Coach soak: After defeating higher-ranked UNC in overtime to win the 2005 ACC tournament, players gave Rennie a celebratory shower. Jon Gardiner
Coach soak: After defeating higher-ranked UNC in overtime to win the 2005 ACC tournament, players gave Rennie a celebratory shower. Jon Gardiner

Last Time Out

After nearly three decades at Duke, the coach who built a championship men's soccer program works to keep his team upbeat and focused as they ride the roller coaster of his final season.
Writer: 
April 1, 2008
 

In a preseason meeting just before the start of classes, head coach John Rennie unexpectedly introduced his team to the newest senior on its roster: himself. After twenty-nine years at the helm of the Blue Devils' men's soccer team—a run that included more than 400 victories, a win-loss ratio of over .700, and Duke's first-ever national championship—Rennie had decided that the 2007 season would be his last.

Rennie seemed to have picked the right juncture to make his dramatic exit from college soccer, applying an acute sense of timing not unexpected in the master of a game where a split second can mean the difference between a sweet swish in the corner of the net or the thwunk of the ball in the defending goalie's gloved hands. The Blue Devils returned all but one starter from last year's team, which had finished the season only one win from the College Cup, soccer's Final Four. They added a talented freshman class to a veteran nucleus that consisted of thirteen seniors.

Many observers called the team Rennie's best ever, and junior forward Mike Grella boldly stated in the summer that Duke "can win the whole thing without a lot of problems." Even Rennie, in the cautious language coaches use to verbally knock on wood, acknowledged at a preseason press conference that "this team is as good as any I've had from an overall standpoint."

The only thing that didn't seem certain was how Rennie would respond to the emotions of his final season. "I did want to let the players know before the season started because I had made that decision, and I honestly don't know how it will affect me," he said in August. "I told the guys the other day we have thirteen seniors on this team, and now we have fourteen.

"Seniors always wanna go out on top."

Soccer is a game of flow. It is dependent on the free movement of players and the rhythmic passing of the ball. The ball moves from side to side, the two teams trading possession and momentum, back and forth. The game is punctuated and ultimately decided by goals—but those happen only intermittently, and sometimes not at all.

Soccer seasons are much the same way. They are free-flowing and rhythmic, delineated by peaks and valleys and individual games that stand out as defining moments. As it played out, Duke's 2007 season had as many undulations as your standard EEG.

Early on: Rennie begins his Duke career

Early on: Rennie begins his Duke career. Duke Sports Information

On Friday, September 22, Duke was 4-2 after a 2-1 victory over the University of South Carolina. The Blue Devils had already lost a pair of 1-0 contests to Villanova and West Virginia universities despite controlling possession in both games. Even the much-needed win over the Gamecocks did not come without a cost—senior co-captain Michael Videira left the game late with a tight hamstring.

Videira, who leads the midfield, is like the point guard of the Blue Devils' offense, directing traffic and controlling possession at the top of the box, the large rectangle that stretches across the front of the goal. It's akin to the paint in basketball or the red zone in football; almost all goals are scored from the box. Fellow senior co-captain Tim Jepson, the lynchpin of the Blue Devils' defensive back four, was already sidelined by a hamstring injury, and senior midfielders Spencer Wadsworth and Zack Pope were still recovering from off-season surgeries.

That morning, Rennie, associate head coach Mike Jeffries B.S.E.E. '84, and assistant coach Ian Clerihew discussed options in case Videira couldn't play that night in the conference opener against archrival Maryland.

The coaches focused on senior Tomek Charowski, who had filled in for Pope in the midfield, and freshman Cole Grossman, who had yet to play because of a groin injury. Rennie had had his eye on Grossman the day before in practice during the Gladiator Match, the scrimmage played the day after a game by the backups (complete with "commanders" who pick the teams). Grossman had not seemed particularly impressive, Rennie commented to the other coaches.

"Maryland would be a brutal game to come in first game freshman year," Jeffries said with a wry smile that signaled his discomfort with the scant options.

"We don't really have any choice," Rennie responded with a shrug.

Moments before game time, Videira's hamstring was still tight, and Rennie was forced to go with Plan B: Charowski started in Videira's place, but Grossman would be counted on to provide high-quality minutes in the midfield in the second half.

"The best-laid plans…." Jeffries filled in the cliché by shaking his head as he walked to the locker room before the game. "The last thing you want to do is start the real season with your two senior captains on the bench."

In the pregame huddle, Duke's third senior captain, Kevin Stevenson, made an effort to galvanize his teammates, especially those doubting their talent following the unexpected losses and injuries. "This is home field! This is Maryland! Let's make a [expletive] statement!"

