soccer coach Dr. Tom Martin has taken the Dukes to nine NCAA Tournaments,
including the 2011 NCAA round of 16.
With more than 450 career victories, he's the winningest active coach in
Division I soccer. Martin, now in his
27th JMU season, has been Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year five
times. One of his players, CJ Sapong, was Major League Soccer Rookie of the
Year in 2011.
His teams have consistently achieved Top 25 national ranking, and earlier this season the Dukes beat No. 1 ranked and defending NCAA champion North Carolina.
Coach Martin, known to his players as "Doc," recently shared his thoughts on his career in the sport.
When did soccer become a part of your life?
TM: I was a gym rat, and that was the first connection. And my father was a Little League baseball coach, and I was a bat boy at age 4 or 5.
Soccer was big in my community. I grew up in a heavily German-American community in Pennsylvania. My school district had discontinued football, so when you got to seventh grade, you had a choice. You ran cross country or you played soccer, and I went to the soccer league.
I had a great family, an older and a younger brother, and we all played sports, we all played soccer. But I played a lot of other sports. I played four sports in high school, which kids just don't do anymore.
What made you decide to coach?
TM: I always used to hang around the gym in middle school and once I said, "This coaching's a pretty good job. What do you have to do to be a coach?" The wife of my high school coach, whose son later played for me at West Virginia Wesleyan, always reminds me that I said that. "You really amounted to something. I can remember when you first asked what it takes to be a coach," she says.
I knew I would be doing something in sports. I did not think I'd be coaching this long. My plan was to get a master's degree, then a doctorate. When I was finished with coaching I wanted to be prepared to justify being in an academic position in a college or university. That's the environment I wanted to be in. I really love the changes of kids all the time, when you get turnover after turnover every year with new kids coming in. As I get older, the kids don't know it, but they're keeping me younger. But I've stayed a coach, and I haven't pursued that other route very adamantly.
What drew you to JMU?
TM: I was very happy where I was in West Virginia, at a Division II level school (West Virginia Wesleyan). Then our son, Sean, was born, and we said "Okay, this has been a great experience for us, but by the time Sean starts public school, we want to be in a locale where we're going to call home for a long stretch."
The JMU job happened to open up coincidentally when Sean was 1. (Director of Athletics) Dean Ehlers and (Associate Director of Athletics) Lee Morrison took a chance on a guy from a Division II school to move to Division I. That's a little risky sometimes; everybody wants a proven Division I coach with a lengthy track record of success.
You've had opportunities to coach elsewhere, but you've chosen to stay at JMU.
TM: I've had a number of offers since I've been here, some very lucrative. But we love this place. My home is Lancaster, Pa., and my wife's is Northern Virginia, so we're close to relatives here. My son's grown up here. He's got two degrees from JMU.
I'm probably one of the longest-tenured coaches at the same school in the country. Coaching is a transient profession. Very rarely do people stay at the same place for a long period of time. But if you're happy with where you are, what you're doing and who you're doing it with, why should you look elsewhere?
Your family has been a key component of your coaching career.
TM: One of the things that I tell kids all the time is if you're going to go into coaching, make sure you get the right spouse, because it's critical.
To this day, my wife, Cheryl, still washes the scrimmage vests every night. We do that because, in these industrial laundries, everything shrinks. If I forget the vests, she always reminds me to come back (to get them).
When Sean came along, priorities changed. Soccer is really important, but it wasn't number one after you start talking about a family unit.
We've got a photo of Sean, in diapers, falling asleep using the soccer ball as a pillow in the goal mouth at the JMU soccer field. There's another photo we have, when he was 6 or 7 and a ball boy, standing next to me the day we played Duke in the NCAA's. Little do you know that this guy is going to want to be a coach like his dad.
What are your strengths as a coach?
TM: There aren't a lot of super secrets about the game of soccer. A lot of it has to do with people-management skills, because there are a ton of coaches out there in every sport that really know the game. But how you handle the people and how you mix the pieces is real important.
