An Unrelenting Will to Succeed Drives U.S. Coach
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page D1
Even on vacation, U.S. national soccer team coach Steve Sampson has been known to slip into his home office by 8 a.m. On any given day, it's a good bet Sampson will spend more time in front of a computer keyboard than in the swimming pool outside his $500,000 four-bedroom home in Agoura Hills, Calif. His BMW often sits unused in the garage.
Sampson's home office gives him 24-hour access to a job he could lose in August. Shelves are stacked with about 500 videotapes. There is a desk-top computer and a lap top, a scanner, a printer, a fax machine, satellite television and a dual VCR that plays European and American tapes.
One of Sampson's favorite work toys is a computer program capable of spitting out a remarkable range of video sequences: Eric Wynalda's last 27 shots on goal. Tab Ramos's corner kicks in matches against Mexico. The program was installed just months ago.
"I have to sometimes try to tell him he needs to separate himself," Sheri Sampson, Steve's wife of 13 years, said from Agoura Hills during a telephone interview two weeks ago, while her husband and the national team were in the Washington area. "It never stops. Unfortunately, it totally consumes his life right now. It has to. It's so important. Even if he was here, I wouldn't be surprised if he would be on the phone all day."
Sampson's singular devotion to his work, combined with an ability to find just enough time for everything else, has characterized his remarkable rise from Stanford-educated semi-pro soccer player to World Cup coach, with more than $200,000 in annual income. Last summer, Sampson, 41, became the first American-born coach to get a U.S. soccer team to qualify for the World Cup finals. What he didn't qualify for was job security.
"If there ever was any pressure I felt, that was it: representing my American colleagues well," Sampson said. "If I blew it, it would be right back to the foreign coach. If I was fired today, I would be very satisfied not completely fulfilled but very proud of the work I've done and what I've achieved."
Yet as recently as eight months ago, it was unclear whether Sampson would survive the final qualification round never mind coach the U.S. team in this year's World Cup. The U.S. team followed a disappointing 1-1 tie with Jamaica on Oct. 3 at RFK Stadium by going undefeated in its final three qualifying games, but U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg refused to announce a decision on Sampson's status until the last moment when Sampson's final contract option was about to expire in December. That uncertainty actually represented progress from 1995, when Sampson was not even considered a candidate to coach the '98 World Cup team.
Named interim coach after the departure of 1994 World Cup coach Bora Milutinovic, Sampson was far more interim than coach.
"He may have thought he had a chance of taking over the team," Rothenberg said recently. "We didn't."
Explained Rothenberg: "Steve basically was the caretaker of the team while we went to find a new head coach. He basically seized the opportunity. And we simultaneously struck out in a couple attempts to get big-name coaches."
Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 World Cup championship, and Portuguese club coach Carlos Queiroz turned down offers from the USSF.
But even now after a qualification run that included the U.S. team's first non-defeat against Mexico in Mexico City in 18 tries, a victory over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup and the best winning percentage of any U.S. national team coach (.559, 26-19-14) Sampson goes to France with no assurance of keeping his job beyond this summer.
Queiroz joined the USSF in late 1997 as consultant involved with national youth programs and preparation for the 1998 World Cup, and one U.S. soccer official said recently that if the U.S. team goes winless in World Cup first-round games against Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia a realistic possibility Sampson almost certainly will be dismissed.
Despite continual job uncertainty, Sampson has not walked tentatively or talked softly. In the past year with the U.S. team, Sampson introduced a radical new playing formation, cut then-team captain John Harkes, benched a number of longtime starters and cracked down on signs of uninspired play. Sampson's bluntness can be incisive. He has been openly critical of players with whom he has been disappointed, a habit that seems to serve the dual purpose of annoying those players and motivating them.
"What it shows us is that if Steve thinks you're not the type of player who should be on the team, you're not going to be on it," U.S. forward Roy Wegerle said. "Whereas in '94 [with Milutinovic] players could get away with anything they wanted and people lost respect for the coach. [Sampson] made an example of John Harkes. He made everyone aware that you need to be in it for the team, and if you're not, you will put yourself in jeopardy."
The youngest of three brothers, Sampson fell in love with soccer at summer camp when he was 8 years old. A multi-talented athlete, Sampson played just about every sport offered. As a junior in high school, he said, he was an all-star defensive end for the football team, but he gave that up during his senior year to concentrate on winning a soccer scholarship. Sampson's father was a quality control manager in the aerospace industry in Palo Alto, Calif., and his mother, a county health coordinator in San Mateo.
While in junior high, Sampson, undertook a course of study that still serves him Spanish classes. By the end of high school, he was nearly fluent. For five years after his graduation, he taught English to 50 Mexican children at the same camp where he learned the game of soccer. The residual effect is obvious: After every U.S. game, Sampson does lengthy interviews for English- and Spanish-speaking reporters in their respective languages.
And Sampson stresses communication, no matter what language is spoken. He meets separately with three players daily, merely to talk. He has been known to ask players to hold hands as part of bonding exercises. He shuffles players' roommates every week on the road to prevent players from developing cliques. And when Frenchman David Regis prepared for his U.S. citizenship exam in May, speaking very little English, Sampson required other players regardless of their feelings about Regis potentially joining the team as a starter at the last minute, which he did to quiz Regis on possible test questions.
During his playing days, Sampson's experiences lacked the harmony he now stresses. After Sampson spent a year at UCLA, the team's coach left and so did he, transferring to Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Later, he moved to San Jose State. After that, Sampson enrolled in the master's program in education at Stanford.