Ninety minutes of soccer later, nothing had been decided; the two teams were tied at one after regulation. Before overtime, Rennie gathered his anxious troops in a huddle on the edge of the field. "The rest is about concentration," he told them calmly. "It's between your ears now."

After ten more scoreless minutes, with a second overtime looming, the coach was more animated. "When we get wide, we don't have enough people in the [expletive] box! GET IN THE BOX! This keeper sucks!"

With just two minutes remaining in the overtime and the two rivals seemingly headed for soccer's ultimate banality, a tie, midfielder Joe Germanese found Grossman on the right side of the box. The ball bounced once at his feet before he banged it past Terrapin goalkeeper Will Swaim and into the right corner of the net. Just like that: Duke 2, Maryland 1.

It was a finish as quick as it was stunning. Grossman tried to take his shirt off—that is how real footballers celebrate goals—but it got caught on his arms. "It's probably a good thing," he admitted to the reporters who clustered around him after the game. "I'm not the strongest kid on Earth." As he talked, he was doing his best Thomas Hill impression—hands crossed on his head, his whole body still shaking with disbelief.

Pope, the senior midfielder, intent on keeping the freshman's ego in check, ran over and leaned into the circle of reporters. "Tell Cole it's only one game," he said.

It may have been only one game in the standings. But for Grossman and for the Blue Devils, to win without their two stars was nothing short of incredible.

Championship season: Rennie celebrates semifinal win in the 2005 ACC tournament, which Duke went on to win, with Tim Jepson '08

Championship season: Rennie celebrates semifinal win in the 2005 ACC tournament, which Duke went on to win, with Tim Jepson '08. Jon Gardiner

"This is what a team is all about," Rennie told them in the post-game huddle. "Be very proud of that."

Statement made.

Rennie's teams have been making statements ever since he arrived on campus in 1979 from Columbia University. Rennie grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, playing soccer because his local high school had banned football. An illustrious career as a forward at Temple University—he scored six goals in his first game—was cut short by an injury, and Rennie made the natural transition to coaching.

"It's as much the coaching as it is the sport," Rennie said. He started coaching and teaching after college but quickly found that interacting with the players on the practice field and in the locker room was more rewarding than lecturing in a classroom. "I couldn't play a whole lot anymore, so I tried coaching and found it was the next best thing."

Rennie started his coaching career at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth) then went on to spend six years at Columbia. After winning the Ivy League title in 1978, he believed he had accomplished all he could at Columbia. In the academically fixated Ivy League, he sometimes felt that the university was embarrassed to be too good on the field. In Duke, Rennie saw a school that unabashedly combined academic and athletic excellence. In Rennie, Duke saw the coach who could take the Blue Devils from a non-funded, part-time program that had made just one NCAA tournament to national prominence.

In the twenty-nine years since, Rennie has led Duke to twenty tournament appearances, including five trips to the College Cup and five ACC Championships. The evidence of that success fills Rennie's office on the second floor of the Murray Building. Through the room's window, partially eclipsed by the first-floor roof, you can catch a glimpse of Koskinen Stadium, the 7,000-seat home of the Blue Devils, built in 1999.

A bookcase next to the window serves as a pedestal for the trophies Rennie's teams have accumulated. A framed collection of captains' armbands created for the coach's twenty-fifth anniversary adorns the opposite wall. Jerseys of former players turned pro hang on the wall facing his desk. (One of those former players, All-American John Kerr '87, now the coach at Harvard University, will replace him.) The most important trophy of all—the one marking that first-ever national championship for a Duke team, won by Rennie's Blue Devils in 1986—resides in the Hall of Fame next to Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The 2007 Blue Devils are determined to add to their coach's already-extensive collection. The players are experienced, perhaps even arrogant about their chances, but, unlike their Ivy League peers, one thing they aren't is embarrassed about success. There's no such thing as too good in Duke athletics.

The momentum from Grossman's golden goal against Maryland carried Duke to road wins over the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Clemson University. In those three games, the Blue Devils avenged all of their regular-season losses from 2006.

But then Duke was back to struggling, back to the nadir on the undulating EEG. The Blue Devils fell into a four-game tailspin, losing to Boston College, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University before tying Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels stunned the Blue Devils in double overtime while the Demon Deacons spoiled Senior Night—for the thirteen seniors and Rennie—by manhandling Duke 3-0.