Soccer is a player's game. There aren't timeouts, and if the wheels are coming off in soccer, there is very little you can do. All your preparation is beforehand, whether it's scouting reports or training. You try to present the same environments that the kids are going to see in the game and then be able to make the adjustments on their own.
In order to set players up to be successful, it's not just X's and O's, especially with college-age students. It's how you manage those kids. They're hit with a whole host of things in college soccer the very first semester they're here. They don't have a semester to get their feet on the ground. So how you manage all those variables that come into play and at the same time try to get the most out of what you have is critical.
Another thing that comes into play is getting players to realize what their strengths are. You try to mold your team around the strengths and skills of your players.
Your recruiting class is often are what are called "central players." They are players that play right down the middle of the field, right down the spine of the team. At many lower levels of soccer, that's where your best players are, and then the players on the outside are your "peripheral players" who don't have a complete skill set or the abilities to play right in the middle. But what happens on a college team is they are ALL central players. There are only so many positions that can be central, so you are moving people around based on their abilities to different roles.
And that's people management, convincing players that, for the good of the team, we're going to look at you in a different position. It's going to be an easier way for you to get on the field, it's going to play to your strengths, and you can make that transition pretty easily. Seeing and recognizing those things is part of what's all about when putting a team together.
Your best team is, in almost every case, never your most skilled players. It's your best players in combination, who complement each other.
Let's say you had a four-man midfield and you put the best technical midfielders on your team as your four midfielders. That may be tremendous if you never lost the ball, but if you lost the ball, who would do the dirty work and win the ball back?
What I enjoy just as much if not more (than the soccer side of things) is helping kids realize that soccer is going to give you lessons that go on to the real world. You're going to have to fight for something, to be competitive, to set some goals, to work hard to achieve them.
The vast majority of these kids, this is the highest level they are going to play, and after this, it's going to be a Sunday pub league or a semi-professional level. But to help them take their experiences from soccer and pass them on to the real world is probably what I enjoy the most.
What is our job really supposed to be about? It's preparing these kids for the real world. Soccer is the vehicle to maybe get them into a school but, at the end of the day, it's where are they 10 or 15 years from now.
What goes into recruiting a soccer player?
It's trying to get the right people that are the right fit for your university, your environment and your team. Anybody can identify the top talent in the country or internationally. That's easy. It's finding that next level of kid who may think he's ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) or Big East material but he's really not, but at the same time, he is a very good match for your institution, academically, culturally, socially, and athletically.
CJ Sapong, Kurt Morsink and Kevin Knight (JMU players who went on to play in Major League Soccer) did not come to JMU to get some professional exposure. But they were good fits for us.
In a lot of ways JMU is one of the best-kept secrets out there, especially now that we are in the process of upgrading all the athletic facilities. The campus is gorgeous, the academics are strong, you can walk to everything.
Academically, athletically, or socially -- when you put those three things in the same hopper it's a pretty good situation (at JMU). That at the end of the day is what recruits those kids for us, and it's also what keeps them in the program.
CJ Sapong (2011 MLS Rookie of the Year and second-year pro with Sporting Kansas City) is a great example that a JMU player can go on to succeed at a high level.
TM: Recruits see that the opportunity is here to go on to play professionally, because of the schedule that we play, the conference that we're in, the exposure that we get.
Early in CJ's freshman year, I told him after a game "CJ, just because you're a first-year player, don't be afraid to take over the game. You've got all the tools to really be good. Just because you're a freshman and other kids are sophomores, juniors, or seniors, that doesn't mean anything when the whistle blows. You can run the game. You can take the game over."
As his career evolved, we moved him into different positions that suited us as a team, but at the same time playing to CJ's strengths. He may have had to sacrifice a little bit in positions that we moved him around in, but it at the same time, it helped us as a team and it played to his strengths.
It's ironic that now that he has moved to the professional level and gotten some national team call-ups, that they're playing him almost in the exact role that we played him here.
