By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The walls in Steve Nugent’s new office are bare these days, having been cleared to make way for soon-to-be stenciled truisms about commitment, communication, teamwork and dedication. Most of the photos and plaques and citations will return, but when the remodeling is done, some space will be purposely left empty.
For the 39-year-old Nugent, appointed UNCG’s women’s soccer coach last week, there will always be a need for vacancy, an excellent reminder of past journeys and future objectives.
“Coaching is what I’ve always wanted to do,” the former University of Georgia assistant coach said while surveying the new digs. “It’s an opportunity to give to someone what I was never able to receive. It’s a part of my personality. Because you can sum me up by saying I’m dependent on people being dependent on me. That’s why I coach.”
The location or level hasn’t mattered. The Massachusetts native has worked at a Boys and Girls Club, at a middle school, at a high school and at colleges in Houston; Boca Raton, Fla.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Athens, Ga. With 21 years of experience to his name, he embarks on his first NCAA Division I head coaching gig.
It is a time and opportunity he has pursued without benefit of a fame-filled playing career or dozens of other celebrated associations. And he really wouldn’t change that.
Most of the 2,000 books in Nugent’s collection will stay at home – wherever that turns out to be in the new city. A few will earn the trip to his office in the HHP Building for periodic perusal. They’re about coaching, psychology and that popular combo of winning friends and influencing people. Harry Potter might even make the cut.
The DVD player will fire up hours upon hours of game video but will get an occasional respite in the form of “Dead Poets Society,” the Oscar-winning 1989 film about a respected, austere Vermont boarding school and its inspirational, eccentric English teacher. Nugent has nothing against “Remember the Titans” or “Braveheart” or “300,” for that matter, but he’ll look beyond the typical warrior-jock flick if given a choice.
“I don’t believe in the adage that says, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ I think things should be enhanced and adjusted,” Nugent said. “New techniques and new ideas need to be brought into the fold. No one person has all the answers. The idea that you can pull something out of what you read or from the interaction you have with someone is a great lesson in that movie. It captures a lot of who I am.”
“Rocky” is a nice story and all, but everybody’s got his own tale to tell. Nugent’s mixes convention – and conventions – with detours.
It was the summer of 1989 and the youngest of five Boston-born, Florida-transplanted sons was about to start a playing career at Florida Southern University in Lakeland. The days of Nugent’s youth had been occupied by the bouncing black and white ball, and that ball was going to take him places until his mother was diagnosed with cancer and everything was put on hold.
Steve stuck around the family home, going to community college in the morning and alternating between three jobs and shuttling his parents to medical appointments the rest of the day. The playing career would have an unavoidable void. For a time, he played for a ragtag pro outfit, the Boca Raton Sabres of something called the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, but he knew that couldn’t provide the steady camaraderie of college or the paycheck of an established league.
He ultimately enrolled in and graduated from Florida Atlantic University, but the classroom was but a small portion of an education that began on a whim. Jim Blankenship, a friend and longtime coach in South Florida, knew of a youth club team that needed some direction and asked Nugent, who was originally skeptical.
“Of course, I knew nothing about coaching,” Nugent said. “He said, ‘You just go out there and do what you can.’ What I found out really quickly in Boca Raton was how many really knowledgeable people there were about soccer. Any day of the week, I could watch a training session and see what somebody was doing. That’s what I did. I immersed myself. I went to every convention I could go to. I got every license I could get.”
In two tenures with Team Boca from 1989-2000 and 2002-08, he discovered the vicarious joy of playing success when nine of his pupils went on to represent national teams of various homelands. That provided Nugent’s entrée into the college game, where he coached at Rice and Florida State while his wife got her law degree from FSU.
In the past three years, he has been the de facto defensive coordinator at Georgia, which worked its way to two NCAA tournament trips in that span. Along the way, Nugent networked and got to know Eddie Radwanski, who guided the Spartans until taking the Clemson job a few days before Christmas. The situation was worth a look.
Nugent won out over an impressive field of applicants, and he was introduced to the crowd at the UNCG men’s basketball game on Wednesday night.
“He is well connected across the nation and that will help us to continue to build a national contender in our women’s soccer program,” said Rod Wyatt, the associate athletics director who headed the search process.
Nugent spent his first day signing two recruits who had committed to the previous administration; scheduling two spring games; looking at dozens of applicants for prospective assistant coaches; and meeting with his new players.
The boxes remained on the office floor as he commiserated with his players, outlining his philosophy.
“The four words that come to my mind in my coaching are: I’ve got your back,” he said. “It’s incredibly important from my perspective and theirs. I believe in the sanctity of what we do. I believe that without trust, there is no family and without family, there is no team. What we do, see and say here, stays here.”
Having said that, Nugent was willing to speak in general terms about his players, most of whom played key roles in a 19-2-1 season that produced another Southern Conference championship in 2010.
“They’re fantastic people,” he said. “It’s exactly what I hoped they would be like. It was going to take a lot for me to consider leaving Athens, Ga. One of the things that drew me to UNCG was the type of people Eddie recruited.”
Stylistically, Nugent said he won’t sit back and let the opponent dictate pace of play. If he has his way, outside defenders will get five or six assists apiece in 2011. The ball will be shared and distributed.
And this will happen against the sort of elite schedule UNCG has typically played. Georgia and Tennessee come to Greensboro this fall. Florida State and Florida are on for the future. Proximity to the ACC will remain an important part of attracting a compelling and challenging group of non-league foes.
And the office décor? Don’t expect it to change much in the coming weeks. There is recruiting to be done in Raleigh (current high school juniors) and California (unsigned seniors). And there will always be a place for something new.
“We have what we need financially,” Nugent said. “We have what we need in facilities. The thing that hits me most is that people love it here. People want to help you. They want you to succeed. And because of that, I would say that’s the No. 1 reason we have what we need.”
- UNCG -