The Mastermind

Doing more with less is in fashion these days. The mantra pervades professional sports, public education, the business world and politics.

For UCSB men’s soccer team Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg, it is the name of the game. At a school like UCSB, a mid-major where priorities stray from athletics, climbing to a #1 national ranking isn’t only improbable, it’s damn near surreal.

“I don’t even know if I thought it was possible; I really didn’t. I didn’t think being #1 in a poll at UCSB could happen,” Vom Steeg said. “I always thought potentially we could be #1 by playing our way to #1 … but the idea that we would beat some good teams and people would say this is the #1 team in the country, I do think that’s quite remarkable.”

Coming from neighboring Santa Barbara City College (where he amassed a 121-18-4 record) in 1999, Vom Steeg knew he had a monumental task at hand, considering the previous year’s team went 2-17-1. Vom Steeg picked up right where he left off at SBCC, though, going 13-7-0 in his first season at the helm, taking UCSB soccer off the chopping block.

“It was literally a Division I program competing on less than what a Division III school would get,” Vom Steeg said. “I said to them I’d love to have the challenge of seeing if we can do something at UCSB, but we need more than what we have right now.

“Certainly over the last five years scholarships have increased and men’s soccer was made a priority sport in the Big West Conference and got brought back, and we went out and raised a bunch of money to try and supplement what the program needed.”

Any Division I coach in any sport knows that building a nationally reputable program like the one Vom Steeg has spearheaded is not a one-man job. University support, world-class players and a competent assistant coach are all certainly part of the recipe.

The Assistant

Over the past four seasons Vom Steeg’s second-in-command has been UCSB Assistant Coach Leo Chappel. With Chappel on the sidelines, the Gauchos have compiled a record of 62-15-3, making three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and winning three Big West Championships.

Chappel helped his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, to a NCAA Division III championship as an assistant in 1997 and brings the same philosophies to #1 UCSB.

“Division III and Division I, the difference is the depth and the talent, but the attitude and work ethic is no different,” Chappel said. “If you can get really talented players to buy into that work ethic and defending both sides of the ball, there’s really no stopping you.”

Chappel came to UCSB along with this year’s senior class in 2001 and has instilled a dedication to fitness and hard work.

“Leo’s a great trainer. If we relax at training, he gets on us,” senior forward Neil Jones said. “There’s no such thing as an easy training session when Leo’s around.”

Included in the job description of assistant coach is the duty of recruitment. Chappel and Vom Steeg have helped to bring numerous foreign players with international experience to UCSB, six of which currently grace the UCSB roster. The seeming kindred spirits’ compatibility goes far beyond their worldly recruiting trips.

“He was an assistant coach and knew what it meant to be an assistant coach. He had worked at three other programs as an assistant coach and basically my age, older than the players, and had experience recruiting nationwide with contacts back east,” Vom Steeg said. “On top of that, Leo and I see the same game and have the same philosophy of what we see on the field so it’s really just a perfect fit.”

Vom Steeg and Chappel agree that there is one key component in building a championship caliber team like the #1 Gauchos.

“I think character is, without a doubt, the number-one thing. We want guys who are talented, but we want the guys who want to make the year-round commitment to working harder than they’ve ever worked before,” Chappel said. “Like I said, we get a lot of talented players, but if we get those guys to work hard they’re all going to overachieve.”

The Five-Year Plan

Vom Steeg likes to talk in terms of five-year plans. He is of the opinion that it takes five years, and no less, for a coach to be in complete control of his program.

“I always say that every coach should be able to do what he wants to do by his fifth year,” Vom Steeg said. “What that means is you’ve had the chance to recruit your own players, you’ve had a chance to implement your own system – so basically that means by that fifth year, everyone in your program is your player.”

Vom Steeg, now in his sixth year, has developed a program that is now, without a doubt, a West Coast, if not a national, powerhouse. To get to where he is, Vom Steeg has had to overcome one obstacle at a time.

“It hasn’t come overnight; it’s been a series of steps that we’ve taken, and with each step I feel the team is further ahead and the team is prepared to take the next step.”

The first step UCSB and Vom Steeg took toward building a national title contender came in 2002 when Vom Steeg guided the Gauchos to their first postseason appearance in school history. That year, UCSB tallied an 18-3-1 behind the foot of Rob Friend, who ripped off a school record of 20 goals in 22 games that year. Despite a second-round loss to Cal, the season was a building block for last year’s Sweet 16 team.

With a postseason win under his belt, Vom Steeg, with Chappel, led Santa Barbara to a 16-5-1 record and another postseason victory, avenging the previous year’s loss to Cal.

“We go to that Sweet 16 game and we’re six minutes away from penalty kicks and we lose in real disappointing fashion [to Saint John’s],” Vom Steeg said. But we’re once again knocking on that door where we’re one win away from being back at that game again, where you win that game and you’re playing in the final eight, then the final four.”

In his tenure, Vom Steeg has overseen 34 All-Big West Gaucho honorees in just four years, a tribute to his and to Chappel’s ability to recruit and produce top-notch talent.

This Year’s Team

This year’s senior class, Vom Steeg, Chappel and the rest of the Gaucho coaching staff entered this season with the experience they needed to earn a top ranking.

With two NCAA appearances and Big West Championships under their belts, the graduating Gauchos entered this season knowing that they had the commitment and personnel to improve on their Sweet 16 appearance in 2003.

In the preseason, UCSB got off on the right foot, starting with an eight-game win streak. Thanks to their dedication to offseason conditioning, the Gauchos stunned defending national champion Indiana 1-0 in double overtime on Sept. 18. Two days later, UCSB earned its first ever #1 national ranking and held onto it for five weeks.

“We know there hasn’t been a team [as fit as ours] yet. Indiana was pretty fit, but even Indiana wilted in the last 20 minutes; they were done in the overtime and our guys just kept going,” Chappel said. “We know eventually that we’re going to get clean looks at goal and chances to win the game, and they’ve been tough.”

Through a season marred by only two losses, the Gauchos were bolstered by their depth. This year’s recruiting class was ranked #9 in the nation and included three Canadian Junior National Team members in Tyler Rosenlund, Myles Davis and Andrew Proctor.

“The Canadian kids are tough kids. They have that hockey player mentality. When I went up to recruit the three of them, we hit it off right away. I gave them 48 hours to make a decision, because we wanted all three of them. With good players, it all comes down to who they want to play for,” Chappel said. “Those guys are here to win.”

Last week, the brackets revealed that UCSB had received a #9 seeding after going 4-1-1 against tournament teams and finishing with an overall record of 17-2-1. So, after knocking down wall after wall to get to the #1 ranking, Vom Steeg and his staff still have skeptics to prove wrong.

When the season is all said and done, the only thing the Gauchos will have to worry about is losing their two coaches.

“My only concern now is Leo’s a really hot commodity now so we’re going to have to work really hard to make sure we keep him in our program,” Vom Steeg said.

And don’t think the same doesn’t go for Vom Steeg himself.