And all credit to Sporting Kansas City; they did their homework. They got the right guy for the perfect system that they play. Athleticism is a prime requisite. You've got to work extremely hard. You've got to pressure the ball. You've got to be able to break people down one-on-one. You got to be able to close people down. It fits CJ to a T. He couldn't have gone to a better situation.
Could CJ have gone to a bigger school? Absolutely. Could CJ have gone to one of the elite top 10 programs in the country? Absolutely. JMU was a good fit for him. For us and for him. And it just worked out great.
You have a lot of connections outside of the United States. How do you use that in recruiting?
When I first started out in coaching, any international players that I recruited were from connections with guys that I played with myself. The first one here was a kid named Chris Simon, and I played with his high school coach. When his high school coach came to college, I was the one who picked him up at the airport, and we stayed in touch ever since.
But now with technology, the world is becoming a much smaller place. We probably get five international inquiries a day. Soccer being as global as it is, there is a lot of international interest from kids to come to the states, because we are the only country where you can combine soccer and academics at the same time.
Now, it's really ironic, kids at JMU that have gone to school here, graduated 10, 15 years ago, are recommending players to us. That's exactly how (freshman defender and CAA Rookie of the Year candidate) Bjarki Aðalsteinsson came here.
In the infancy of the internet one kid, Kjartin Antonsson (from Iceland), contacted us. He said, "I have a friend at Duke. He recommended I look at Duke or look at JMU." I said, "You must have mixed up the semantics. We're the Dukes, they're Duke."
He said "No, no, he recommended I look at your school," and he did, and he came and played for us. Then 11, 12 years later KJ comes back for a visit and says "I'm going to recommend a kid, Bjarki. He's a young player. They say he's a lot like me. His head is in the right place." And that's how it works.
We get an awful lot of international interest from kids every year because of the international business program here. We're pretty open to taking a chance on anybody that wants to contact us and give them a look and give them a go. It doesn't always work out.
But all credit to the kids; they do their homework. (They say) "I understand you have a good program, you're building new facilities, your business school is in the top 5 percent in the country, and I want to major in international business. Can you take a look at me?"
The part of it that really pays dividends is when an international student comes here and has a good experience and goes home. Word-of-mouth is probably the best communicator. Everybody looks good on a website, that's somebody's job, that's Marketing 101. But when a kid has a great experience here, gets his degree, maybe plays (professionally) afterwards or not, but goes home and says "Hey, you want to combine academics and athletics, this is a good option to consider." That probably speaks louder than anything else.
The international players bring more than just soccer skills to JMU.
TM: They offer a totally different perspective, and it's good in terms of the whole educational sphere.
Soccer overseas is the only sport they have ever played, whereas every American kid has grown up playing a ton of different ball sports or maybe non-ball sportssucj as swimming, running, etc.
What you see with the international players is a different degree of seriousness. They tend to be more students of the game. They don't know who Michael Jordan is, other than seeing the highlight video, but they know who Lionel Messi is. You like to get kids in that mix where part of the whole educational process works both ways. Before you know it, an American kid may become a more significant student of the game because he may be living with an international kid and vice versa.
The best example I could ever think of is Kjartan Antonsson from Iceland. We had Hisham Gomes, who was a Trinidadian kid. The team took a trip to San Francisco. Kjartan and Hisham couldn't go because they had to stay here for international student orientation. They became best friends. After they graduated, Hisham moved to Iceland and lived and worked for a year. What are the chances of that happening? Now, they are still great friends.
Last fall Hisham, Ivar (Sigurjonsson, another former JMU player from Iceland) and Kjartan showed up at practice with their wives and kids one day just clear out of the blue. They came here for a holiday for a week. As a result of probably a lot of talk in that visit, that's how Bjarki ended up here.
