotional decision-maker,'' said Chastain, who married Smith in 1996.
``He bases his decisions on facts and research. And women, whether they want to admit it or not, they're emotional. He did not deal with that component very well.''
Smith coached women for one season at Foothill College before taking the Santa Clara job, and in his first three years he plowed his energy into making the Broncos an elite program. But the sour taste left by the 1990 season forced him to change the way he communicated.
``Tactically, technically, physically, there isn't much difference between coaching men and women,'' he said. ``But psychologically, there's a huge difference. With guys, it's `How can I get mine?' With women, it's `Is the chemistry right? Are we happy?' Women are much more concerned with each member of the group being happy and healthy, and they want to do what they can to make it right.''
Smith turned his focus to building a better program. He started a leadership training program for a half-dozen players that continues to this day. To boost confidence, the players are given individual highlight tapes to watch before games. To improve communication, every player meets with an assistant coach each day; the assistants then report back to Smith before practice.
``It's about constant feedback,'' Smith said. ``Guys don't care about that, but with women, it's critical. If a kid is having a bad day, I want to know it so I'm not as critical of them, or so we can talk before practice. They need to know that you care, that you're aware of their family and personal life.''
Smith divides the season into six phases, starting with the preseason and ending with the College Cup, the soccer equivalent of the Final Four. Leadership and chemistry are established in August, when he takes the team on retreats sponsored by a friend of Chastain's late parents. The Broncos went to Costa Rica one year but have spent the past two retreats rafting the American River. Class 5 rapids have a way of developing teamwork.
By the mid-'90s, Smith had learned how to deal with his players psychologically and established a culture of winning. The Broncos were regulars in the College Cup. But they could not take the final step.
The reason, Smith knew, was firepower. Santa Clara funded only nine scholarships for women's soccer, three fewer than the NCAA limit. He simply didn't have the talent or the depth to match the likes of North Carolina, which sent the Broncos home in 1995 and '96.
The next fall, Smith went before university officials.
``Give me those three scholarships,'' he said, ``and I promise I'll beat North Carolina more often than they beat us and we'll win a national championship.''
Impressed with the athletic and academic credentials of the players Smith planned to recruit, the administration granted his request on the spot. In February 1998, Santa Clara signed a four-player recruiting class that included future U.S. national team members Aly Wagner and Danielle Slaton.
Four seasons later, Smith brought home Santa Clara's first NCAA title. The Broncos defeated North Carolina 1-0 in the championship game.
``I knew from the beginning that Jerry would work himself to death to build Santa Clara,'' said UNC's Dorrance, who is 1-4 against Smith since Santa Clara added those three scholarships. ``His teams have gotten better every year, and recently we've had a real hard time beating them.''
Soccer is an equivalency sport, meaning the equivalent of 12 scholarships can be divided among two dozen players. That puts Smith at a disadvantage when recruiting against state schools. Let's say Santa Clara and UCLA are pursuing an elite player from California and both offer a half-scholarship. The remaining expenses -- about $20,000 at SCU but only $9,000 at UCLA -- must be covered by the recruit's family.
So Smith must offer something no one else can. Atop the list is a record of developing players that is matched only by North Carolina. During Smith's tenure, Santa Clara has produced 33 All-Americans, 14 national-team players and four NCAA players of the year.
``Santa Clara just felt right to me, and a lot of it had to do with coaching,'' said Slaton, who took a recruiting trip to UCLA. ``I knew I'd learn to be a better player and learn about the game.''
The financial obstacles of recruiting at SCU are partially offset by the talent pool in Northern California. Of all the country's soccer hotbeds, only the Los Angeles basin produces more elite players in a typical year than the Bay Area. The weather here allows for year-round play and attracts first-class club coaches. Smith, who went to Homestead High and learned the game from former Foothill coaches George Avakian and Steve Sampson, uses his local connections to identify elite players. The list of homegrown products who helped turn the Broncos into a powerhouse includes Chastain (Archbishop Mitty), Slaton (Presentation) and Wagner (Presentation).
``If I was coaching at a small school in a lesser-known conference, with Santa Clara's tuition and I didn't have the strong club system,'' Smith said, ``it would have taken longer'' to build the program.
Smith recruits nationwide but not worldwide; he has never even scouted a foreign player. That's one reason he smiles at the mention of 2002's ``Bend It Like Beckham,'' in which the main character, a British high school player, is recruited by a Santa Clara scout.
So why was SCU featured so prominently in the movie?
``The story I heard,'' Smith said, ``was that the writer-producer wanted the character to get a scholarship to a school in America, and what better place to show the American dream than California?''
With a full complement of scholarships, the Broncos nearly repeated as NCAA champions in 2002, losing in the final in double-overtime to Portland. They reached the semifinals again in 2004 -- their 10th appearance in the College Cup. Yet they have just one title.
``I'm shocked we don't have more,'' Smith said.
If he's frustrated, though, it doesn't show.
Smith still loves matching wits with Dorrance. He still wakes up at 3 a.m. and tinkers with lineups -- ``I get up in the morning and there are pieces of paper throughout the house,'' Chastain said -- and he's eager to coach at a remodeled Buck Shaw Stadium.
(That project could start in two or three years. ``We're just waiting for the final stamp of approval,'' Athletic Director Dan Coonan said. ``People are waiting to give money.'')
But this will not be Smith's last job. He is interested in returning to men's soccer, coaching basketball (his first love as a kid) and perhaps working with Chastain. And there's always the women's national team.
``It's something I'd like to do someday,'' he said, ``but I see that as my last job in coaching.''
For now, there are audacious goals to meet.