In our last epic, you might recall the memory man promised Leigh Cowlishaw he wouldn’t be called Richmond’s “Mr. Soccer,” even though the Kickers’ man for all seasons — and job descriptions — certainly qualifies. So, if not the transplanted Brit, who’s been making an impact on the local futbol scene since arriving from Burton-on-Trent, England, in 1989, then who?
This is Volume 56 in our look back at all things sports here, there and just about everywhere Virginia for more than 65 years, a transplanted Yankee, clearly a stranger in a strange land — but not for long. Call it: “Way to Go, Dumbo; You Did It Again.”
Dave Amsler was the first, and frankly only, one to bug us — then bug us again — about soccer here back in the 1970s. He didn’t mess around, either, coming on strong with an unwavering drive to get his sport the publicity he thought it deserved.
From Norristown, Pa., a 1970 graduate of Campbell University where he was four-times soccer team MVP, Amsler organized the first summer youth league here in 1971. By 1975 he was one of only 50 to earn a USSF “A” coach’s license. From the outset, it was obvious he didn’t only love the game, he lived it.
I must confess a certain prejudice in those days of long ago. To wit, an attitude that was prevalent when responding to futbolophiles — what there was of them — insisting the World’s Most Popular Game was about to strike it big on these shores, too. Come on, Dave. We’ve heard that for years. Same old, same old. Give us a break, all right?
Of course, it wasn’t all right for Amsler, who kept on insisting while we kept on trying to ignore him … until we couldn’t. He started the Richmond Strikers Youth Club in 1976, when there were few, if any, such opportunities here. The Strikers led to Striker Park, and its sprawling, multi-field location in western Henrico where the pro Kickers practiced in their early years. And that led Amsler, in 1985, to create FC Richmond Magic, now with membership of 2,500-plus boys and girls.
Our sit-down with Cowlishaw — and poking at him about being “Mr. Soccer” although I was pretty sure we both already had someone else in mind — led to Amsler and his 50 years of dedicated service to the game in Richmond. In other words, the real “Mr. Soccer,” a designation long since retired, never to be debated again.
The plan was to call Amsler this week in Clearwater, Fla., where he moved a year or so ago. Surely he would give me some grief — welcomed and deserved — then question if it was really yours truly on the line when told I was a big fan of the English Premier League on NBCSN. I looked forward to the exchange.
Once again, I waited too long, until it was too late. Amsler, 73, died last Friday morning, June 4. According to Trip Ellis, FC Richmond’s director of coaching, Amsler went to Florida for treatment of brain cancer and, as late as a couple of weeks ago, the news had been encouraging. The Magic plan to break ground soon on an 80-acre soccer complex off Genito Road in Chesterfield County, and Amsler was in Richmond for a special gathering at which he was told the main field would be named after him.
However, on returning to Clearwater, Amsler suffered a stroke and passed a week later. With him went a legacy few, if any, will match. “He was a pioneer,” Ellis said. “As you can imagine, it’s been a very sad time for all of us. I first played for Dave when I was 12 and through my life he was a coach, friend and mentor. I owe so much to him.”
It would be impossible to list everything Amsler did for the game here, but he was acknowledged for his loyalty and service several times, including induction to the VA/D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005. He’s in pretty good company with W&M coach Al Albert, Bruce Arena, R-MC’s Helmut Werner, Kickers’ chairman Rob Ukrop, a former All-American at Davidson, as well as former UVA stars John Harkes, Richie Williams, Ben Olsen, Clint Peay and Jeff Agoos — among many others.
“He was the godfather of soccer in Richmond,” said Ukrop, 51, who played for FC Richmond as a youngster. “He brought the game alive for me. Dave was demanding. He pushed us hard … [but] he saw something in me I didn’t see in myself at the time. I’m super thankful he was the first to be influential in soccer for me.”
About Amsler, Cowlishaw agrees. “I’ve enjoyed myself immensely in Richmond with all levels and aspects of soccer, no question. But, certainly you would say Mr. Soccer here would be Dave. He is the one who pioneered the sport, no question. Soccer was established through him before I got here. I can’t take credit for that,” he said, adding, “I’ve done all right, though.”
Other than the fact they are Hall of Fame coaches in their respective sports, Duke basketball’s Mike Krzyzewski, who will take a farewell tour in 2021-2022, and Virginia Tech football’s Frank Beamer (retired) have something in common that’s rarely mentioned but otherwise significant. Both can’t thank their original athletic directors enough for their opportunities to become icons. By today’s standards for impatience, both would have faced the firing squad early on.
Krzyzewski wasn’t a popular choice when Duke AD Tom Butters stuck his neck way, WAY out and hired a coach from the United States Military Academy to replace Bill Foster, who left for South Carolina. Mike who? Army was 9-17 in 1979-80 when Butters took the advice of Bobby Knight and Holland — among others — and hired the 33-year-old Krzyzewski. “There is no doubt in my mind he is the brightest young coaching talent in America,” Butters said at K’s coming out party.
No doubt, eh? After seasons of 17-13, 10-17 and 11-18, there was every reason to believe Butters had made a major mistake. What had Knight said to endorse Krzyzewski, who played for him at West Point? “He has all of my good qualities and none of my bad.” Hmmm!