There, Sampson promptly accepted four jobs coaching soccer teams and began playing semi-pro ball for about $200 per game in a local league. Sampson recently called that year the most difficult of his life. He coached a high school team, a junior college team, and two youth teams. He also studied, played soccer and met his future bride.
"He's able to handle a lot of jobs and responsibilities and stay focused on all of them," said Mitch Murray, an assistant under Sampson at Santa Clara University who has the head coaching job there now. "He has tremendous focus and he really pays attention to detail."
In 1982, Sampson landed a job as an assistant soccer coach at UCLA, a part-time position at the time. It paid $2,500. For two years, Sampson lived in the one-bedroom apartment of two friends, sleeping on the couch. "A three-drawer chest of drawers held all of my belongings," Sampson said.
By 1985, what turned out to be Sampson's last year at UCLA, the Bruins won the national championship. Sampson had moved out of that apartment. And he had gotten married. But even then, his work responsibilities set the schedule around which the rest of his life revolved.
"We did have to plan our wedding around soccer," Sheri Sampson said.
The romance went like this: Steve coached one of Sheri's younger brothers on a youth team. While at UCLA, Steve proposed to Sheri, a dental hygienist, in February 1984. They looked to the summer for a wedding date.
"We couldn't get married in the summer, because that was the Olympics," Sheri Sampson said, referring to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. "After that was recruiting season. Then came the UCLA season. We couldn't get married then. The next time available was February."
So the date was set for February 1985. But, of course, soccer intruded. Actually, the UCLA soccer team did the intruding, renting a motor home and driving it from campus to northern California to attend the 350-person affair.
The Sampsons still have a soccer-dominated schedule and three children to work into the mix: Brandon, 9; Emily, 6; and Trevor, 4. Brandon and Emily have played in organized leagues, though never coached by their father. Sheri, who no longer works, happily reports that her husband's intensity as a coach doesn't make its way to his kids' games. He manages to sit quietly throughout on the rare occasions he can attend.
Shape Up or...
After UCLA won the national title in 1985, Sampson was hired to fill the head coaching vacancy at Santa Clara. Sampson figured he had struck it rich: His first year's salary was $29,000. But when Sampson got to know his players, he realized money couldn't buy everything.
"I knew I was in for a challenge when I met the team for the first time, looked at them and said, 'The goal for this soccer program is to win a national championship,'‚" Sampson said. "In the back of the room I heard snickering.
"My first experience with the team was doing a fitness test. . . . It was a 12-minute run, to see how far you could go, and there were pushups and situps. My assistant coaches beat over half the team at the fitness test."
On top of all that, Sampson said, he was working with only two scholarships, a number that didn't change during his tenure there.
"People don't know that I did it with smoke and mirrors," Sampson said.
Sampson said he compensated for the lack of athletic scholarships by unearthing other types of financial aid. He said he discovered monetary gifts for African Americans, grants for Latin Americans, and Jesuit scholarships for Catholic students. He tried to combine packages. Said Sampson: "I went about recruiting Latin Americans who were devout Catholics."
Among Sampson's discoveries? Paul Bravo, now a forward for Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids and occasional U.S. team player. He played at Santa Clara on a Jesuit scholarship.
"He told me straight up, if I came to the school, we would win a national championship," Bravo said. "That was one of the things that drew me to him."
In 1989, Santa Clara finished with a 20-0-3 record and shared the national title with the University of Virginia.
That's when Sampson made simultaneously one of the biggest blunders and best decisions of his life. Rothenberg, who met Sampson during the 1984 Olympics, lured him from coaching by offering him a job on the 1994 World Cup competition committee. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, putting Sampson in position to use his multi-faceted skills to advance through soccer's administrative ranks. It didn't take Sampson long, however, to realize he hated the job. And it didn't take Rothenberg long to realize Sampson wasn't any good at it.
"In a reasonably short period it became clear he was a fish out of water," Rothenberg said. "His heart was in coaching and his major talent was in coaching."
One of Sampson's responsibilities, it is worth noting, was recommending a U.S. national team coach for the 1994 World Cup. While others in the USSF pushed for the hire of former German star Franz Beckenbauer, Sampson said, he argued that the new coach should speak Spanish and that his assistants should be American. Sampson pushed for the well-known Bora Milutinovic, who spoke fluent Spanish and had World Cup success with Mexico in 1986 and Costa Rica in 1990.
Milutinovic was hired.
Not long after, Rothenberg named Sampson Milutinovic's third assistant not that Milutinovic particularly wanted one.
After the 1994 World Cup, in which the U.S. team produced a stunning upset of Colombia and advanced to the second round, Milutinovic and the USSF parted company. Meanwhile, Sampson's position was reduced to part-time. The Sampsons sold their house their first one in Agoura Hills, fearing that they couldn't meet the mortgage payments.
A few months later, in April 1995, Sampson received the interim head coaching job and embarked upon an extraordinary summer with the U.S. team. The United States won the U.S. Cup '95 title and reached the semifinals of Copa America, the South American championships; along the way, the Americans defeated Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Nigeria. By August, the interim was dropped from Sampson's title. The Sampsons purchased another house in Agoura Hills. The two option years on Sampson's contract eventually were picked up.
"It was always a dream, but never one I thought would become reality at any time," Sampson said. "There was no interest on the part of the federation in having an American coach involved as a candidate for their national team coach."
What changed that opinion?
"Winning," Sampson said. "Winning in '95. That was the only thing."
In 1998, it still is.
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