Michael McBride and the Rise of NDC Men’s Soccer
When Michael McBride took the job as head coach of Notre Dame’s men’s soccer team in 2000, there wasn’t much of anything that would hint at a bright future for Falcon soccer. The team-in-the-making would have to share a small field with neighboring Regina High School. There were no uniforms, no practice gear, no scholarships, no budget. There weren’t even proper-sized goals. For the first nine months, McBride worked without getting paid. Driving to South Euclid from Canton, Ohio, he would sleep under his desk because he couldn’t afford the fuel costs to drive back.
Fast forward to 2009: McBride’s team is getting ready for its ninth season. Its goal – to qualify for the NAIA National Championship Tournament in Fresno, Calif. in November – is a lofty one, but realistic. McBride has created a nationally renowned soccer program from scratch. His team competed at two national championships and finished last year’s regular season rankings as the second best team in the country, a feat that no other NAIA soccer program has accomplished within seven years of inception. In 2008, the Falcons competed in arguably the toughest conference in the NAIA. They came out on top and McBride was voted the American Mideast Conference (AMC) Coach of the Year.
Under McBride’s leadership, the Falcons have won an additional five AMC North Division championships over the years. Their winning percentage of .667 is the highest among NDC’s 18 active athletic programs. McBride coached 11 NAIA all-Americans, 10 NAIA scholar-athletes and 17 First Team All-AMC performers. Two of his players, Tim Finklea and Frank Jonke, proceeded to play professionally and a dozen competed in the Premier Development League for elite college players. In a short period of time, McBride was able to convince talents from around the country and the globe to build a nationally ranked soccer program at a school that didn’t even accept males until 2001. In short, Notre Dame’s men’s soccer program is personified in “Mac” McBride.
Coming a Long Way
“Coach McBride has established himself within the NAIA soccer community as an outstanding recruiter and head coach. He’s one of the best at our level,” says NAIA Men’s Soccer Sport Manager Scott McClure. “He and his teams have earned the respect of all collegiate coaches in the NAIA and throughout the United States.”
To earn this respect, McBride came a long way, both literally and figuratively. Born in Birmingham, England, McBride previously worked as a Professional Footballers Association community coach for West Bromwich Albion F.C. He came to the U.S. in 1995 to earn his bachelor and master degrees in education from Walsh University. A scholarship athlete for the Walsh Cavaliers, McBride earned all-AMC and all-region honors, was an NAIA all-American nominee and all-American scholar athlete. In 1999 and 2000, McBride earned his national diploma and advanced national diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), passing both with distinction; he worked as assistant soccer coach at Walsh from 1997 to 2000 before taking up the challenge at NDC.
But McBride’s path could have easily led him somewhere else. He had been offered the head coach position at an NCAA Division III school and the assistant coach position at a DI school when a colleague told him about the vacant job at Notre Dame. It was the first time McBride had heard about the College despite having regularly trained just five miles down the road. “I came up a week before the interview, took a wrong turn, couldn’t find the place,” McBride remembers. But when he did finally find the campus and after listening to Director of Athletics Susan Hlavacek, McBride decided to turn down offers from established NCAA institutions – and initially turn down a living wage – to scramble together NDC’s inaugural team.
“There was nothing here. Talk about challenges,” McBride says. “A part of me was naive. I didn’t realize how big the challenge was. But I thought to myself, if there would be anything like success then I could say I played a pretty significant part in it. It sounds really cliché, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There aren’t new programs popping up all over the place.”
An Instant Success
McBride’s former coaches and colleagues had plenty of advice for the first-time head coach. Two ideas stuck with him: 1) never go above budget and 2) create a manageable schedule, because to attract talent you need to win a few games. McBride’s team didn’t have the luxury of the latter. Playing in the largest NAIA conference, the Falcons’ inaugural season almost entirely consisted of conference games.
It was thanks to McBride’s recruiting skills that his team was up to the challenge. He convinced two all-American transfers to wear the Falcon jersey. One of them, Jeremy Kephart, still holds Notre Dame’s all-time scoring record with 64 goals in two seasons. He played a big role in the team’s initial success as the Falcons went 8-10 in their first year, missing the playoffs by just one win.
By the time the second season came around, McBride had recruited a diverse team with players from the U.S., South America and Europe. With the AMC splitting into two divisions, the Falcons rose to become the top team in the north, winning the division championship.
“It was incredible what these first boys managed,” McBride says. “What they achieved was every bit as important as anything that came after. If we wouldn’t have been anywhere near competitive, the other boys that came in after wouldn’t have considered us.”