At any rate, Blue Devils Nation was restless. There were calls to remove K and move on but Butters held firm. Heck, they were just learning to pronounce Krzyzewski properly. Let’s give him another chance, OK? In 1984, Duke (24-10) reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. By 1986 the Blue Devils were 37-3 and reached the championship game. Butters died smiling in 2016, a week from his 78th birthday. At that point K had won his five national titles and already was the winningest coach in NCAA DI history.
What makes the Beamer story even more intriguing is that he was inherited by Dave Braine when he became athletic director at Va. Tech. Unlike Butters, Braine didn’t have to remain loyal to someone he hired or, quite possibly, be so closely associated with him that they could be fired in tandem.
Braine, a former University of North Carolina defensive back (three-year starter), came to Blacksburg in 1988 after two seasons as Marshall AD. We knew him as a bright, easy-to-laugh, fun-loving football assistant at the University of Richmond (1971-73) and, in retrospect, didn’t envision him as the great problem solver he turned out to be at Tech.
In truth, Braine had no other choice. Hokie basketball as well as football was on NCAA probation. Beamer was in his second season, having replaced Bill Dooley, fired after being accused of recruiting violations he denied — and sued the school, settling for a reported $1 million. Dooley left the program in shambles, including the loss of scholarships thanks to NCAA sanctions. And when Beamer finished 2-8-1 in 1992, his six-season record 24-40-2, you had to believe Braine’s patience had run out.
He was getting the incessant inquiry “When are you getting rid of Beamer?” from fans. Finally, a season’s end, school president Dr. James McComas asked: “Do we need to change our coach?” To which “Dave the Braine” shocked everyone. According to a thorough two-part interview written for Tech Sideline in 2012, he said Beamer wasn’t the problem, his staff was.
“We need to get more money to get good assistant coaches,” Braine was quoted as telling Dr. McComas. So the school raised student fees to pay for them. Beamer stayed for 29 years in all, compiling a 214-81-0 record over the last 23 that included a streak of 23 straight bowl games. He retired in 2016 and is a member of eight halls of fame.
OK, go ahead and ask: How did Braine know what really was ailing Hokie football? The Tech Sideline piece quotes him as saying he attended staff meetings of Beamer and associates and learned firsthand his staff was weighing Beamer down. “I hate to say it because they were my friends, and some of them still are but ...”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka quit the French Open because she didn’t want to be interviewed. Say what?
Where does it say everyone must respond to questions from the news media? It’s a rule, punishable by fine and/or dismissal? Oh, really?
Even when inquiries cross the line and get too personal or are so vapid you wonder why the inquisitor got press credentials in the first place? You would be surprised how often the latter happens. Maybe not.
There are numerous examples, like the young woman (whose name escapes) who didn’t work for an accredited news outlet yet somehow wormed her way into media day at the Super Bowl. Her intent quite obviously was to draw attention to herself — and it worked, of course.
Actually, for athletes or coaches who aren’t comfortable responding in a Q-and-A setting, there are several ways to deal with it other than refusing to appear. The most obvious is saying, “No comment” or “Next question” until even the dimwitted understand you are wasting everyone’s time and stop asking you questions. Marshawn Lynch was classic. Faced with fines as much as $500,000 for not gracing the media with his presence, the Seattle running back would respond to most every question with the same response, such as “Yeah” … “Thanks for asking” or … “You know why I’m here.”
Or, you could pull a “Bill Belichick” by talking and saying nothing. Late North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was a master at that but, unlike the Patriots’ coach, occasionally would say something worth repeating, too.
Or, get aggressive with a question — or questioner — they don’t like and go into attack mode. Former coach Bobby Knight was a great example, likewise late Georgetown hoops boss John Thompson. Of more recent vintage are hockey coach John Tortorella, pro basketball’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and NFL Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, who is a talking head on ESPN — and reportedly still won’t do interviews with the print media.
Then there were/are some coaches who think they are smarter than the reporters and occasionally play games, designed to confuse or mislead instead of enlighten. Terry Holland was a great example of that while in charge of UVA basketball, as his wife Ann confirms. Holland also was the first coach I recall answering questions via the internet.
Of course, you could simply refuse to show up for anything that includes reporters asking questions, pay the fine (if mandated) and move on. See baseball’s Steve Carlton, Albert Belle and the lesser known but just as determined — and nasty — Jerry Grote, catcher for the ‘69 Miracle Mets, of “GET AWAY FROM ME!!” fame. Reputation definitely deserved.
(Believe it or not, the next NFL negotiation between owners and players union is expected to address the issue: How much, if at all, should they have to deal with the media without risking fines and/or suspensions?. Other pro leagues and associations could do likewise. If you think the animosity between players and press is growing now ...)
Frankly, I never felt anyone was — or should be — obligated to talk to me. That was their right. However, don’t come crawling or crying when they felt they needed me. And, boy, did that happen, like the big-time athlete who yawned in my face at the top of his game then years later treated me like an old friend because he had something to sell.
Fortunately, during my 47 years of covering kids’ games for The Times-Dispatch, I didn’t have to deal with today’s athletic directors and coaches who don’t have enough confidence to express their opinions verbally and, instead, hide behind prepared communications. You know, so-and-so “said in a statement released by the school.” Worse, they won’t face questioning for clarification.
It’s become the norm in this state, that’s for sure. There are few, if any, exceptions. They owe their fans, contributors, etc., more but, obviously, don’t care.
Until next time ...