Mike Noonan on Clemson’s College Cup title, Tigers recruiting formula and coaching journey 12/21/2021
It is not easy to be recruited by Clemson University.
You need a lot of talent. You have to play at a high level. And you must tick at least seven boxes on Coach Mike Noonalist of 10 elements of n.
Among the requirements: a 3.0 GPA. Take an important leadership role within a high school club or team. Win something important. Work at a job outside of football.
There is no shortcut to earning a Tiger uniform. There are also no shortcuts to a national championship.
Noonan learned both lessons well. After a coaching career that began in the 1980s and several narrow losses over the past decade against potential champions, he won his first College Cup title earlier this month. A goal barely 27 seconds after the opening whistle, another midway through the first half and a stunning goalie gave the Tigers a 2-0 victory over the University of Washington.
It was the culmination of a professional dream for UEFA and US Soccer “A” licensed Noonan, who is one of the most respected coaches in American football. But, he notes, a national title isn’t the reason he coaches.
“Really, it’s seeing seniors graduate every year,” he says. “That’s why I do this: to help them become better men. “
Seniors who walk away with championship rings have learned many lessons on the South Carolina campus. Among them: perseverance. The team have lost twice in previous tournaments on penalties.
They leave with a legacy in the classroom too. In the 2020 spring semester, the team’s GPA was a record 3.56. Of the eight seniors this year, six will graduate with some form of cum laude distinction.
Yet as proud as he is of the academic results of his teams, Noonan is a fierce competitor. He has been aiming for a national title since his younger brother Brand helped win the first championship in Duke University history – in all sports – in 1986. At that time, after two years as an All-American at Middlebury College and pro stints in Sweden and the match in hall in the United States, he suffered a career-ending knee injury.
Noonan’s mother was a teacher. He had always enjoyed coaching mentors like Ron McEachen in Middlebury and Albie loeffler in Westport, Staples High School in Connecticut. Noonan calls himself “a teacher in short pants.”
He joined McEachen’s new team, the University of Vermont, as an assistant coach in 1986. Four years later, Wheaton College in Massachusetts added men. Noonan was hired to start a men’s soccer team. In its second year, the team won 11 games.
Then came four years at the University of New Hampshire. He led the Wildcats to their very first place in an NCAA tournament and set an academic record for wins.
He moved to Brown University in 1995. In 15 years, the Bears have won eight Ivy League championships and have qualified for 10 NCAA tournaments. They have qualified twice for the quarter-finals.
“It was great,” he recalls. “The Ivy kids are smart. They analyze everything. They won’t do anything if they don’t know why. I had to figure out for myself why I did what I did, in training and in matches. I learned a lot about coaching this way.
He thought he could win a College Cup for Brown. But he was frustrated with Ivy League rules which limit off-season work with the team. When Syracuse and Clemson offered him jobs the same week, he left his wife, Deb belcher, decide.
A former Olympic coach and physiotherapist, she loved the Clemson environment. There was a Montessori school nearby for their two daughters. It was a gesture that Noonan has never regretted.
Clemson has “the vibe of a small college and the opportunities of a big university.” The only downside: the legendary football program had fallen to the bottom of the ACC. After their first training, Noonan and assistant coach Phil jones – who came from Brown, and 13 years later is still with Noonan – just shook his head. “We didn’t speak for 20 minutes,” Noonan recalls.
He rebuilt the program “one day at a time”. The coaching staff instilled core values. They celebrated small, quantifiable victories. And they got out there and recruited.
There were “starts and stops” in those early years, Noonan admits. He learned “you cannot shorten your way. You can’t get talent that doesn’t have character. This led to the recruiting checklist he still uses today.
Noonan worked closely with a sports psychologist Bill Beswick, whom he had first met in Brown. “He kept saying, ‘Sooner or later you’ll stick your head through. “
The Tigers have almost done it, several times. They fell in the 2015 College Cup final against Stanford. They have had several more stellar seasons, with ACC titles and record performances. But winning the last game of the season – something only a Division I men’s team can do every year – has remained elusive.
He praises this “quality group.” They held each other to a high level of responsibility. All the coaches did was choose tactics.
Over his long journey – and especially this year – Noonan says he’s learned how much he enjoys coaching. It is about “investing in players beyond the football level. They rotate so many plates all the time. Our staff do a great job helping them make sure they don’t break down.
Regarding the College Cup, Noonan says the four semi-final teams “tried to play the game in a good vein. We competed fiercely, but with sportsmanship.
Despite losing the top players in professional leagues, he believes college football “gets better every year. It will continue to prosper.
Meanwhile, Clemson – the university and college town – is also thriving. Encouraged by his sports department – and inspired by his good friend, a football coach Dabo swinney – support for everything related to Tiger is massive. “We asked for help for the last four,” Noonan says. “They transformed Cary [North Carolina, the College Cup site] Orange.”
When Noonan’s longtime goal of a national championship came true, he was mobbed by well-wishers. Besides the hugs from his wife and daughters, the one who mattered most came from Julie ibrahim scott. Her late husband MI Ibrahim established Clemson as a national powerhouse in the 1970s. Decades later, she joined thousands of students and Tiger fans in celebrating.
Now that Noonan has “put his head through”, what’s the next step? “It was so much fun, we’re already trying to do it again,” he says.
Armed, of course, with that all-important recruiting checklist.
Photos courtesy of Clemson Athletics