Stanford men's soccer won the national championship last year, defeating Clemson 4-0 in the most lopsided College cup final in more than 4 decades. Dynamic play combined with clinical skill and a never quit attitude took the Cardinal to the top of college soccer. It was the culmination of a successful 4-year run that started with the hiring of Coach Jeremy Gunn, one of only four coaches to have won national titles at both the Division I and Division II levels.
Jeremy Gunn first arrived on the Farm in December 2011 from Charlotte, fresh off a narrow 1-0 loss to North Carolina in the finals of the NCAA College Cup. Born in England, Gunn played in the youth programs of Grimsby Town F.C. and Scunthorpe United F.C. before moving the the U.S.
He went to school and played at Cal State Bakersfield, earning 1992 Division II All America First Team honors. Between 1993 and 1996, he simultaneously played pro soccer in the United Soccer League while assistant coaching at Bakersfield. He later moved to Rocky Mountain College where as head coach he won the NCAA Division II soccer championship in 2005. The next year he moved to Charlotte and took the 49ers to their best result ever in that narrow 2011 loss to North Carolina in the College Cup final. That December Stanford hired him to coach the Cardinal.
Gunn's Cardinal teams are 50-20-11 over his four seasons in Palo Alto, and 31-5-6 over the past two. They are almost invincible at Cagan Stadium where they hold a 19-1-6 record over the past 26 home contests. Coach Gunn was gracious to sit down with Rule of Tree for a "5-question interview" as he looked ahead to the coming season on the Farm.
Rule of Tree: The team has had a remarkable 2 season run of success culminating in a national championship in 2016. Often we see teams or groups unite to achieve a life-changing goal only to struggle to maintain unity of purpose after the achievement. How do you clear the slate, so to speak, to create that single-minded unity for the coming season?
Coach Gunn: No matter what position you're in, you always have unique challenges. If you're struggling as the bottom team in the country, you have challenges. If you are the top team you have challenges. I think a great basketball coach talked about the ‘disease of me,' when sometimes people start to think too much about ‘me' instead of ‘we' once you've had success. That's always going to be a challenge, but these are things that I've gone through in the past. The only thing you can ever do is focus on the future, focus on the most simplistic process goals that are going to entail ‘how can I improve' and ‘how can we improve.'
If you just focus your life on the outcome goals - we've won a championship, we've achieved our goal; that's not the case. That is an outcome goal that's wonderful and something we are very proud of, but the program is always looking at the process and the journey.
Outcomes are always going to be tough to sustain because you have eras. You do have times in college where people graduate and move on. While somebody is developing experience and becomes battle-hardened and really good at what they do, it's always going to take time for the next man to step up. At a place like Stanford, you cannot guarantee a conveyor belt of replacements because of how difficult it is to recruit here. Almost everybody we recruit wants to come here, but 2016 is a perfect example. As a staff we probably would have liked to bring in eight people this year. Instead, we'll have the smallest squad we've ever had. Meanwhile in 2017 we will hopefully have a bumper recruiting class.
You always have different challenges, but again I think we know that having enjoyed a wonderful, upward journey, we graduated out half of our team last year. We have great young guys coming in behind them, but naturally they'll need time to grow. For my mind, we're never, ever comparing to last season. We're never, ever comparing a person to the last one to play that position. It's a pointless task. I know we'll write about it and people will discuss it, but as a coach, all you can look at is ‘how is this young man doing in that position' and ‘what can we help with him to continue to get better.'
Rule of Tree: Home field advantage takes a whole new meaning at Cagan. You haven't lost there since the season before last, and were 19-1-6 over the last 26 home contests. What is it about Cagan that makes home field a place where the team is almost invincible?
Coach Gunn: I like to think we're a tough team to play against no matter where we play and in whatever conditions. I think that is who we are. We're a team that is very consistent with our attitude, very consistent with our work rate, and as a result we're pretty consistent with our performance. We talk as a team that we want to welcome every team. We want to be the most gracious hosts, taking care of everybody that comes to Stanford so we can show them what a wonderful environment it is. But once the teams step on the field, we want to make sure that regardless of the outcome, regardless of the result, they will go off the field respecting how we go about the game and that means being super competitive.
Rule of Tree: When you came in 2012 did you foresee the quick pace of success Stanford soccer has had since then? I saw a video where you recounted a meeting where you told the athletic director that you'd win a national championship. Did you have a "four-year plan," per se? What were your expectations?
Coach Gunn: You always have a plan to move forward and to get better, otherwise you're dead in the water. You hope that you can achieve this type of thing. You hope that you can create a group that gels in such a way that they can move forward, love their experience, love playing together and play the great soccer that we've achieved, but there are so many pitfalls along the way. People drop out that you were maybe going to count on. People get injured. There's lots of other great groups out there trying to make your life as miserable as possible and so you can't guarantee any of the outcomes that we've achieved, but we can guarantee that we're going to put everything we have into it. We're hoping and thinking that the way we put everything we have into it is a pretty good way of doing it. So as a result, you hope to behave in a certain way that the outcomes become inevitable - that the outcomes are just part of what happens. We were fortunate that we had great groups of guys that bought in, great leaders from year-to-year-to-year that handed over the baton to the next generation and a great group of guys that really kept their eyes on the prize. They kept focused on those daily activities that made them who they were.
Rule of Tree: What do you look for in a Stanford soccer player? And to that end, there has to be something said for recruiting players to not only a world-class university, but also a place that has sent numerous players to the next level of soccer, right? What is the one thing that high school players should master if they desire to play at the collegiate level?
Coach Gunn: It's attitude and work rate. Obviously we're looking at athleticism, we're looking at technical ability, we're looking at coachability, their understanding of the game. But all of those things can go backwards or stand still if you don't have the right mentality. For me personally, right or wrong, mentality is everything, attitude is everything. I know that in our type of environment that we create, people can really, really develop if they have that attitude and work rate. I've had the opportunity to learn from great coaches and I ask all of them the same question and the same answer keeps coming back. As a staff we look at the abilities that we see, but then we try to dig deeper under the surface to decide who the man is inside of that great player. Is it somebody we can trust? Is it somebody we are going to enjoy? And is it somebody that is going to push and persevere? If we find all of that underneath the surface, we know we're going to have an awesome time and they are absolutely going to squeeze every drop out of this situation that they can.
Rule of Tree: I've looked and the first instance I can find of men's soccer wearing the "hoop jerseys" is 2012. I also found that your team at Charlotte wore them. The hoop jersey (whether cardinal and white or cardinal and black) seems to have become a trademark of Stanford men's soccer? Even from afar, you see the hoop jersey, you know Stanford is playing. Could you speak to what the hoops mean, if anything?
Coach Gunn: At Charlotte Kevin Langan, who is now the head coach, was a big Celtic fan, Charlotte was green and white so we were like "hey, let's copy the Celtic jerseys." We actually got a local company to make them from scratch. I thought it was awesome. A year later Nike started offering the hooped versions. I don't know whether we had any influence or not, but the year before they didn't offer them and we made them ourselves. When I came here, you get a new team, it's nice to change things up a bit. It just feels different for the players when you put a different type of jersey on, a different style. And so we went with the hoops. I think it's been a wonderful trademark of the team and it's something we can always look at different options, but for here and right now, I think people can recognize it. There's a bit of branding there for us.
Many thanks to Coach Gunn and the Stanford Sports Information staff for agreeing to the interview. Best of luck in the coming season and Go Cardinal!