Rennie was doing his best to keep the team upbeat and focused. "I think we're getting better," he told them after the loss at UNC. "We played a great game. Do not put your heads down; there's a long way to go."

Crunch time: Freshman Cole Grossman scored in double overtime against Maryland to lead the Blue Devils to a 2-1 win last September

Crunch time: Freshman Cole Grossman scored in double overtime against Maryland to lead the Blue Devils to a 2-1 win last September. Jon Gardiner

On Thursday, October 25, Duke traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to save its season. The four-game winless streak left the Blue Devils under .500 in the conference; the Cavaliers were a similarly talented team struggling in the ever-rugged ACC.

Friday morning, the day of the game, dawned cold, bleak, and wet. After a quick breakfast at the Doubletree Hotel, the Blue Devils traveled to the Virginia campus to get used to the field conditions and walk through the basic strategy for that night's game. The horrendous weather, however, relegated them to a simple jog to loosen up before sprinting back to get on the bus.

Seven hours later, nothing had changed, except that the field at Klockner Stadium was even soggier and the sense of desperation had doubled now that both teams had taken the field for warmups. Rennie didn't hide his discontent with the stadium, starting with the unconventional placement of the benches in a dugout below field level. The pillars in front of the stadium commemorating the Cavaliers' four straight national championships in the early '90s—one coming after a victory over Duke in the semifinals—didn't add to the charm for the Blue Devils' coach.

"This is as important as any regular-season game can get," Rennie told his team in a cramped and suffocatingly humid concrete locker room. A loss could leave Duke—the No. 4 team in the nation at the start of the season—at home for the NCAA tournament.

An early second-half goal put the Cavaliers ahead, and the Blue Devils worked manically to tie the game late. The final twelve minutes of regulation were played almost entirely on Virginia's end of the field, with Duke applying constant pressure on Cavalier goalie Michael Giallombardo. It was like the final moments of a boxing match, the Blue Devils trying to get in as many punches as possible before the final bell. Rennie even substituted forward Paul Dudley for defender Jepson to add another offensive threat to the already-crowded box.

As the game's intensity peaked, so did Duke's frustration. Every reserve in the tiny dugout was standing—the bench had collapsed during halftime—pleading for a goal, any kind of goal, anything to replace the zero under Duke on the scoreboard. As a shot flew just over the crossbar, a Duke player spiked his Gatorade water bottle in disgust. At a dubious foul call by the referee, Rennie cried incredulously, "Every time he blows the whistle, the call is wrong." As the clock dipped under two minutes, the Duke bench got louder, and more desperate: "One more chance, guys!" One more chance!

The Blue Devils got that last chance, and finally, through the rain, the wind, and a month of defeat, finally they made it count. Grossman's pass crossed into the box and somehow slipped through the crowd of Virginia defenders before finding the head of graduate student Joshua Medcalf—the forward known as "Bear"—who knocked it into the back of the net for the ecstatic equalizer.

Sidelined: Rennie's retirement ceremony last fall preceded a shut-out loss to Wake Forest

Sidelined: Rennie's retirement ceremony last fall preceded a shut-out loss to Wake Forest. Jon Gardiner

History repeated itself in overtime, as, again with under two minutes on the clock, the Blue Devils scored—this time when Mike Grella beat Giallombardo low and left. The tally sent Duke into a frenzy, a month of frustration released with one cathartic goal.

"Wow, just wow," Rennie said, his eyes taking in the scene of jubilant Blue Devils celebrating in the left corner of the field, the once-driving rain reduced to a drizzle. "This is unbelievable."

In the huddle, he thanked his team for giving him a win in his last trip to Charlottesville and for making the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride home—the aspect of his job he dislikes the most—a whole lot more enjoyable. That trip home started riotously with pizza and Gatorade—the two staples of the Duke soccer diet—and karaoke provided by Medcalf and Germanese as entertainment. The two seniors, former teammates at Vanderbilt, performed as punishment for being late to practice earlier that week.

That kind of punishment isn't unusual for the typically laid-back Rennie. During games, the coach spends much of his time sitting on the bench or standing tranquilly on the sidelines, his hands tucked into his pockets. There's little yelling, gesturing, or posturing. He does most of his work on the practice field, and even then he lets Jeffries run the majority of the drills. Rennie tends to take over at the end of each practice session, his favorite refrain of "once more" pushing his team to finish the day strong. The practice field is also where Rennie handles most of his team's off-the-field issues, pulling players aside during water breaks to speak one-on-one.

