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Sunday Brunch: The Riley Era-Long Time in the Making

Jan. 21, 2018

By John Heisler

At first blush, the evolution of former University of Notre Dame men’s soccer player Chad Riley into the head men’s soccer coaching slot at his alma mater might seem to be fairly routine and conventional:

–Play four seasons of soccer for the Irish (2000-2003), the last three of those for new coach Bobby Clark, with those final three all resulting in NCAA Championship appearances.

–Spend six years on Clark’s Notre Dame staff, earning a slot in the NCAA bracket in the first five of those six.

–Move to Dartmouth as an assistant coach, then a year later in 2013 become the head coach of the Big Green.

–Win four straight Ivy League titles from 2014-17, with NCAA appearances following all four.

–On Jan. 4, 2018, become the Notre Dame men’s soccer head coach, replacing his retired college coach and mentor Clark.

Chad Riley and Bobby Clark analyze the Irish.

It’s all so fairytale-like that the Rileys expect to move into the same house in which Chad’s wife Cait grew up as a child in South Bend (her mother is former Saint Mary’s College president and University of Notre Dame Law School graduate Carol Ann Mooney).

But don’t believe any of this happened by accident. This has been a mission for Riley, and it’s just now coming to fruition.

Go back to 1994, the year the United States played host to the World Cup at venues all around the country. Chad Riley was 12 years old. Think this youngster growing up in Houston, Texas, had some casual interest in that event? Hardly.

“It’s a little bit weird that I wanted to coach from an early age,” Riley says. “Back when I was growing up maybe we saw one Mexican League game a week or maybe a (English) Premier League game. You weren’t watching much soccer back then, but when the World Cup came along ABC and ESPN had every game–I recorded every game on a VHS machine. It was about that time that I actually thought that coaching would be a really fun profession.”

But it took a while before Riley came to really understand why he wanted to coach.

“It was about January in my freshman year at Notre Dame. I first met Coach Clark and all of it kind of tied together. I thought, ‘Okay, I want to play as long as I can, but after that I really want to be a coach.’ I was fortunate to know that’s what I wanted to do. And yet it was more than simply coaching.

“I was talking to (Irish men’s lacrosse coach) Kevin Corrigan about this the other day and he used a great word-the word ‘transformational.’ As I look back on it, the combination of Bobby Clark and Notre Dame was transformational for me. I had great parents, but I also felt like I had two dads. I actually sent that to Bobby in an email the night I found out he was retiring.

“I just saw that if you get it all right, it adds to the transformational time you can have at a place like Notre Dame. That email was just to say thanks and to tell him to enjoy the celebration of his career. I wanted him to know how I felt about my time with him.”

Riley also came to understand early on that there was strategy required to plot out his various career moves.

“I think I saw the fit in terms of preparing yourself and then having to position yourself to get the jobs you wanted,” he says. “I think working with Bobby, you can prepare yourself because you’re going to learn something every day. But after six years here (as an assistant) I had gotten to the point where it was time for a new experience and a new challenge.”

So Riley, then the second Irish assistant behind B.J. Craig, decided to consider his options.

“I had talked to a few other coaches over the previous two years, but I didn’t feel like they were the right schools or the right situation,” he says. “But Jeff Cook, who was the Dartmouth head coach and just recently became the Penn State coach, was someone I knew. And I knew a lot about Dartmouth just through the years through Bobby (Dartmouth’s head coach from 1985-93).

“I also knew I had a lot to learn to prepare myself to be a good head coach. I always had a lot of things happening in the back of my head in that regard. We’d gotten married in May 2011 and moved in February 2012 to Hanover. We certainly talked about it, but it was a big jump and my wife understood the process.

“And you’ve got to be purposeful about it. Bobby taught me not to be in a rush. But at the same time I also remembered (Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr athletics director) Jack Swarbrick coming to speak to all the assistant coaches one day down in the basketball auditorium of the Joyce Center.

“Two things really hit me-first it was nice to hear Jack talk about it from his side of the table, from his perspective. It was about how to grow your career, how you do it while you’re here. And you can be a good assistant, but you have to be able to articulate what you do to get the jobs you want. And then you can talk about it, but you also get to the point where you have to go prove it.

