Alpha-male coach not afraid to call it just like he sees it

Glenn Kasses Column

It took all of one second for first-year Northwestern men’s soccer coach Tim Lenahan to start screaming instructions to his team on the field Wednesday afternoon.

Well, that’s not quite true. It was more like a second and a half.

Watching Lenahan on the sidelines brings back fond memories of departed men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill, minus the foul language, of course. Or at least most of it.

Lenahan has taken over a program that was in awful shape following an 0-17-1 season in 2000. He’s built a reputation for turning teams around, taking cellar-dwellers to the top at both Lafayette and Division III Richard Stockton.

But it’s not Lenahan’s coaching ability that has heads turning thus far in his freshman campaign at NU. After 12 games, Lenahan hasn’t gotten a win and the team’s now riding a 31-game winless streak.

Instead, Lenahan showed up in Evanston and set people’s ears on fire with a verbal assault that’s about as far from coach-speak as you can get.

His team is an underdog in every game, and he’ll tell you that.

“That’s not criticism, it’s the truth,” he says.

Recruiting better players to improve the roster is one of his top priorities, and he’ll tell you that.

“Do we need to get better or do we need to get better players? We need to do both,” he says.

Poor play on the field isn’t something he likes to tolerate, and he’ll tell you that, too.

“We have to decide when we want to win a game. In the past, we haven’t sacrificed enough,” he says.

On Wednesday, Lenahan’s first-minute outburst was only the beginning. And for that one, he was sitting down with ankles crossed.

Two minutes into the game, he’s on his feet yelling at his pawns and actively coaching anyone else within reasonable earshot.

Less than seven minutes in, he’s comparing the play of one overmatched NU player with that of “a little girl,” encouraging him to “get in there and tackle.”

His eyes blazing from the less-than-impressive start, Lenahan stands with his fingers curled slightly in black gloves, a perfect match for the black jacket and pants.

After Marquette’s first goal, Lenahan unzips his jacket, rips it off and spikes it into the ground.

On a bad call by the referee, Lenahan storms toward the scoring table in an attempt to learn the name of the unlucky soul who has become the focus of his wrath.

You half-expect him to go after the guy right then and there.

Not that this is all a bad thing. If there was ever a group that could use an — ahem — aggressive helper, it’s this one. NU’s soccer team had been plagued by underfunding and a host of other maladies under its previous head coach.

Now, Lenahan can go into his NU sales pitch bragging that he’s got the necessary resources to build a big-time program.

And make no mistake, this is going to be Lenahan’s program and no one else’s.

Give him time, and he’ll have his own people, his own work ethic and his own style branded on everything that is NU soccer. Al Gore doesn’t have as much alpha-male as this guy in his wildest dreams.

His players already spew the same stuff he does about the need to improve and embrace the system. And they know that there’s really no choice. With Lenahan, it’s his way or the highway.

“Coach isn’t going to change,” senior co-captain Dan Doman says, “so it might as well be us that changes.”

Good call, Dan.

Only problem is that Lenahan doesn’t really seem to think his team is going to change its losing ways very soon. He purposely rescheduled a postponed mid-September game against Valparaiso for Nov. 11, which is also the last day of the Big Ten tournament.

Now that’s a vote of confidence.

But it is refreshing — not to mention entertaining — to see someone who isn’t afraid to admit that he’s building from the ground floor up. His team isn’t going to make a run in the conference tourney, so why not get one last game in before calling it quits for the year?

Lenahan routinely works into the night, making phone calls and putting together five-page scouting reports that his team receives before every game.

He says he downs a 16-oz. coffee before practice to give him a little extra energy, so he’s not just rolling soccer balls onto the field.

Lenahan will probably make his share of enemies along the way. It’s tough not to when you’re as hyper-aggressive as he is.

But if he wins — and he had the gall to guarantee a win in today’s game at Western Michigan — he’ll also look like a genius. If nothing else, the man has his own blueprint figured out, and he’s sticking to the gameplan.

And that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Glenn Kasses is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]