"I generally talk to players alone out here—before practice, during a session—instead of calling them to the head coach's office, where they're thinking, 'What did I do?' " Rennie explained. "Out here, they're thinking about soccer."

That's how Rennie handled a complaint from goalkeeper Justin Papadakis earlier in the season about the coach's quotes in The Chronicle. Rennie, who is known for being candid with the press, had told a reporter that the Blue Devils didn't "have a leader back there [on defense]" with Jepson out, and Papadakis didn't take kindly to the perceived slight. The day before the South Carolina game, Rennie took his goalie aside and talked to him. "It came out in a way I didn't want it to," he explained to his assistants later, adding that it's easier to be critical after wins than losses.

"Memories are short when you win and long when you lose," Clerihew responded.

Momentum is a pretty abstract thing: You can't see it or hear it or touch it. But as far as abstract things go, momentum is about as tangible as it gets. Because you can always sense momentum. Any player on the field or coach on the sidelines or fan in the stands can sense momentum shifts—they sense them and respond as a falling leaf responds to a change in the breeze.

When Duke boarded that bus in Charlottesville, it brought along an extra passenger: momentum. And that welcome addition to the team carried the Blue Devils through non-conference wins against Cleveland State University and Davidson College. But in the team's Halloween night victory over Davidson, fickle momentum made a hasty and premature exit from the Duke sidelines; Videira, the senior star and midfield anchor, suffered a serious quadriceps injury. Rennie called it an "Oh no, here we go again" moment.

Videira's absence was felt that weekend in a stunning 4-3 loss to Alabama A&M University—the game that would prove to be the final unexpected twist on the roller coaster of the season. Rennie pulled the goalie, Papadakis, at halftime in favor of backup Brendan Fitzgerald after the senior let a ball slip away for an easy Bulldogs' goal. Rennie was hard on Papadakis after the game, telling reporters that his miscue was "an awful mistake" and a "devastating point in the game." The senior would not see the field the rest of the season.

"It's pretty close between the keepers," Rennie said, "and this time of year you can't make mistakes like that."

The Blue Devils handled ACC cellar-dweller North Carolina State University in the regular season finale before dropping their much-desired rematch with North Carolina, 1-0, in the first round of the ACC tournament.

Despite the setbacks, Duke took the chilly and choppy field at Cardinal Park against the University of Louisville the day after Thanksgiving for the first round of the NCAA tournament oddly confident. Videira, who had returned at half-strength in the loss to UNC, said his teammates saw themselves as the talented underdog nobody wanted to play. Even with their pedestrian 11-7-1 record and without the high seed they had expected at the start of the season, the Blue Devils felt they could still make a run into December.

"At that point in our season more than ever, we felt like we could turn it on," said Jepson, the senior defender. "We knew everything else that had happened in the year didn't matter; we just threw it out the window. Once it's tournament time, it's a whole new season."

The Blue Devils' new season, however, reflected the flaws of the old one, ultimately flatlining in a 1-0 loss to Louisville. Despite outshooting the Cardinals, Duke was shut out for the sixth time in the season.

After the game, the Blue Devils lingered on the field, unable to comprehend that their season—a year of could-haves and should-haves and supposed-tos—was over.

It wasn't the first time this group of Duke players had remained on the field well after the game was over. They had done it to collect the last two ACC tournament championships; they had done it in Charlottesville a month earlier. This time, the mood was distinctly different.

"It was just a big letdown. With so much potential with the team we've had this year, it was hard to swallow," Jepson said. "Aside from that, just the culmination of all the years playing here and having it boil down to that point—it was hard. It hasn't really hit you just yet, but at the same time, you know it's the end."

Three days after the loss, Rennie has recovered from the last bus ride of his career—as mixed as blessings get. He glances out the window of his office in the Murray Building for that partial view of Koskinen Stadium. Neither structure existed twenty-nine years ago, and the same could be said of the elite Duke soccer program he built.

But as the coach sifts through files and files of old papers and wonders where he's going to store all those jerseys and frames and pictures, he isn't thinking twice about his decision to retire now, even after a final season he admits was "very disappointing."

"Time and timing is a big factor in everybody's life," he says. He crouches forward in his chair and clasps his hands. "Time is a very precious commodity, and as you get a little bit older, it's becoming more precious. So you decide, what do you want to do with your time? Do you want to do the same thing, or do you want to change?"

As he sits there, surrounded by the mementos of his past, Rennie's eye is set firmly on the future. A future blank and open-ended and amorphous.

"I do not have any set plans at this point," he says. "I don't want any."

And why should he? After all, the best-laid plans…. 

The Chronicle.