“What I took from Jack’s comments were that you were probably going to have to go somewhere else-it’s probably not going to be a seamless move up the ladder here (at Notre Dame) to one of the head coaching positions. He was very positive, but the way I interpreted it was that it was going to be hard to work here until something happened. And I certainly wanted Bobby to coach here as long as he wanted to.

“Then I remember picking (Notre Dame senior associate athletic director) Bill Scholl’s brain. One of his things was, ‘As soon as you find a good place, go be a head coach as fast as you can.’ His advice was that there were so many things you can’t learn unless you’re in the seat doing it. I took that to heart. I wasn’t going to rush, but it hit me that there’s a big difference between making suggestions and making decisions.”

After Riley’s first season as a Big Green assistant, the MLS Philadelphia Union approached Cook about starting a youth academy. Cook took the job, and weeks later Riley became a head coach at age 31. Riley hasn’t forgotten the early lessons he learned in Hanover.

“One of the biggest things is how, as a head coach, you can never have a bad day with your team,” he says. “The way you are is going to be the way they feel. So it’s about being positive and that first step of leading as a role model.

“Even if you’re not consciously saying, ‘I want to be like my head coach,’ you were around Bobby so much that you see how important it is to be that kind of steady influence in the players’ lives.

“Then it’s about helping this generation understand that failure is not a permanent negative mark on their life. It’s just part of the process toward achieving high-end things. They’ve been judged from an early age-whether it’s been academic or athletics. I use the word ‘aspirational’ a lot. We all have goals, but you always want to go a little higher. If you don’t get it, you go after it the next day. So it’s so important the environment you create around the whole program. You’re the face of your program-it sounds obvious, but it really hits you when you first become a head coach.

“The other piece that hits you when you become a head coach is that you feel like you’re always under attack. When you lose games, you feel like the whole world knows. So you have to embrace it and understand that’s not the way everybody sees it. We did not do well in the Ivy League that first year, and that’s like the Super Bowl at any of those Ivy schools. I was like, ‘Whoa, maybe I don’t know as much as I thought.’

“It forced me to say, at the core of it, of course I want to win a lot. But at the end of the day it’s much more than winning or losing-winning ties everything you do together and gives you credibility. But having a bad first year helped me say, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“If it’s just about wins and avoiding losses, I’m not going to do this very long. But it goes back to this transformational experience I had at Notre Dame where it’s geared toward winning. If you don’t try to win, you don’t get the experience we intend–that competition piece of it that has all the by-products that help us grow. But it’s not just about that. So that first year at Dartmouth was a little like, ‘Whew, this is a lot.’ Like any position, it took a lot of mental energy that first year, but then maybe less and less as you go along. The challenges are always going to present themselves in new and exciting ways because you’re dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds.”

When he needed an outsider’s take Riley generally leaned on Clark, Cook and former Irish assistant Brian Wiese, now head coach at Georgetown.

“I always tell my assistants that I’m very collaborative,” Riley says. “I don’t care who is right as long as we’re right. I want the assistants included in that thought process as I’m making a decision.”

Riley’s half-dozen years as an assistant in South Bend provided additional, critical perspectives.

“When you’re a player, you know your coaches have offices, but you wonder what they do in there all day,” he says with a grin. “One of the things I did not fully appreciate was that maybe things looked the same year to year from a broad perspective–but I learned how much went into every offseason of how you evolve things or why you’re making these little changes. As a player it looks consistent. But there was a big series of maybe small changes that led to these 17 years of success here. That really hit me to see how much thought and effort went into that.

“I also got a very good comprehensive approach as to how to recruit and what sort of effort that took. We all understand that’s the lifeblood to the program, but I learned from Bobby how to find some of the kids who are slipping through the cracks and those who are in a good spot but their best days are ahead of them and they have a higher upside. That can be the thing that separates your program.”

Riley figures he’s been gone from campus long enough and gained enough new perspective solving five seasons worth of Dartmouth challenges to provide the 2018 Irish enough of a new look.

