David Lombardo built the JMU program from the ground up. Now in his 23rd JMU season, Lombardo is the only head coach in the history of Madison women's soccer.Women's soccer coach
Lombardo, who got his 350th career coaching win in the Dukes' Aug. 19 overtime victory over Marshall, is the sixth-winningest active coach in NCAA Division I. He's been Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year twice and Virginia Coach of the Year three times.
His teams have played in 10 NCAA Tournaments and made it to the round of 16 three times, most recently in 2008. Three times under Lombardo the Dukes have won CAA titles, the last one coming in 2010.
His teams have achieved Top 25 national ranking and over the years have made a practice of knocking off higher-ranked teams. Last season his unranked team tied No. 3 Maryland.
Coach Lombardo recently shared his thoughts on his career in the sport and the JMU program's success.
How did soccer become a part of your life?
DL: I played high school soccer and then college soccer at Southern Connecticut, and I played another 12 years in men's leagues after that. I grew up in Hartford, Conn., and (early on) I played baseball. I got into soccer later, in middle school, but once I did, I fell in love with it.
How did you get started in coaching?
DL: I was at Keene State (N.H.) for my first job after graduate school -- I was a dorm director. I looked out the dorm window one day and saw the men's soccer team in preseason training camp. I went out and volunteered my time with them, but (due to NCAA restrictions on personnel) they didn't have any openings. As I was walking off the field, I saw some women's soccer players off to the side, and I went over and found out it was the women's club team. I asked them if they wouldn't mind, I would come out a couple of days a week and organize practice, and they were fine with that. And that launched my career.
Within three years we became a varsity program, and that was when it was open division, NCAA Division I, II and III, and everybody played everybody. Keene State was Division II but probably three-quarters of our schedule was New Hampshire, Vermont, UMass, UConn, and all the Ivies in that area. And in our second year as a varsity team we were nationally ranked across all three divisions.
How did the job at JMU come about?
DL: At Keene, coaching was a part-time job, and my main job was director of undergraduate admissions. They had a change in administration, and they became reluctant to allow me to do both jobs. When I looked at what made me happy and what made me excited and looking forward to each day, it was drawing up practices on napkins when I was at meetings where I should have been paying attention to other things.
My background was physical education, and I always wondered what it would be like if I was coaching full-time, and JMU offered that opportunity.
JMU was looking for an educator, who was also a coach, and who had the right disposition to make sure that the team was going to get organized and be competitive. Yet the emphasis was going to be on academics and the quality of the journey that the players were on. (Director of Athletics) Mr. (Dean) Ehlers made that abundantly clear, that that was more important to him than us being world-beaters right off the bat. He expected us to be good, because we were drawing players from Northern Virginia, a hotbed of soccer. But I think he was more interested in getting the right person in charge so that these players were going to get a good experience.
I never expected to be at JMU more than four or five years. All our family was back in New England, and we figured I would get some experience at JMU and then go back there. But I absolutely fell in love with the area and what the school was doing. I could get a sense that there more and better things coming in terms of athletics and what they were doing with the soccer program.
I've had opportunities to go to Florida State and Maryland, and a couple of other schools, and when I really examined it, I had the same type of things here that they had. We had the opportunity to be successful, and we've beaten a lot of big-name schools that on paper we had no business beating, but we were able to do so.
What has made the JMU women's soccer program successful from day one?
DL: You've got to care about what you do, you've got to put the sweat equity into it. I've always looked at each year as a new year. I don't take last year's preseason folder and dust it off (for this year).
Our staff has always looked each year at what we need to be competitive. When I got here there were just 60 (NCAA Division I) teams, and now there are close to 330.
JMU represents quality from the educational standpoint. On the women's side there are still more people looking at schools because of the collegiate experience they are going to have, not as much as the sport. The reality is that you are not going to play professionally, and so athletes are looking at the whole package. So JMU is an easy sell from the recruiting standpoint -- the academics, the quality of life. We had a lot of success from just our Northern Virginia contingent, had tons of good players who could have gone anywhere, but JMU was just two hours away.
