The Sideline: For Moynihan, character is everything


Source: Northwestern Athletics

This season, Michael Moynihan led the Wildcats to their first above-.500 season since 2008. He said there’s finally a sense of expectation and excitement around the women’s soccer program.

Alex Lederman, Assistant Sports Editor

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

On Michael Moynihan’s desk in Patten Gym sits a framed picture of the base of a tree with the words “THE ROOTS OF CHARACTER” written underneath.

To Moynihan, third-year head coach of Northwestern’s women’s soccer team, this image — given to him by a former player — says it all.

“I believe that everything should be built around character and values,” he said. “You don’t worry about results. You don’t worry about wins and losses and places in standings. They’re all fleeting.”

Moynihan, 46, tries to convey this message to his team.

At the beginning of every season, he holds an exercise where his players identify the values most important to them and use these as a source of inspiration.

“He’s very different from any other coach I’ve had,” junior captain Nandi Mehta said. “He doesn’t really yell at you. He’s very much a coach of the mental kind of the game, the philosophical aspect of it and the physical aspect of it.”

These deep character traits find their roots in Moynihan’s family and hometown.

A Milwaukee man

Moynihan said there’s a perception about his family in Milwaukee: They’re workaholics.

Because of this, the family is deeply engrained in the Milwaukee community.

His father, Jim Moynihan, started his own metal-cutting and fabrication business out of his garage. His mother, Laura Moynihan, kept the books. Over time, the company morphed into a successful sporting goods business, Keeper Goals, but the early years were not easy on the family.

“There were a lot of years where it was kind of rough,” Moynihan said. “We had four kids, and when you’ve got that many mouths to feed, it was bad for a lot of years. But that’s where I learned what it means to work.”

From the age of six, Moynihan worked in his family’s factory sweeping and cleaning while his friends were out playing.

His soccer career began during school hours on the playground.

He and his brother John, who is one year younger, played during recess, and some other kids took note and asked them to join their squad.

That team, the Tosa Kicks, coached by Moynihan’s father, went on to win the state championship every year from U-10 through U-19.

But it was Moynihan’s mom who truly led the family charge on coaching.

She became a pioneer, creating the first girls’ soccer league in Wisconsin for her daughters Susan and Maureen Moynihan.

Today, the national championship for U-17 girls is named the Laura Moynihan Cup.

From her accomplishments at the youth level, Laura Moynihan was hired as the women’s soccer head coach at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1991.

A life-changing event

In Laura Moynihan’s first season as coach, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and died the following year at 47.

“When she was first diagnosed with cancer,” her son said, “it was hard, and we didn’t really know the magnitude of it. But I’ll never forget, my sister and I being at UWM in the health center. There was a big poster that had different kinds of cancer on it and the human body and the types of cancer and where they impact the body. We looked up the life expectancy, and 98 or 99 percent of the people died within a year. It was just like, ‘holy crap.’ We couldn’t believe it.”

Moynihan said that was toughest stretch of his life. The hardest thing he’s ever had to do was see somebody he loves and respect suffer that much.

Moynihan’s mother’s lessons were especially lasting on him.

He said that as a kid, he was extremely competitive and had to win everything. In the process, he sometimes hurt others. While his mother was very competitive and energetic, she never let that consume her and never lost sight of other people’s importance.

“She was an incredible role model and teacher,” Moynihan said. “She was truly somebody who built people up, never destroyed and impacted a lot of lives. Every time I think about her, I still get emotional. It never leaves you.”

Moynihan may have had the tactical and technical skills to be a coach, but he said he never could have succeeded without the people-management skills he learned from his mother.

The transition to coaching

Before her death, Laura Moynihan asked her daughter Susan to take over the Wisconsin-Milwaukee team.

Susan agreed but had no prior coaching experience, so she asked Moynihan to help her.

Moynihan faced a crossroads: He never intended to coach professionally. Following his senior year at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he had some opportunities to play soccer beyond college. Should he play or should he coach?

“Coaching wasn’t something I thought about growing up,” Moynihan said. “It just sort of happened.”

The fact that Moynihan defied the odds to have a successful playing career didn’t make his decision any easier.

He was nicknamed “Mini Moyni” growing up and wasn’t recruited intensely because he was considered too skinny to play collegiate soccer. He enrolled at Wisconsin and joined the soccer team as a walk-on.

By the end of Moynihan’s freshman season, he earned scholarship money. Soon after, he was a team captain.

At the end of Moynihan’s senior season, he was crushed. His college career was over, and he had no idea what to do with his life. He described himself as “lost.”

While he could have gone professional, his body wasn’t holding up physically. He missed his entire junior season with injuries and continued to struggle with them.

“I’ll never forget my mom being at my senior banquet,” Moynihan said. “She said, ‘You’ll find something else that takes its place.’ And sure enough it ended up being coaching.”

Developing relationships

Although Moynihan was officially the assistant coach under his sister, he ended up doing most of the on-the-field coaching while his sister did the administrative work.

There, his long-time assistant coach David Nikolic joined the team. Although they grew up as competitors on rival Milwaukee youth teams, they have now been a coaching duo for more than 20 years.

Twenty years is a long time,” Nikolic said. “That’s longer than a lot of our current players have been alive.”

Nikolic said he and Moynihan have different strengths as coaches, balancing each other well.

Mehta agreed, saying Nikolic is more outgoing and social, while Moynihan is more reserved and analytic.

“David is the one on the ground knowing exactly what’s going on with all of the players at a particular point,” she said. “Michael is very good at seeing the big picture.”

It’s communication, both with each other and with the players, which makes the partnership so successful. After 20 years, Nikolic knows how to get a point across to Moynihan and helps players convey their messages.

At Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Moynihan also learned valuable coaching skills from his sister.

“She’s an absolute saint,” Moynihan said. “I was very impatient as a coach at that age. I couldn’t understand why the girls couldn’t understand certain things. I was used to being successful — I mean, every team I was on was always a championship team — and all of a sudden, our first season, we were below .500.”

“I’d never experienced that before,” he continued. “She was very calming and said, ‘Be patient.’ She helped me understand how I need to present information so that they could understand it better and taught me a lot of the other aspects of coaching other than the X’s and O’s.”

The lack of success didn’t last long.

In 15 years as the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Moynihan led the Panthers to a 193-84-38 record (86-8-5 in conference), nine NCAA Tournament appearances, 13 Horizon League Championships — 12 were consecutive — and eight Horizon League Tournament titles. In that time, he earned eight Horizon League Coach of the Year awards.

Leaving home

By the time Moynihan left Milwaukee, the culture there was actively ingrained in him.

When he started coaching, he didn’t get paid for the first couple of seasons. To make ends meet, he worked as a substitute teacher during the day, coached a club soccer team, tended a bar at an Italian restaurant and installed basketball poles for his family business on weekends. At the Italian restaurant, Moynihan met his wife, Holly.

Michael and Holly Moynihan dated for eight years before getting married and now have one son, Gabriel.

Leaving Milwaukee for Evanston was difficult, as Milwaukee is an essential part of the Moynihan family identity.

But one problem kept nagging at Moynihan.

“There was a certain level of players that we just could not get interested in our program,” Moynihan said. “I would leave a lot of events working with these national team players and they’d say, ‘I want to come play for you,’ and then when their parents intervened, it was ‘No, you’re going to a higher-profile school.’”

Because of that, when Moynihan was contacted about the open job at NU, he became more and more interested as he contemplated it.

Although Moynihan had never previously considered leaving Wisconsin-Milwaukee, NU met all his criteria, with a strong academic reputation, a major conference affiliation and proximity to his family.

The reaction from family and friends was mixed, he said. They were upset to see him go but happy for his career advancement.

“It was difficult leaving,” Moynihan said, “but sometimes you’ve got to make changes to stretch yourself and keep growing.”

A bright future

 At NU, Moynihan has faced a new struggle he’s rarely come across in his life: losing.

His first season, 2012, the Wildcats went 7-10-2 and 3-8-0 in conference play. 2013 was even worse on paper: 3-14-2 overall with only one Big Ten win.

“It’s really hard,” Moynihan said. “I had one losing team that I’d ever been affiliated with, and that was my first year at Milwaukee. I’m a lot more mature now than I was then, so I’ve learned you have to approach it with a degree of patience.”

Still, Moynihan is proud of his first two years at NU.

“There was a lot here that needed to change in order to be successful,” he said. “One of the things I’m really grateful for is the administration here has been extremely supporting and understanding of that, and I think we’ve done it the right way.”

And the future finally looks bright for the Cats. This season, NU finished above .500 for the first time since 2008. The team only had two losses in its final eight matches and even had a major upset over No. 6 Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

“It validates what we’ve always known could happen,” Mehta said. “These things that probably three years ago looked so far out of reach are suddenly here. We can win the Big Ten Tournament. We can make it very far in the NCAA Tournament. It’s not out of reach. It’s right there for us to take.”

Moynihan sees the end of this season as only something to build on. Now that the team is having success, Moynihan said, there’s finally a sense of expectation and excitement around the program.

“When you work hard and those results aren’t quite going your way and there just seems to be something missing,” he said, “when all of a sudden it starts to fall into place, there’s no better feeling than working hard and getting that result.”

As for recruiting, Moynihan looks for players with a strong foundation both in terms of skill level and mental understanding. He doesn’t want players who rely solely on athleticism but those who “get it,” understanding where to pass the ball and where to move in the context of the game.

“He has a very specific eye for finding players who might be overlooked a little bit, maybe in the shadows,” Nikolic said.

Mehta, who was recruited by the old coaching staff, said in terms of style of play, there is a difference on the field between those brought in by Moynihan and those here before him. But, she said, it doesn’t matter. From day one, Moynihan made it clear they’re all his players and never made a division between recruiting classes.

Academics also play a key role for Moynihan’s teams. Eighteen players earned Academic All-Big Ten honors on the 2013 women’s soccer squad.

And, of course, Moynihan looks for character. He wants there to be joy and fun. He wants players who will play a pick-up game outside of practice to blow off steam. Soccer should be a source of expression and stress relief for a player, he said, not an added source of angst.

The main goal for Moynihan is to recruit well-rounded people. At the end of the day, wins aren’t most important to him.

“It’s always been for me more about: Are people learning? Am I being a good teacher? Are they getting some reward out of it?” he said. “It’s not just the results, the wins and losses or where you fall in the standings. It’s about the experience you’re having.”

Rather than the result on the field, it’s the result of the people that matters most to Moynihan.

“When you hear from them years later and they talk about the experience that they had, maybe how they miss it, how they wish they could still be doing it, then you know you did something right,” Moynihan said. “But also they say how you’ve impacted how they approach their jobs or how they approach their families and the things that they learn and the values that they gain, and you start to develop a sense of community amongst the people that you have worked with.”

It all comes back to “THE ROOTS OF CHARACTER.”

“Oftentimes people turn in selfish directions to what they want,” Moynihan said. “I think if you always keep coming back to ‘We’re here to serve. How do I want to be remembered? How can I contribute positively?,’ those are the things that I want to do.”

He paused.

“Hopefully I do that.”

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