10 Questions with Dean Wurzberger

Going into his 17th season on Montlake, Dean Wurzberger is now the dean of local college coaches.

Going into his 17th season on Montlake, Dean Wurzberger is now the dean of local college coaches. Still, he seeks to acquire more knowledge, more insight to the game and how it can be played. His Huskies, who open play Friday at a tournament in Portland, are hunting for their third straight NCAA tournament appearance and the 12th in 14 seasons. Wurzberger lost two Pac-10 players of the year to graduation, yet believes Washington may have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs.

You own a USSF A Coaching License, were the first American to get the Scottish A license and now, having taken classes in England this summer, are halfway to the UEFA badge. You’ve been coaching for all these years, so what leads you back to school like this?
It was an out-of-left-field desire to get some new information. I’ve admired the English coaching schools for years but was never able to attend, for whatever reason. In the 80s, I went to the Scottish schools. Now the English FA has the UEFA ‘A’ going a couple times each year, one in May and one in July. It’s like going back to college; it’s been 20 years since I’ve done it. It was a fantastic experience. You look at these things a lot differently in your 50s than you do in your 30s. Back then, you chased the credential so that you can boast that you’re qualified. Now to go back, a lot of people think you’re out of your mind; it’s like going back for your bachelor’s. It was meant to polish my knowledge. It’s another arrow in the quiver, as Jimmy Gabriel says. The British do some big things very well. There were some points of emphasis that reminded me to keep those things fresh in your mind and in your game. It was a long course–two weeks, the longest I’ve ever been in, but mission accomplished.

As a Yank, you must have been in the minority in that class. Were the other coaches more than a little curious?
They were all wondering where I coach and what I was doing there. I was unique in my own way but was very much welcomed. The camaraderie among the coaches was one of the highlights. Actually, there was another coach from Pittsburgh, along with me, in Part 1. And there was another American in Part 2, the final assessment. But, yes, the majority were English coaches trying to qualify and a sprinkling of foreign coaches. I had a little different experience base than the other American coaches there, and I was one of the older coaches. A lot of our lectures were group work and you get a dynamic in those groups. I went there primarily for the information, and you usually find what you’re looking for. I’ve still got go to Part 2–you get a 3-year window to complete the entire course–but I probably will go back and give it my best shot. It’s no gimme. It’s tough stuff and a challenge.

It was recently announced that Jimmy Gabriel’s coming back to your staff as a volunteer assistant once he fulfills his commitments to the Sounders. You’ve known him since the Sounders drafted you out of college, some 30 years ago. How would you compare your relationship with Jimmy back then to today?
Jimmy back then was like a role model. He was still playing and the reserve coach, John Best’s assistant. He was this famous Scottish international, still playing but leaning toward coaching, and he has a definite gift for coaching. He relates to players, he’s very knowledgeable and he can get information across. He was a natural in terms of coaching. He became head coach in my last year. I was there two and a half seasons and loved every minute of it. It’s like a walk down memory lane, having him rejoin our staff. Jimmy’s in the role of mentor, an advisor, a role model for us to look up to as a coach. I was trying to be the best player in my first experience with Jimmy, and now I’m trying to be the best coach I can be. Beyond that, he’s a wonderful guy to have on game day. Jimmy brings another set of eyes, and he sees things, little things which can be key.

What do you watch at a game; the rest of us are no doubt ball-watching; what about you?
The average fan will watch a game and gets this overall impression of team skill and certainly the score helps. Coaches say why are they good, and what makes them effective? What makes them effective? Which positions or players as a group are effective in making things happen? Having said that, we’re all captivated by the unexpected, the art forms, the skill. That’s what puts everybody on the edge of their seats, and coaches are no different in that regard. But coaches look at team shape, what are they trying to do, what’s their main aim. On TV, the camera follows the ball so it’s hard to see who’s running around. I’m a big fan of the game, and I watch more as a hobby than always analyzing it.

