Saturday, February 11, 2006
Ken Lolla prides himself on building relationships with players. It is the way he gets the most of them individually and as a team. Their connectedness is apparent on the field, and success is inevitably a result.
It's that success that has made him such an attractive candidate to lead Louisville's soccer program, but it was the relationships that he built at Akron that made it so hard to leave.
Ultimately, though, Cardinal athletics director Tom Jurich got his man."This is a real breakthrough for our program," Jurich said at the press conference to announce Lolla as the head coach. "We want to make hires that make a big difference. To say that Ken will make a big difference is an understatement. When we went into this, we dreamed of getting someone like Ken, but we didn't think we would be able to pull someone like him." In addition to the lure of the Big East Conference and impeccable facilities, Louisville was able to pull Lolla because it pounced aggressively. While Lolla and Akron had agreed in principle in November to a contract extension, he was not scheduled to actually sign the contract until March of 2006. That window allowed senior associate athletics director Julie Hermann to contact Lolla the Thursday before the College Cup, and he visited the campus that Sunday and Monday, then made his decision on Tuesday. "It was very quick," Lolla says. "But I was able to do some research, and the more people I talked to, the more I learned that it was a very good situation and an athletic program that was moving very quickly in a positive direction."Whenever I talked to anybody about Tom Jurich it was extremely positive and that he was the best there is. No disrespect to Akron because I think they have a great core of people, but in terms of association, I wanted to be around that and the other impressive coaches he has assembled at Louisville."Louisville's recent move to one of the top conferences in the country for soccer made this hire important for Jurich and the school. "Men's soccer is a huge sport in the Big East -- it is the one sport that is common ground throughout the 16 schools," Jurich added at the Dec. 16 press conference. "It is a top-tier sport in the conference's opinion, and we are going to make this a top-tier program. We have everything in place, and now we have the final missing piece in our coach."Tempering the excitement of the new opportunity was the emotional meeting with his team at Akron to tell them of his news. Lolla had guided the Zips to a dream season filled with accomplishments and had the program at a nationally prominent level, making it all the more difficult to deliver the news of his departure.
"As a coaching staff, one of the things we feel strongly about is building close relationships with the players," Lolla says. "When you build those relationships and then have to tell those kids that you aren't going to be around anymore, it's very, very difficult -- it was by far the hardest part about moving on. It was very emotional and difficult, but at the same time, if it wasn't, then we weren't doing what we were aiming to do while we were there." And now, it's about starting the same process in Kentucky. Lolla is still getting his family situated, and getting to know the players on the roster as well as tying up loose ends on the recruiting trail. He knows how to build a winner, but the process in Louisville will be slightly different than the job he did at Akron."When I came in at Akron, they had at one point played in the national championship game and there was a tradition and history," he says. "With Louisville, they haven't reached those heights and we have to build every step and build confidence in the program. We also have to do it in a conference that, I feel, has some of the best coaches in the country. The road ahead may be a little more difficult, but at the same time, we have a really good starting point in the BIG EAST and the support of Louisville." Coaches are often defined in terms of wins and losses, but that's not how they construct programs. Lolla's focus right now is more about creating the atmosphere of a successful program rather than worrying about the Cardinal formation for 2006. "Our focus is to build the program first and the team second," he says. "We are trying to instill principles, attitude and belief -- things that are important each year for a program needs to be successful. Right now that is the most important thing -- building that base for success for the future. The teams will come, there is no question about that, we will have successful teams when we build that strong base."Louisville struggled in its first year of action in the Big East posting a record of 2-7-2 record in conference action. But the league better get its licks in soon, because adding Lolla has just made the Cardinals a team to be dealt with.
Adam Zundell works for the University of Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.