The expectation (from our administration) is you've got the resources, you can do well, you should do well. That has always been something I subscribed to. I say this to our sport administrator all the time, you don't have to tell me what my program's goals are each year. No one's going to hold me more accountable to that than me. That's always been my style; I've always liked that underdog kind of role.
What sets JMU apart in the recruiting process?
DL: Success breeds success. You've got kids that are looking to be part of something successful, and we've always represented that.
We're now competing against the ACC and the Big East, and players turn us down to walk on at those schools, where they may get a national championship ring but never set foot on the field.
That's a bigger challenge for us, to get people to look at our history rather than what did you do last year.
Your team has a camaraderie, a closeness, a feeling of family.
DL: We have to overachieve. We don't get a lot of the same players who go to UNC or Virginia. We're getting the second- or third-best player on a club team. We have to buy into the whole team/family concept. They have to get along off the field to get along on the field, that kind of thing.
Kids are out at my house a lot. We bring them in small groups to dinner. I can make two things, chicken cacciatore and grilled cheese; we usually opt for the chicken cacciatore! It's an opportunity for me to get to sit with them and talk with them and learn what motivates them, what drives them.
What are some of your proudest moments in coaching at JMU?
DL: That's a hard one. The first big moment we had was the 1995 CAA championship win against William and Mary, who had the national player of the year. We hosted it here, and we won it... and it was the first time we had been on television.
Another was our first NCAA Tournament win, up at Penn State (1995). We got in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large, and we weren't star-struck. We didn't say, "The job's over, we got in." That's always been our mission, to keep winning in the NCAAs and to go as far as we can.
Then there was the first time we beat Virginia, in 1999. They had been a storied program over the years, and April Heinrichs, who went on to become the national team and Olympic coach, was at the helm. And we were able to win without a star-studded cast.
Most recently, the Sweet 16 run in 2008, beating Georgia at Wake Forest and beating Wake at Wake, and then scaring (number one ranked) Portland before more than 5,000 of their fans.
Your program has a history of developing players, most notably Corky Julien, who has been a starter on the Canada National Team.
DL: The kids who are high school All-Americans are mostly going to the power conferences. We get kids who need coaching. To me that's what defines what you do in this business. There's been so much emphasis on recruiting, recruiting, recruiting, but when you get them here, you've got to do something with them. Hopefully you hit it right on the nose, you get a Dawn Evans (former JMU basketball player who played in the WNBA this year) that comes in. Even Dawn Evans wasn't Dawn Evans her freshman year. Corky wasn't Corky her freshman year.
You've got to identify what they already good at and continue to make that better. But you've got to find out with them those deficiencies you can improve on, so they become all-round players. When you do that, they end up becoming better players.
That's been our mantra. Over the years we have a particularly high rate of players sticking with us all four years. We bring in eight freshmen, and four years later usually six of those eight are graduating and the other two are graduating a year later because they red-shirted. That doesn't happen at a lot of programs. There's more of an educational model here than a business model.
Does every one of your players have a Dave Lombardo-given nickname?
DL: I try to do that. There's a familiarity that you develop when I call them a name that nobody else has called them. It helps to develop those bonds that allow us to help them get better. You start breaking those walls down, letting them know you care about them as a person but also care about them getting better as a player. That's just one of those things that helps.
Why are you still at JMU?
DL: I get that all the time, and I answer "Why wouldn't I be?" I have everything that I need, relative to the the ingredients that would make a team successful. That has just gotten better with the new facilities that we have.
Particularly under the leadership of (Director of Athletics) Jeff Bourne, I feel like there's been an importance to women's soccer. They want us to do well, they expect us to do well, and they're giving us the ingredients to do well. And that's why I'm still here.