Building a Program
McBride had been told repeatedly that it would take at least five years to build a soccer program. He initially dismissed these comments thinking he could do it more quickly. But it didn’t take him long to realize he couldn’t.
“I never mentioned the word ‘winning’ during these first years. I told the boys they should ‘compete,’ which can really mean anything,” McBride says. “For four years I told them ‘I can’t give you a program but I can give you a team.’”
That changed in 2005. Coming off their second AMC North Division Championship the previous year, the Falcons defended that title, qualified for the NAIA Regional Tournament and finished their season ranked No. 18 in the country, allowing them to compete at the national championships in Daytona Beach, Fl. McBride’s team was the first from Notre Dame College to compete on the national level and it exceeded everyone’s expectations.
In the opening round, the Falcons defeated Simon Frasier University from British Columbia, Canada by a score of 2-1 in overtime to advance to the elite eight, where their miracle run ended with 1-0 loss to Southern Nazarene University (Okla.). The team was also selected as the recipient of the Nels Dahlquist Memorial Team Sportsmanship Award – an honor given by the tournament committee and referees based on sportsmanship and integrity. McBride and the Falcons had arrived at the national stage and had made headlines both through their game and character.
“Under Coach McBride’s leadership, Notre Dame College men’s soccer has earned the reputation of being a team that consistently models solid character and sportsmanship both on the field and in their community,” McClure says.
For this achievement, McBride was recognized as the 2005 NSCAA/Adidas Great Lakes Regional Coach of the Year and nominated for the NAIA National Coach of the Year Award. He was also recognized by the College with the President’s Appreciation Award.
No Stepping Stone Anymore
With the evolution from a team to a program in 2005, much has changed for Notre Dame Men’s Soccer. With two more AMC North Division titles (2006 and 2007), last year’s conference championship and the second appearance at nationals that ended in the sweet 16 only after a heartbreaking loss on penalties, McBride has established the program among the best in the NAIA.
“People know who we are now,” says McBride, who was nominated for the 2008 NAIA National Coach of the Year Award. “We have been seen as a stepping stone by some players. But I think once they are here, they are not stepping off that stone anymore.”
Instead, Notre Dame has become a lucrative destination for scholarship athletes looking for a quality education and the chance to compete for a national championship. The Falcons have already signed two all-American transfers for this upcoming season and McBride is eyeing several other domestic and foreign standouts interested in the College. With many of last season’s starters remaining, McBride wants to take the team even further this year.
“The absolute minimum is that we are back on the plane to California, that we make nationals, which I know is a pretty bold statement. Getting there is going to be tough since we are in arguably one of the best conferences,” he says.
A national championship is McBride’s ultimate goal, but even without this title in the trophy case, the Falcons have already turned heads, especially in Northeast Ohio’s soccer community.
“It is very difficult to maintain a top collegiate program, never mind start one from scratch,” says Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer and former Olympian Mike Sweeney, who resides in Independence, Ohio. “There are very, very few programs that have maintained the level of Notre Dame’s soccer program and there are none that have done it with less resources or history.”
Former Yugoslavian international Joe Raduka, who played for Red Star Belgrade, credits McBride for these accomplishments. “I have been around many professional soccer coaches in my 39 years in this sport, but none of them have the character of this man,” says Raduka, who founded the Cleveland United Soccer Club. “Michael’s teams have been on a steady rise of national recognition for the highly talented level they play.”
Raduka recently recommended McBride for the head coach position of the Cleveland City Star’s, the city’s only professional team. But McBride declined to interview for the position illustrating his passion for the program he built.
“Coach McBride has had many opportunities to take offers at top NCAA Division I schools with much bigger budgets, larger support staff, recruiting advantages and a much easier lifestyle,” Sweeney says. “Very much to his credit, Mike has chosen each and every time to remain committed to his student athletes.”
In addition to his coaching obligation at Notre Dame, McBride serves as the co-chair of the American Mideast Conference. In his spare time, McBride is the technical director of the Cleveland Blues, a local soccer club for youth ages 4 to 17 that he co-founded in 2001. Through the Blues McBride shares his love for the game with the surrounding community regularly. He named the club after his favorite team in England, Birmingham City F.C. His motivation to found the Blues also describes his commitment to the Notre Dame men’s soccer program. “It was important to me to bring a piece from home over here. When I leave, whenever that might be, I know that I left something.”
Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.