It's an educational process. Just looking at Iceland, I never would have known or even guessed that that country has the highest literacy rate in the world. A student-athlete coming from that kind of country is no risk academically. They are very well prepared. They go to high school for a year longer, and they have a very good educational foundation. Until we had a kid from Iceland, I would have never of guessed that, so it's an education for me too.
One of the goals of JMU's centennial celebration (in 2008) was to increase international diversity, and I clearly supported it. It gives our kids that grow up in Virginia or the mid-Atlantic region exposure to different cultures, different mores, different backgrounds. It's great. I was fortunate enough to go through that kind of experience myself, so I place a pretty high value on that.
Many don't realize how high the level of play in the CAA is. Some of your best teams have not qualified for the CAA tournament. Talk about the challenge of being consistently successful in the CAA, and how finishing first last year was such an accomplishment.
Mr. (Dean) Ehlers and Mr. (Brad) Babcock (former JMU administrators) were the two that probably said it the best. They said, "Tom, we understand that men's soccer in the CAA, it's a hybrid sport. They compete at the national level. There is no such thing as that mid-major level. You'll find out if you haven't already."
And I said, "That's good because that's what I want." We want to play the best teams we can possibly play, whether it's home or away, and that's how you can measure yourself. That's how you can find out where you are, what you have to work on, what steps you have to take to try to get better.
I read in a soccer magazine a couple years ago that getting into the playoffs in the CAA is the toughest ticket in college soccer. Everybody is as good as anybody else; it just depends on the given day. But to reduce the number of teams from 11 to six or four (for the playoffs) makes it the toughest ticket out there. Case in point, we've had teams get into the NCAA tournament that don't get in the conference playoffs because of the strength of the schedule (in the CAA). And the NCAA Tournament is small; it's only 48 teams.
What you have is a number of schools who traditionally are strong in soccer, and you have a number of schools where soccer is the big fall sport. They're not football-playing institutions, and that is not a bad thing, it's just what it is. What that means is that we go to places like George Mason and North Carolina Wilmington, and it's Homecoming or it's Parents Weekend and everything is trumped up and built around soccer. That's a good thing for them, it really is. It's a good crowd, it's a hostile crowd.
And yes, people don't realize how good the CAA is. Last year, there were four CAA teams in the NCAA tournament, and there could have been a fifth, as William and Mary just missed out. That pretty much says it all. That means there was one automatic bid and three at-large bids (for the CAA). That's such a tough thing to do when half the field is taken up with automatics already, and a very significant percentage of the rest of the field is taken up by the Big East and the ACC.
Every game in the conference is like a NCAA game. Every single game. You get so emotionally spent preparing for it and getting through it. Unfortunately, only one team can be successful in those games, so both sides are emotionally spent when it's done.
It's such a tough conference, and you have a couple different ways you can go about it. You can probably play a very easy non-conference schedule to try to get some success and prepare you for the conference numbers wise; you may have a 5-2 (out-of-conference) record or something like that. Or you can try to play the best teams you can play to try to measure yourself and find out what you need to do, what you need to work on and how you can be successful learning from that experience.
Teams in the conference go both ways. I don't know what the best answer is. We like to play the best people. People ask "Why are you playing these people out of conference?" We say "Look, we get a chance to play North Carolina here or we get a chance to play a Duke there, or we get a chance to play a New Mexico there, an FIU, teams that are traditional NCAA tournament teams, we're going to try to do it."
I think the kids would much rather do that, and I know I would much rather do that. Now, it doesn't always pay off as well as you like. You've got to bring your "A" game every day. You can't have injuries, and you need a little bit of luck. There are a lot of things that go into the equation about being successful there. But we'd much rather be doing that than doing something else. And now with our facility, we have the potential to do more of that down the road because we have a good playing surface and we have a very nice environment to play in.
What have been your proudest moments as a coach?
A number of people have asked me that. I can't give you one simple answer. I just can't.
I sat last year and watched D.C. United play Sporting Kansas City at RFK. And when CJ (Sapong) scored a goal to win the game in the 93rd minute, I was sitting with a couple of JMU alums in a D.C United section and we all stood up and yelled like it was the World Cup.