“How much will my training sessions be different? How I prepare for games, how will that be different? I’ll probably seem different enough,” he says. “In any transition you embrace the big challenges and the little challenges, and I’ll see them clearer now that I’m here. The fun part will be to have Bobby here for a while as we do this-we quickly turned him into a consultant.

“There’s not many programs where you take over for someone referred to as a legend. But it’s a better option than taking over someplace where all kinds of things are not going well. I’d rather pick this situation.”

And Riley understands that accepting the status quo–even for a program that has been to the NCAA Championship 16 of the past 17 years, won an NCAA title in 2013 and earned multiple number-one NCAA seeds-can’t be the approach.

“There’s always another level in what you do, and that’s what I’m excited to get to,” he says. “I’ve watched the team play a little bit, and it’s figuring out those things I can help grow. It’s what you call ‘facing the brutal facts’ from one of the ‘Good to Great’ books. How do you attack this to make it better? It’s at a good spot in the best league in the country. So it’s thinking very strategically about what needs to improve and prioritizing what you need to do.

“Is it training? I doubt it-I know they’ve been trained very well. Maybe little tweaks here and there. So recruiting and scheduling–you’ve got to look at those areas and put everything on the table. How do you keep this trajectory?

“No matter what, I would always love Notre Dame. But this is the trifecta–your favorite university in the world, with a program that’s positioned for success on the national level and then it happens to be where your wife grew up.

“I see myself as a professional in terms of thinking we have a chance to be very good here consistently at a place that I absolutely know is transformational.”

Riley, who also interviewed for two other head coaching positions the same week he did so at Notre Dame (and took a close look a few years back at the Portland opening), looks forward to a continuing education process in South Bend. He’s excited to take in a Jeff Jackson hockey practice and observe how basketball, volleyball, lacrosse and other Irish head coaches run their programs.

“You understand how important it is to be an effective communicator. You have to convince your team why you’re doing what you’re doing. They aren’t going to do it just because you tell them to. When I got the job at Dartmouth I put a lot of time into determining how I communicate what the program is all about, and that’s been extremely beneficial.

“My mother-in-law gave me great advice when I came to interview. She said, ‘At the end of the day you’ve got to be yourself.’ So it’s about the environment you want to create. How are you going to go about developing talent and leadership? Then there’s the coaching piece. And then what does the whole thing feel like?

“You look at yourself as a little brand or franchise. It’s like going to Starbucks, you know you’re going to get a pretty good latte. So as a coach, this is what you’re going to get if you’re part of his program. That’s when everything aligns as an educator-coach-and that’s what Bobby has done so well here.”

Riley can’t help now but think back regularly to the night of Nov. 28 when the email popped into his in-box telling him Clark had decided to retire.

“Our season was done and I was at home in the kitchen when the email showed up,” he says. “The kids were asleep, and my wife was watching television. Initially, I was sad. So few of us have our coach back at our school. It was obviously a nice thing, and I kept in touch. And I was in the business so any time I was back in town I knew my old coach was here at school.”

And, naturally, Clark’s announcement set off a furry of emails and texts with Riley’s friends and colleagues.

“Becoming the head coach at Notre Dame? It was one of those dreams that you knew, well, if you’re doing okay, it would be a really amazing thing to have it go your way. Every once in a while through the years we’d think about it. But I was shocked that night – you always knew that at some point it was going to happen but you never thought it would really happen. I had no idea it was coming.

“Bobby and I would talk every couple of weeks, at least every month–a lot at the beginning of the season. We’d talk a little about where our teams were, a little on preparation, sometimes some recruiting things. I was always getting advice on little challenges throughout the season.

“Then we’d see each other a lot on the road recruiting. In fact, this will be good in another way because there’s a little bit of an overlap – there are definitely some players here that I know because I had an interest in them at Dartmouth.”

For the time being, that Clark feedback will come from the office next door-at least until sometime in the spring when Clark expects to move back to his native Scotland.

And it’s Riley’s turn now.

He’s convinced he’s ready.