It was the end of February and Ken Furphy was coaching his Detroit Express team on an exhibition tour of Guatemala. One night, the telephone rang in his hotel room.
"We're moving to Washington," Detroit General Manager Duncan Hill told Furphy, who was not at all thrilled by the news. He is 49, a man who has hopped from continent to continent, country to country, playing or coaching soccer most of his life. But this sudden unexpected move to Washington seemed so needless to him.
"I had put three years of my life into that Detroit franchise and it all seemed so wasted at the time," he said last week.
"I was so disappointed at first. We had worked to the point of drawing 11,000 a game in Detroit. And in that city, with all those people out of work, coming to a soccer game became very much a luxury. Detroit was in the middle of a depression and we were still drawing 11,000. The league and the team owners felt the economic indicators were better in Washington."
So far, Washington has not really warmed to the Diplomats after two home games, but Ken Furphy can hardly be blamed for that. In fact, he is the coach of a team that has won its last four games going into Friday night's contest against Tampa Bay at RFK Stadium.
Win or lose, the Diplomats reflect the qualities that characterize their coach: unselfish, hard-working, no-nonsense and conservative. Furphy, who some people describe as gruff and to the point, says he doesn't think of his coaching philosophy as conservative, even if his team has won both its home games by 1-0 scores.
Furphy is not an extravagant fellow.The league says he can have 28 players under contract. The Diplomats have 18. He won't try to convince management to sign high-priced superstars because, he says, "We don't have any money to waste."
The Diplomats, in fact, did approach Johan Cruyff at the beginning of the season about returning to play in Washington, but Furphy says, "We would have had to ask Ronald Reagan to increase his budget."
He also is a man who takes as few risks as possible. In a sport where every rule is increasingly complex, Furphy -- the coach and the man -- is simple and basic.
Consider his coaching philosophy. "I take no risks in the defensive third," he says."If a defender takes a risk clearing the ball or against an opponent, it can cost the team a game. No room for risks there. In the midfield, there may be a little room for risks, because the defensive players are there in case a risk leads to a mistake. Up front, I want the forwards to take risks, all the time. Sometimes, taking no risks is just most sensible."
Control the midfield, play ruthless defense and score if the opportunity is there, even if some fans consider that boring. But Furphy has always been successful this way, and this is no time to change. Especially now, as he coaches a young team he believes will benefit in the long run.
With many of his players under 24, Furphy spends much of the practice sessions -- or "training" as he calls it -- teaching as much as coaching. In any sport, eliminating mistakes is critical, especially with a young team. So far, the Diplomats have avoided major blunders, and it is reflected in their 4-1 record.
"I'm not a stickler, but I make sure the players stick to the basics," Furphy says.
As a player in the English leagues, Furphy stuck to basics himself. He was a player-coach at 24, and at 29 was the first British coach to tour Rhodesia. He coached Workington and Watford and both teams moved to higher divisions because of his success.
In 1974, his First Division Sheffield team had its highest finish in 100 years. In 1976, he took over the Cosmos, with Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia, in his first North American Soccer League job. He says he did not like the league then he quit before the season was over to run a sporting goods store in England.
Furphy still reads the British tabloids whenever possible and listens to British soccer games on his short wave radio. Occasionally, he has served tea in the locker room. His British accent is very pronounced. And most of his players are from England.
One league general manager says Furphy prefers using Englishmen because he doesn't get along with players from non-English-speaking countries. Furphy denies it, saying he simply wants most of his players from one country so they can communicate on the soccer field.
"You can't argue when the man is 4-1," said Yugoslavian midfielder Peter Baralic, the Diplomat captain and the only player from a non-English-speaking country on the roster. "We get along just fine. When you win, you're smart. And he makes teams good. He puts players in the right place. Nobody's angry, nobody's unhappy. He knows his job and he knows the league very well. We respect Ken and we work hard for him because he works hard. That's all that counts, no?"
Even Paul Cannell, the team's zany forward notorious for having run-ins with coaches, has kind words for Furphy. And this only four days after Furphy benched him Sunday in Toronto.
"I agree with almost everything he's done," Cannell said. "Sometimes I don't think he's playing with a full deck, but you know . . . coaches," Cannell said, breaking into laughter.
Right now, Furphy is a genius, a coach who has taken a bunch of marginally talented, young nobodies and molded them into a good team. Repeat, team.