To see a kid like that who worked so hard to get where he is, it is extremely rewarding from an individual perspective.
To beat Wake Forest last year to get to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen was good because nobody gave us a chance to win that game.
To beat North Carolina this year at home, it was a perfect storm. With the new University Park facility, with the perfect weather, with the heart that the guys put into the game, the effort that they put in. We had more people here than the stadium could hold. It was real validation that we're doing things the right way, and the support that we got was great. I had 10- and 12-year old kids from the community come up and hug me. It was a good night. That one in itself is going to be hard to beat.
To beat Maryland and get to the NCAA Elite Eight on penalty kicks (in 1995) here was phenomenal. To beat Duke to get to the final eight (in 1994) was great.
But maybe the most significant was way back in the mid-90's when we got invited to a tournament with Wake Forest and North Carolina, and it was at Wake. We were reasonably young. We had a lot of sophomores and juniors and not too many seniors. We were supposed to be the filler team, and Carolina and Wake were both in the top 20 at the time, perennial powers. We beat them both (2-1 over UNC and 4-0 over Wake) and won the tournament. That was a day that (future All-America and JMU Athletic Hall of Fame inductee) Patrick McSorley touched the ball three times and had three goals. And the coach from North Carolina came up to us when it was over and said "Man, for a young team, you've got a hell of a team."
And that trip was the thing that really gave us the exposure and success to jump-start us, to really kick us off.
Who's the best player you've ever had at JMU?
Up until this year I couldn't give you a definitive answer, but now I can.
We went to Manchester United two years ago for a game, and we took a tour of Old Trafford. Our tour guide was from Manchester, he's in his 80s, and I asked him, "Who's the best player you ever saw?"
I'm expecting him to say Wayne Rooney, George Best, Bobby Charlton, names that roll off your tongue if you're a soccer person. He doesn't even think, he says "Duncan Edwards". I'm thinking, "Who was Duncan Edwards?"
The tour guide tells me, "He was only here five years. He was killed in an airplane crash when the team was coming back from a game at Bayern Munich. He was going to be the next star for England."
Then I asked, "Why was he the best player?" and he said, "He never had a bad day, he NEVER had a bad day. It didn't matter what was happening off the field, when he came and put his shoes on he worked his socks off."
I come back home, and I look at CJ Sapong, and he never had a bad day for us. CJ never missed time for injury; CJ never took a day off. That's where I can say, he's the best one (to play for me at JMU).
Clearly it's CJ. I look at the success that he's had, the personality that he has, the fact that he never gave less than 100 percent, was never injured seriously. If anything we had to tell him to back off. We made him take some days off.
He's also the prototype of what we should be looking at in terms of American players at the national level. He's got a good skill set, he's strong, he plays to his strengths. That's what we have to develop and foster. It worked for us, and it's working for him big-time.
What does it mean to be the winningest active coach in Division I soccer?
It's nice to hear, there's no coach that wouldn't say that, but I don't dwell on it, and I'm not constantly aware of it.
What it means is I've been very fortunate, I've had a lot of good people around me. In that group are good players, good support people, good assistant coaches.
Maybe one of the biggest reasons is stability. I've been in the same place. If you look at coaches in any sport that are pretty successful, they've been able to be in the same place for a pretty lengthy period of time
There's a luck factor, there's a timing factor, there's other things that come into it.
Any organization is only as good as the people who are running that organization. My first real significant awareness of that was when I interviewed for the job here. Everybody talked about (then president) Dr. Carrier. He's the guy that's developing this university. His vision is unlike any other model. Ever since then it's resonated with me that it's about people.
It's like a bubble -- good assistant coaches, good facilities, good academics, a little bit of luck and timing and other pieces that make that bubble. If any one of those breaks, your opportunity for success is diminished significantly. I've been real fortunate that a lot of pieces of that bubble have been there.