Up at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., Jim Lennox, the college coach, asked me recently what American soccer should do to be saved. My reply was that I had little idea; far less than the coach of a college that two years ago won the national title. The situation seemed Catch 22 to a fault.
Lennox is a rare bird among college coaches in that he, like Baron de Courbertin of Olympic fame, is less interested in winning than in taking part. His ambition is "beautiful soccer," his ideal the Dutch National World Cup team of 1974.Since this is also the ideal of my friend, Enzo Bearzot, coach of the Italian national soccer team, one that he calls "the ultimate ambition," you will see that Lennox has set his sights very high.
But Lennox has tenure. Other coaches at leading soccer colleges, less secure, are far more concerned with winning -- at all costs. Francisco Marcos, the Portuguese publicity man of the Dallas Tornado, once at Hartwick himself, complains that when college coaches are told how much harm they do their players by making endless substitutions -- something unknown outside college soccer -- they reply that their task is not to produce players for the NASL but to win games for their college.
Here, in fact, is a point at which Lennox and such coaches meet. He, too, is at pains to stress that Hartwick's ambition is not to turn out professional soccer players, but to provide a complete education. Wise and honest words. Although such Hartwick players as little Billy Gazonas of Tulsa have gone into the pros and done modestly well, by and large they sit on the bench or splash in the shallows of the North American Soccer League.
The truth is that college soccer as it stands disqualifies, rather than equips, a player for the pros. Two British college stars to whom I spoke, and who happily gave up incipient professional careers to come to school in America, stressed that here it was far easier to play and the challenge infinitely less great. Four years of that, as Marcos observed, and a boy may well be further back than he was when he arrived in college.
Lennox put his finger on the problem when he said that in the United States, no "total soccer environment" exists. Thus, players have to learn everything from the beginning, by rote; it is not there in the atmosphere to be absorbed. This, in turn, goes against the nature of the American college coach in all sports.
Years ago, there was a famous English major league coach who was never known to give a team talk. One day his players, who included the fabled Stanley Matthews, were astonished to be told he wished to talk to them before a road game. They assembled in the locker room to be told, "Right, lads. As soon as the game's over, don't get changed, just put your overcoats on over your uniforms, we'll get in the coach and we'll catch the 5 o'clock train home."
In American college soccer, by contrast, says critic and television commentator Paul Gardner, "The coach interferes during the game and he shouldn't, but the reason that he can is substitution. He becomes a 12th player."
That's one reason. The other, as I've suggested, lies in the tradition: an active coach and (in an intellectual sense) passive players.
So it is that for American college soccer to become a nursery for the pros, as in the case of gridiron football and basketball, it would have to become less honest. Lennox's ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body would become impossible. Already such colleges as Clemson, with their Nigerians, and multinational San Francisco, present champion, have gone a long way along that particular road.
Having recently seen three college games, sometimes with enjoyment, it's clear enough to me that the level at present is well below that of the better English semipro team -- even though the college players train so much more. In Britain -- and Brazil -- when a college player has professional ambitions, he trains with the pros rather than with his college. Such was the case of little Stevie Coppell, now the England and Manchester United outside-right, but a Tranmere Rovers part-time pro while he was studying economics at the University of Liverpool. Such was the case of the brilliant young Brazilian international center-forward, Socrates, a major star and a fully qualified doctor of medicine.
Here, the would-be soccer star is caught in a quandary. Should he risk all, as Ricky Davis of the Cosmos has so successfully done, leave college, and become a full-time pro? Or should he remain in the pleasant backwater of college soccer, training hard, playing at an undemanding level and hoping he can make up time later? It's a hard question to answer.