You have nine starters back from an NCAA tournament team. Still the coaches voted you 4th in the Pac-10. Why do you think that is?
We lost a ton up front–all of our impact players at forward–and we have to figure out ways to score goals. There’s not going to be one guy getting double-digit goals. We’re going to have to get them in groups, by committee, by being organized on restarts, hitting some teams on counterattacks. Individually, scoring goals is a special gift. We’ve got a talented freshman in Brent Richards, who will play right away and has all that in him, but that’s asking a lot of a freshman. Ely [Allen] and [Kevin] Forrest didn’t do it as freshmen. You’ve also got to have a supporting cast. We have Raphael Cox, a left-sided attacking player, and Matt Van Houten, a sophomore back on wide right who’s a threat. We’ve got to get goals out of midfield. It’s not only up to our front players. It will be a work in progress all season long.

So, is it a rebuilding year or something more?
Our priority is to get in the NCAA tournament, but it would be ideal to also place high in the Pac-10. We make sure we win enough conference and non-conference games to get a place in the tournament. Winning the Pac-10 is a goal we hold very goal close to our heart. We need to find goal scorers. We think back to 2003, the team that went the furthest, and we have a team equally talented. That was a special group of players. We have a chance to go that far.

At last count, 13 Huskies have gone on to play in Major League Soccer. Is that a top selling point when recruiting?
It’s a fact, but that relates to so few guys; it’s one or two, here and there. It’s important to say, ‘Should you aspire for that and you have all the tools, psychological toughness, the drive to continue to improve, a ton of natural talent, athleticism–that all has to be in place to have a realistic shot at it.’ You look at [Craig] Waibel and [Brandon] Prideaux. You wouldn’t have picked them out as the most skilled players we’ve had, but they had a huge heart, good athleticism and a willingness to overcome disappointment. We’re proud of the fact we’ve had several players move on to the next level. But we’ve also had national team players who decide [playing pro] is not that important after all. People change over the years. If we recruit a talent, and he continues to improve and stars in college–he can get that chance. It’s important that we have an avenue for those players, but being good college players, helping us achieve our team goals, is all they must commit to us.

There are so many components to coaching. What’s the most rewarding part of coaching to you?
This part of this year is by far my favorite. Forming a team, using the talent from before and blending in the new–that makes preseason one of my most treasured times. It’s all focus, no school yet, so we have a captive audience. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got. It’s also rewarding, to see people improve over the years. A modest recruit like Forrest, to see him reach stardom and recognition in college and realize his goals. Hopefully all the players will have great memories of the time they spent here. I’ve swung round to the human side of it. I was very results-oriented early in my career. Being a father has changed me a bit, seeing the development, you reflect back on your career and you see what it’s all about. The important thing is growing people, and helping them achieve high standards, push them to where they want to go. If you can coach to high standards and the players give you everything they’ve got, that’s what you look for.

Has college soccer’s role changed since you were a player, or since you began on Montlake?
Oh, back then it was the dark ages, the hack and slash days. It is light years away from that, the way the game is now. The way organization and support for the student-athlete, the experience beyond just soccer. The athletes are looked after in so many ways: facilities, organization, manpower to coach and train them, access to strength and conditioning, nutrition and athletic training. Our top college level, our top amateur, is easily comparable to lower division pros in certain countries, in terms of the access they have, the expertise, the facilities, the coaching, the equipment, the competition. The college experience is incredibly accelerated. Washington’s come a long way, too. In the 80s it was all about one sport, football. Schools and colleges have grown in that respect. It’s night and day, a different world from what I remember.

What effect, if any, will a local MLS team have on the college program?
No question, Sounders FC is a huge positive. First of all, we’re now a player in the market. The MLS is big and it’s continuing to get bigger. It’s changed the face of our national team and it’s made the U.S. more competitive in everything. Having a team in this market is huge. The schools in L.A. and the Bay Area always had an advantage because there was a relationship between those college teams and the MLS team. It will help us in recruiting. Kids and high school players all over the nation are going to be watching games in Seattle. People who before didn’t know about our city, our state, will see this. I couldn’t have been happier when the team was announced last year. It puts us on the map in the pro soccer market, and the top college recruits are watching the league and all of a sudden Seattle’s there on their TV. I’m delighted and it has a huge upside for U-Dub.