February 6, 1978, will mark a 20th anniversary for Dennis Viollet, but it was a day the coach of the Wahington Diplomats would prefer to forget.
On that morning 19 years ago, Viollet survived one of the most devastating tragedies in professional sports. He was aboard an airplane, returning with teammates from a match in Yugoslavia, when the plane crashed at the Munich Airport.
"We never got any height. The wheels couldn't get out of the slush and kept skidding," said the 43-year-old Viollet, one of the most prolific scorers in English soccer. "I don't think I was frightened then. I knew we were in trouble and I told my teammate Bobby Charlton sitting next to me to jsut relax.
"We hit a fence, then a tree that tore off the entire wing. The back of the plane then hit a farmhouse," recalled Viollet, "Both Bobby and me were thrown out of the plane and landed, still in the seat, 70 yards a way. The first thing I remember was the taste of blood in my mouth. I looked down to see if my feet were still there and my shoes and socks had been blown off. Bobby walked away and left me for dead."
Twenty-three persons, eight of them Viollet's Manchaster United teammates, died in the crash. Viollet, who suffered a fractured skull, and BIll Foulkes, who until recently coached the Chicago Sting, recovered rapidly and reconstructed the team.
"I remember going to the hospital in a van and Bill was strangling the driver because he was driving too fast," added Viollet.
Viollet left England in 1967 to play for the now-defunct Baltimore Bays. He returned briefly to coach in England but came back to America to caoch the Bays for two seasons before coming to Washington in 1974.
A hero in England and one of the most respected coaches in the North American Soccer League, Viollet has turned the Dips (never to be confused with the Whips and Darts) into an entertaining, competitive club.
"I have always tried to field the possible team. Sports is fan entertainment and we should to try to provide that," said Viollet. "A coach is only as good as his players and I've been fortunate to have had some good ones. I've never been under pressure to win and I'm not sure now I'd react if I was."
Viollet has seen the club go through several general managers and two owners but always has received a vote of confidence from each.
"I'm fully satisfied with the job Dennis has done," said Steve Danzansky, the Dips' present president, who took over the team in 1975. "He handles the team in matters exclusively and I haven't refused him anything within reason.I went to England with him and his name is well remembered there. I know he is doing everything to bring this club together."
The Dips, with a revamped roster, started poorly this season but have regrouped and won five of their last eight games. They are 6-6 with 50 points but are in the cellar of the four-team Eastern Division.
Viollet attributed the present disappointing record to adjustment problems resulting from late arrivals of new players.
"We've only used the same starting lineup o few games," explained Viollet.
Only three Dips, Eric Martin, Mike Lester and Don McAllister, have played all 12 games.
Washington has finished 7-12-1, 12-10 and 14-10 (made playoffs) the last three years.
Viollet is reputed an excellent motivator. Operating on a modest budget, he has consistently fielded a better-than-average team without one so-called superstar.
"Sure it would be nice to have one," acknowledged the soft-spoken coach. "Pele would be great with our players. But right now, we aren't financially rpepared to spend huge sums of money to sigh a superstar."
Viollet insists a superstar wouldn't upset his conservative, team-oriented style of coaching if the "superstar did his share of the work."
"I don't want a prima donna around. Besides, I'm not sure these other foreign stars, except Pele, would bring people to the stadium. After Pele, who do they know?" asked Viollet, "How many people know who (Franz) Beckbauer or (Johann) Cruff are?"
I didn't take Viollet followers long to learn his identity.
Turning pro at 16, he became one of the finest forwards in England. Viollet scored more than 200 goals and played for the national team five times. In 1960, he set a United Club record that still stands of 32 goals in 36 games.
His determination and unfailing enthusiasm extended to his coaching and he was one of th e top head men in the south English league.
"I think the key is treat your players as adults," he said. "If you do that, they'll respond as such. I can remember my feelings as a player, my anxieties, frustrations. I know how they feel in certain situations.
Since his near-death in the Munich crash, Viollet has experienced rough plane trips on three other occasions.
"It took a long time to get over that first one," said Viollet. "As soon as someone says something is wrong on a flight, I get that feeling again. It's like something you can almost smell. But I'm not afraid of flying."
Viollet will become an American citizen in a year. He also has become and avid fan of American soccer and feels the U.S. soon will be able to compete internationally.
"You can tell by the number of kids playing now. Soccer is definitely major league now," Viollet said. "The entire league has improved. I would like to see more American kids in the game but not at the expense of bringing down the standard of play.
"What we have to do is sign players at a younger age and let them train with the clubs," he said.
Viollet, as well as other NASL coaches, are in favor of signing players right after high school, paying their way through college and allowing them to work out with the club. The Cosmos perhaps set a precedent by signing former Annandale High All-Met Gary Etherington to a contract last year.
"A few years playing with veterans has twice the advantage of playing 20 or so college games," said Viollet.
Viollet often has been accused of being too pro-English, a charge he merely rolls his eyes skyward and scoffs at.
"I'll take the best players I can get. I've tried to sign other foreign players. One player from Mexico wanted too much money and he wasn't that good," he said. "Having too many players from different countries can have its disadvantages. When you're winning, it's OK. But when you start to lose, the language barrier becomes a problem."