Men’s Soccer: Lenahan takes program from worst to first

Coach Tim Lenahan has built a program from the bottom up. He arrived with the program mired in a deep losing streak, but Northwestern has emerged as a perennial Big Ten threat.

Kaitlin Svabek/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Tim Lenahan has built a program from the bottom up. He arrived with the program mired in a deep losing streak, but Northwestern has emerged as a perennial Big Ten threat.

Dan Ryan, Sports Editor

When discussing elite Northwestern coaches, the conversation is dominated by two names. Pat Fitzgerald has brought the football program the kind of consistent success it has not seen since the mid-1990s, and Kelly Amonte Hiller leads a lacrosse team that assaults the NCAA record books each and every season. 

The two were decorated college athletes. Fitzgerald garnered a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award in 1995 while leading the Wildcats to a Rose Bowl berth, and Amonte Hiller captured two national titles and the ACC Female Athlete of the Year award in 1996 at Maryland.

Lately, men’s soccer coach Tim Lenahan’s name has entered the conversation, and his playing career was not quite as illustrious.

“Both Fitz and Kelly are in the hall of fame as athletes in their respective sports,” Lenahan said. “I scored one goal in Division III. Kelly is the Michael Jordan of her sport. I’m the Michael Bolton.”

Since taking over the program prior to the 2001 season, Lenahan has proven that it does not take a hall of fame player to make a hall of fame coach. After successful coaching stints with his alma mater, Richard Stockton College, and then Lafayette College, Lenahan was chosen to rebuild an NU program that had seen better days.

At the time he was hired, NU had just recorded a winless 2000 season and was in the middle of a 35-game winless streak, the last 16 of which would occur with Lenahan in charge. At the end of his first season, however, the team defeated Valparaiso 1-0 to break the slump. 

After two more seasons without a Big Ten win, everything changed in Lenahan’s fourth year.

Halfway into the 2004 campaign, the Cats traveled to Bloomington, Ind., to face the powerhouse Hoosiers. Indiana entered the contest sporting an impressive conference winning streak, while NU had not secured a Big Ten win in years. NU took the game 1-0, and it was the start of something good. 

“October of 2004, we beat Indiana to end their nine-year winning streak,” Lenahan said. “I think we had a six-year (Big Ten) losing streak. Fifty games, (Indiana) hadn’t lost a Big Ten game. We had just come off a 2-2 tie with Penn State where we gave up 2 goals in the last minute. It was Northwestern that ended that streak, and we really haven’t looked back since.”

The team has since found consistent success on and off the field. In 2006, the Cats advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. After another Tournament appearance the next season, NU achieved the highest ranking in program history, No. 2, in 2008. And of course, 2011 and 2012 saw the team capture back-to-back Big Ten regular season championships. 

The wins, however, are secondary to Lenahan – only a result of the experience being offered by the program.

“We set our goals to be the best college soccer experience in the country,” Lenahan said. “And we’ve gotten pretty close to that. If there’s somewhere where the players are having a better experience than ours are, I’d like to see that. The success on the field is a product of that mindset — providing the best experience in terms of winning games, in the classroom, and being good guys.”

And that mindset has not gone unnoticed. Freshman forward Joey Calistri, who currently leads the team in goals, said Lenahan was big part of his decision to join the program.

“I heard that he was hard on you in preseason, and that’s probably a good thing,” Calistri said. “He’s focused on the little things – tucking in your shirts, making sure all the balls are there for practice. That’s part of being disciplined, and it’s part of what makes him a great coach.”

“He’s honest, and he tells it like it is,” Calistri added.

Lenahan’s direct style hasn’t been his only trademark. In recent years, the Cats have found wins based largely on their defensive prowess, leading the Big Ten this past season with .74 goals against per game. Although Lenahan worked his way to the back line after an unsuccessful career as a forward, the coach said his team’s strong defense comes more from smart construction than style.

Regardless of how he’s done it, it’s hard to criticize the results. Lenahan now owns a 237-149-48 career record and a 111-81-30 mark at NU, making him the winningest coach in program history. And last season’s campaign was a banner year, with the Cats stumbling out to a 3-4-2 record after a 4-0 shellacking at the hands of DePaul before going 7-0-2 down the stretch to capture the Big Ten Championship and Tournament titles. 

Along the way, the squad gave its coach one of his favorite memories of his career, a sentiment which senior midfielder Chris Ritter shares.

“Last year, winning the Big Ten regular season was a moment I’ll never forget,” Ritter said. “Rushing on the field, dumping water on him, it was an incredible experience.”

Lenahan’s name is mentioned more and more with the best coaches at NU. The coach is quick to deflect the praise, mentioning Claire Pollard’s string of Big Ten Championships with the women’s tennis squad and the success of Kate Drohan and the softball team as more impressive milestones.

“There’s a lot of great coaches at this school,” Lenahan said. “Claire Pollard and her 14 championships and Kate Drohan going to the (College) World Series twice, and (wrestling coach) Drew Pariano. If I’m thought of highly among my peers, that’s quite humbling.”

But after defeating Ohio State 2-0 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday, NU is well on its way to accomplishing yet another impressive milestone: a second straight double championship. Where that would rank on Lenahan’s list of favorite memories, however, is anyone’s guess.

“I’ll tell you on Sunday how it feels,” Lenahan said.