Sept. 10, 2008
Originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly magazine
The men's soccer program at the University of California is one of the oldest in school history, with continuous play dating back to 1906.
Kevin Grimes has served as head coach the last eight years, and already he has guided the Golden Bears to more NCAA Tournament games (14) and wins (7) than they had in the nearly 100 seasons before his arrival in Berkeley.
A four-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year who has guided Cal to the past two conference championships, Grimes enters the 2008 campaign with a 93-57- 15 record, which includes double-digit victories each of the last seven years.
His 2002 and 2006 squads reached the NCAA Sweet 16, and in 2005, the Bears advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time with a 3-2 win over Wake Forest.
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Grimes played collegiately at SMU, where he was twice named a first-team All-American. He later earned seven full international caps with the U.S. National team from 1988-91 and played professionally for nearly eight seasons.
Since taking over a struggling program at Cal in 2000 - one that existed under the threat of elimination - Grimes has built the Bears into one of the elite squads in the country. This past summer, Grimes agreed to a new five-year contract that will keep him in Berkeley through the 2012 season.
Q: When you were growing up, soccer became a very big part of who you are. How did you gravitate toward the sport initially?
A: Soccer is a big part of our family's history. My father and my grandfather on my mother's side have both been inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame. St. Louis has a huge tradition of soccer. It's probably one of the most popular soccer cities in the whole country, dating all the way back to the '20s and '30s. Right from the moment I can even remember, soccer has always been a part of my life. It's just something you did as a kid growing up in St. Louis. There have been several national and Olympic teams that have been filled by St. Louis players, and the 1950 World Cup team that beat England had eight of 11 starters from St. Louis.
Q: Throughout your playing career, is there any particular game or moment that stands out?
A: My junior year in college, we had a playoff game in St. Louis, and about 6-8 inches of snow came down right before the match. They had to shovel the snow off the field the morning of the game, but the field was still filled with slush. The wind chill had to be somewhere in the teens. We were in probably in the most dire circumstances that you could ever imagine for a soccer game. I couldn't feel my feet or my hands the entire game. Somehow, and I don't know how, I think I played the best game of my life. Even today when I go back home to St. Louis - and this is now 20 years later - I'll occasionally bump into people and they will still ask me about that game. The circumstances were the worst conditions I've ever played in. It told me that mind can absolutely overcome matter no matter what circumstances you're in. Our team could have just folded our tents, but we ended up winning, 2-1, in overtime.
Q: When you first arrived at Cal in 2000, what was your view of the program and how much potential did you envision?
A: I didn't know a whole lot about the soccer program itself because it really wasn't on the national map. What I did know was what the University of California was as an academic institution and athletic department. Being in Berkeley and the Bay Area, all of the components and elements of Cal were extremely enticing. You looked at it and said, "Wow, it's a sleeping giant. There's an enormous amount of untapped potential." I was taking a huge risk going to a relatively unknown program. Not to mention, they told me before the interview and several times after that it was a one-year contract and that soccer might be eliminated from Cal Athletics. My response was, just give me one year to prove myself, that's all I need. I can't exactly say that we had a very good season my first year, but the team pulled off some absolutely remarkable results. And our recruiting was going really well. Year two came and we had 13 new players and we made the NCAA playoffs for the second time in 15 years. It really gave our program an instant spotlight nationally. Since then, we've tried to keep chipping away and improving and molding our culture into what we really want it to be for Cal soccer.
Q: Were there any signature moments that helped turn the program around?
A: At the end of our first year in 2000, which is typically when your team should be playing at its best, in a three-week period we beat UCLA, which was ranked fourth in the country, and Indiana, which was ranked second in the country and was the two-time defending national champion. It was then that the players and alumni started to think that we might be doing something special here. Fast forward it to 2005, we beat Wake Forest in double overtime in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
Q: Now that the program is on solid ground, what are you able to offer to recruits to help it grow?
A: It's the full package of what Cal has to offer. You have an educational institution that is second to none, an athletic department that is nationally and internationally known, that participates in the Pac-10, arguably the best athletic conference in the nation, and you combine that with all the other elements of living in the Bay Area, a beautiful campus, a wonderful soccer facility to play our games in. You look from A to Z, this place is pretty much a no-brainer for wanting to be a student-athlete.
Q: Now that the team is a fixture in the NCAA Tournament and has won back-to-back Pac-10 titles, where do you go from here?
A: The players want to establish their own identity every year. Anything that happened in past years, they just look at as a bookmark and as a resource. If they need to go back and check that resource and find that bookmark, they're going to grab it and use it for that particular season. But by and large, they want to create their own story, their own chapter each and ever year. We never want to put any definition or finality on any particular season because sometimes when you do that, you can sell yourself short. We just let the players each and every year create their own history of Cal soccer and allow them to do that freely.
Q: Earlier this summer, the team traveled to Italy and played a series of games against European teams. How much will that experience help the Bears in the coming season?
A: The main thing that came out of the trip to Italy was the players' ability to bond together. They were together for 12 days in a foreign country, battling a lot of difficult elements of travel, language, hotels and food. The other thing that was pretty much a signature moment was the results that the players had against some very good competition, especially to be able to tie AC Milan - a world-renowned name in professional soccer. We basically played their youth team that's the same age as our players. For our guys to be able to come up with a result like that against a team that has so much recognition was