Riley's Adventure Has Only Just Begun

By Joanne Norell

Editor’s Note: In 2018, five University of Notre Dame head coaches began preparations for their first seasons leading their respective programs: Chad Riley (men’s soccer), Nate Norman (women’s soccer), Alison Silverio (women’s tennis), Mike Johnson (volleyball) and Matt Sparks (cross country/track and field). This is the first of a five-part series examining the last year in the life of those coaches and their outlook now that they’ve navigated a year of competition in the shadow of the Golden Dome.

Chad Riley remembers that initial training session, a late-night affair in the Loftus Sports Center on a wintry evening in early 2018 that signified a new era for Notre Dame men’s soccer.

Apart from the newness of it all, it was nothing special. A practice, much like any other. Except this one was the first.

The first time in 17 years that someone other than Bobby Clark ran an Irish men’s soccer practice. The first time Riley really took the reins at his alma mater.

“It was the start of a new kind of adventure,” said Riley. “To me, the Notre Dame job just culminates everything that I enjoy about my job at a school I passionately believe in. It’s a place that you can win at the highest level. And so I just remember it being a little bit surreal to start and it sticks out because it was the start of this next adventure.”

The adventure began, officially, on January 4, 2018, when the University named Riley as Clark’s successor. A 2004 graduate of Notre Dame, Riley returned to his alma mater after five successful seasons as the skipper at Dartmouth, which had followed a year as an assistant for the Big Green and six as an assistant under Clark for the Irish. In his first five seasons as a head coach, he led Dartmouth to four straight Ivy League Championships, marking the first time in 32 years an Ivy League member had achieved the same feat. 

In returning to Notre Dame, Riley inherited a program that had qualified for 16 NCAA Championships, won two conference championships and one national championship in Clark’s 17 seasons. But with Riley playing a major role in that success — in four years as a player and six on the sidelines — the intimidation factor of stepping into Clark’s legendary shoes was fairly non-existent. 

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Indeed, the transition was made all the more smooth by Clark’s presence. Though he retired following the 2017 season, he stuck around the program until June 2018 to help with the changeover.

“It’s probably pretty unique because it doesn’t normally happen that way,” Riley said. “But he’s someone I’ve been close with for almost 20 years, so it was fun. It was a little weird sitting here (in the head coach’s office) and him being in a different office, but it was fun. He was very helpful. I don’t know if we had questions for him every day about things. But no matter how organized you are, when you leave and someone new comes in, there’s always going to be little things and so he helped us with a lot of little things. 

“I think overall, he just gave us great insight into the team to help us with that transition, great insight into where they were recruiting and then we did like a little mini-retreat with Bobby and all the coaches just to kind of encapsulate what he learned here and what he learned in decades of college coaching. And it was fun for the team to have him around. He would come to watch training. He couldn’t coach, because he wasn’t a countable coach, but he would be around. I think the guys really, really liked having that and I think it was a pretty unique way to transition.”

Because the turmoil that might normally accompany a coaching change was largely absent, Riley and company — assistants Brian Plotkin and Ryan Fahey and volunteer assistant Adam LaPlaca — had most of the pieces in place to pick up right where Clark had led off.

An eight-man senior class proved to be the heartbeat of a squad that finished the season 11-7-3 (4-3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) and reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since the Irish won the NCAA championship in 2013. The group accounted for 23 of the team’s 30 goals and 61 of 85 points. Thomas Ueland and Patrick Berneski tied for the team lead in goals with six, while Ian Achieris and Sean MacLeod added 11 points apiece to make up the bulk of the Irish offense.

They did so against a schedule rated the third-toughest in the country behind eventual national champion Maryland and Atlantic Coast Conference foe Louisville. But rather than view that gauntlet of a schedule as a negative, Riley saw it as a tangible measure of how far the team had come from Day One. 

“The most positive surprise was, you’re playing the ACC schedule, and then having a good strength of schedule out of conference, if you approach it the right way, how much you can grow through those good games,” Riley said. “It’s always scary looking forward, but it was interesting. The team that we were for the first preseason game and the team we were at the end of the year was totally different. That was due to training, but it was also due to those games being just good. It was amazing to me to see how much we could grow throughout the season.”

Riley’s next team, and all those that follow, will bear his signature more and more, but the overall philosophy hasn’t changed much. As a result of his close relationship with Clark and all of the time they spent together, Riley’s core values don’t differ all that much from the previous regime. 

“We feel Notre Dame does have this third element outside of academic excellence, outside of athletic excellence, but you're becoming a part of a community that cares about you as an individual. ... When that resonates, we end up with a strong group of people that are passionate about being here. We don't want people that are here just because we're a good school and a good league. We want people that are here because there's something else pulling them and driving them to be a part of this adventure.”

The foundation of it all? Education, aspiration and enjoyment.

“That’s something that Bobby came here and changed: ‘We want this to be the best place to play soccer, to grow as a person, to get a degree in the world.” … Bobby always did a great job for the teams to make it educational, aspirational and enjoyable, because we’re better at soccer when it’s enjoyable. I use ‘enjoyable’ and not ‘fun’ because I think enjoyment means you’ve got an investment.”

Riley doesn’t hide from that message when talking to recruits. Part of attracting the best athletes for his program is also attracting the best students for Notre Dame and the best citizens for the community and the world at large. That’s not an easy path, and Riley makes sure his prospects know that.

“We feel Notre Dame does have this third element outside of academic excellence, outside of athletic excellence, but you’re becoming a part of a community that cares about you as an individual,” Riley said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be the best program at all of those things. We don’t sugarcoat it; school is not the easiest academic option; athletically, you’re going to be pushed; and we’re going to have a team full of good players that are competing for spots and nothing will be guaranteed that way. 

“When that resonates, we end up with a strong group of people that are passionate about being here. We don’t want people that are here just because we’re a good school and a good league. We want people that are here because there’s something else pulling them and driving them to be a part of this adventure.”

That word — adventure — seems to be a theme as Riley reflects on the journey he embarked on just over a year ago. Perhaps that’s not surprising coming from a Notre Dame man taking the reins at his alma mater and following in the footsteps of a trusted mentor.

Surely, if the success of Year One is any indication, the adventure has only just begun.

Related:

Sparks’ Squad’s Success Starts With Culture
Johnson Committed to Constant Improvement
Silverio Feels Irish Family Embrace
Culture of Service Resonated For Norman’s Squad