Men’s soccer coach focuses on development
Published: Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Updated: Thursday, June 25, 2009 13:06
This is the first in a series profiling UCF head coaches.
UCF Men's Soccer head coach Bryan Cunningham says that the biggest aspect of soccer that the United States doesn't appreciate is that, of all the other sports, it's a players' game.
There are no calls being radioed in. There are no signals given from a dugout, or plays drawn up on a whiteboard. The game of soccer is based on what each player decides to do when the ball is at his feet.
However, to mold and to teach those players to become not only great athletes and great winners, but also great people, that is where a coach such as Cunningham is needed.
"Obviously, we want to compete for championships," he said. "That's number one, and that's what any coach wants to do. But at the same time, we want to make sure players graduate, and that we're developing good leaders and role models for the team. So that ultimately, they can go off and be good employees, good employers, good husbands and good fathers."
Cunningham is a native of Philadelphia but decided to move down to North Carolina for college after his brother, Rob, decided to attend North Carolina State. Cunningham, unlike his brother, went to a small school: Pfeiffer University.
He graduated from Pfeiffer in four years in 1996 and was a four-year letterman on the soccer team, but it was in his junior year, as a player, that Cunningham first got the feeling that he could have a future as a coach.
"I had spent a couple of summers working as a staff coach for (Pfeiffer head coach) T.J. Kostecky, my mentor, for his soccer camps and clinics he was putting on," Cunningham said. "He really gave me a lot of self-belief that I could do this, that I had a very good knack for coaching, teaching the game and working with players of all different abilities."
After some careful thought, Cunningham decided to pursue that avenue.
His first coaching job came in 1997 as Kostecky gave him a volunteer assistant position at Pfeiffer. Before the start of the 1998 season, Kostecky was named Appalachian State's head coach, and he decided to bring Cunningham on board as his top assistant.
Cunningham spent five seasons on the Mountaineers' staff before landing a job with a higher profile in 2003.
"The Carolinas is a pretty tight community," he said. "You're doing a lot of recruiting, and you're seeing a lot of the same people in a 3-hour radius. I was able to make my name as a very good recruiter, hard worker, and good assistant, and I was fortunate that Mark Berson at the University of South Carolina brought me to him as his top assistant."
The Gamecocks expected greatness during Cunningham's time on their staff. In both seasons, they were ranked as high as seventh in the national polls.
Cunningham said that recruiting for a program such as South Carolina is grueling, because you are gone for weeks at a time, traveling all over the world and trying to find the best players for your team. He also said the reward of all that work is "getting the good players and making a lot of good players."
One of those contacts would help put down the pathway toward Cunningham's future at UCF.
When he was an assistant at South Carolina, Cunningham's Gamecocks fought with Southern Methodist University for the services of many of the same players. SMU's top recruiter at that time was Brent Erwin.
"Brent and I were very close," Cunningham said. "We recruited against the same players, and if we were out on the road, recruiting, we would always pick each other's brains."
Eventually, Erwin was given the UCF head coaching job in 2005, and Cunningham found himself being lured away by a close friend yet again.
Cunningham spent two seasons as Erwin's top assistant, both of which didn't see much success for the Knights in their first two years as a part of Conference USA. The Knights' combined record in those two seasons was 13-17-3.
Cunningham's skills as a recruiter were getting some high praise, however. Cunningham's first recruiting class at UCF ranked in the top 30 nationally by College Soccer News, and first in the south region by StudentSports.com.
In January 2007, Cunningham's career took a positive turn, but at the expense of Erwin, who resigned from UCF after concerns about being too far away from his family in Dallas.
Erwin returned to SMU to coach the women's team, and Cunningham stepped up to become the Knights' newest leader.
Cunningham said he didn't feel nervous in the role, as he had served as interim head coach at Appalachian State on a few occasions. But with the step up in conference play and young roster — 19 of UCF's 26 players in the 2007 season were underclassmen — Cunningham was realistic about the team's immediate future.
"I was very clear (to the administration) that this was going to take time, because we didn't want to be just a one-hit wonder," Cunningham said. "Our intentions are to build something that's going to last here, so then every player that comes into this program can then be proud and look back and know that they were an important, integral part of that process."
Part of that building includes successes off the field. Cunningham said that his team had the highest GPA of any male sport at UCF through the last year. Ryan Roushandel, who was a senior last season, was named UCF's Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year for 2008. It's that type of character that Cunningham expects out of all his players.
"The culture that we want to create here, we're still trying to create," he said. "What we're trying to do here is make sure that the players are solid, disciplined players on the field, off the field, and in the classroom."