Roberts a venerable institution at BU
About three years ago, Boston University men's soccer coach Neil Roberts hit that unofficial collegiate coaching milestone. The point at which he had actually been coaching the team since before his current players were born.
"When I came as an assistant, I said 'Sure, I'll come for one year,'" Roberts recalled. "I never expected for this to happen."
Now in his 25th season at the Terriers' helm (his 30th with the program after joining as an assistant in 1979), Roberts has established BU's program as one of the top collegiate programs in the Northeast, earning it respect across the country.
But it's not Roberts' coaching longevity or even success that sets him apart. It's his ability to continue to inspire and connect with his players year after year.
"When you're successful at something, it doesn't really matter the generation," said BU assistant coach Francis Okaroh, who played for Roberts in the mid-1980s. "The most important part of winning is still just speaking with the players, getting them to understand you and what needs to be done. He's changed his style a little bit but still maintains how he is."
And it's "how Roberts is" that attracts players to BU's program.
"He's a really friendly guy and easy to talk to," freshman midfielder Ade Akinsanya said. "I felt I'd be more comfortable playing for him than a lot of the other coaches. He's straightforward but laid-back. The way he talks to us, he gets on us, but in a positive way. The way he talks to us makes us better."
His easygoing nature and approachability make Roberts the kind of coach that players keep in touch with long after their playing days are over.
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"He's a great coach, but also just a great person," sophomore midfielder Michael Bustamante said. "He's tough when he has to be, but he'll also make sure to tell you when you did something well. His coaching style is constructive. He'll show you step- by-step, break down every game, every opponent."
The Terriers' results under Roberts are a testament to that dedication. During his tenure as head coach, the team has had 23 winning seasons (including an undefeated regular season in 1994 when it went 16-0-1), made 13 NCAA tournament appearances, produced a dozen All-Americans, won nine regular-season conference titles, seven conference tournament titles and spent considerable time in the national rankings. In all, BU is 280-134-68 under Roberts.
Two of those wins and a tie have come this season. BU opened the year tying UMass on the road, upset No. 12 Connecticut 3-0 at UConn and returned home to shut out Providence 3-0. The hot start saw the Terriers jump 10 places in the national polls to No. 14.
Roberts sees the success as confirmation that the three-year plan he and his staff implemented two years ago is working. Ultimately, the goal is to succeed at the college game's highest level, but building a top-caliber team takes time. Results are important, but along the way, the focus is often on the less tangible aspects.
"We want to win the matches, but how we win is important to us," Roberts said. "In 2009, we want to have a brand of college soccer where people enjoy watching our team play."
A quarter-century of experience has taught Roberts it's about concentrating on what it takes to get the results, not the results themselves, that leads to success. Of course, that's just one of many lessons.
Three decades of coaching haven't tempered Roberts' passion for the game, but he's able to see situations with a clarity that only comes from time and experience. He knows what it takes to make a team work. He also knows that all the pieces don't always fall together exactly the way you hope, that "some years, it's like pulling teeth to make it work, and some years, like the group right now, you go through an hour-and-a-half training session, and it flies by."
Success, from a coaching standpoint, is about putting in the time and learning from your team. It's about knowing when to step in and when to stand back. It's about controlling emotions on the field and over the course of the season and realizing that a team isn't fully a unit until it's encountered and overcome adversity, something this year's squad has yet to do.
"That really tells you what kind of team you have, and shows you more than when things are rosy," Roberts said. "You can't say you're a team until probably midseason, when you've had that -- and we will -- and it's how you come through that."
Not that he minds the team's success so far.
"Winning solves a lot of problems," Roberts said. "Whenever you're trying to do something difficult and when players have success with it, that helps. Now we can get better. That's part of being a coach, and that's part of being a player."
Under Roberts, much of being a coach and being a player is about collaboration.
"We always have the philosophy that it's the players' team," Roberts said. "They make the rules, and we come to an agreement. We all come up with goals they want to reach, and they have a stake in the team."
Another major part of his coaching philosophy is just making sure the game is fun.
"It's really important to love what you're doing," senior midfielder Samuel Appiah said. "He always tells us to try to have fun on the field. It's always about playing with fun and being happy and excited about what you're doing."
There will be plenty of opportunity for excitement this weekend as BU takes on Harvard on Friday and then faces No. 4 St. John's on Sunday.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.