Dissecting Bruce: Inside Arena's legend, from those who know him best
Arena arrived at the University of Virginia in 1978, taking charge of the men's soccer program (with Bob Bradley and then Dave Sarachan as his top assistant) and serving as an assistant coach for the lacrosse team. He was expected one day to become the head lacrosse coach -- it was his first sport; he'd been an All-American at Nassau Community College and Cornell -- but the Cavaliers emerged as a powerhouse in the early '80s. Over the next decade or so, he would lure John Harkes, Tony Meola, Jeff Agoos, Richie Williams, Claudio Reyna and Ben Olsen -- among many other future pros -- to the school, building a dynasty that recouped five NCAA titles in six years.
Dave Sarachan: Bruce knew where to go in the country -- it was Kearny, N.J. That's where Harkes was, that's where Meola was, that's where Tab Ramos [who would attend North Carolina State] was from. Kearny was the place. St. Benedict's Prep -- that's where you had to get the kids. He understood the mechanisms and the routes you need to get what you need. We all built the recruiting base, got these kids from New Jersey, and now in '84, '85, in '86, we had one of the best college teams I've ever been around.
George Gelnovatch: He was really respected, both in the community and the school, no doubt about it, but he also can rub people the wrong way, because he speaks his opinion, and he can chafe people. Along with the success came a guy who spoke his mind when he thought something needed to be said or needed to be changed. Some people got pissed off, some people chafed, but most of us who really listened to what he was saying, it made a helluva lot of sense, for the most part. Sometimes it just came across funny, but it made a lot of sense.
Lyle Yorks: We had a lot of characters on our team, so Bruce's personality actually fit right in, and he was able to manage us through that brashness. Part of Bruce's success is he would keep everyone on a loose leash. He gave you a lot of freedom. He always did. But you knew the second you took advantage of that, he would tighten that leash very quickly.
Sarachan: He was a New Yorker in a Southern atmosphere. At the end of the day, he’s a ball-buster, and there are people who are thin-skinned that cannot handle it. Then there's those that can give it back and love it. And in that setting, there were some good old Southern boys that just didn't cater to the New York sarcasm.
He was a New Yorker in a Southern atmosphere. At the end of the day, he’s a ball-buster, and there are people who are thin-skinned that cannot handle it."
Yorks: He started this thing called the golden jock. In 1989, the first day of practice preparing for the NCAAs, he comes in and he's got a jockstrap, and it's spray-painted gold. It's really stiff, and it's hanging on a hanger. It was decided whoever performs best in training each day, the next day this will hanging in your locker. And they'd cut your picture out of the media guide and staple it to the jockstrap. Everyone was so desperate to get the golden jockstrap, so we're turning up to training a few minutes early, the banter was unbelievable, and [the winner] could be who grinded it out, who battled the hardest -- it could have been anything. It really took a life form of its own. We competed, as he would say, like bastards. And when we’re heading up to Rutgers for the final four, we all get on the team bus, and they spray-painted a briefcase and put chains all around it, all spray-painted. That's how we're transporting the golden jock all the way up. And we ended up winning our first national championship. That's typical Bruce. We all rallied behind a jockstrap, and it ended up contributing on some level to our first national championship.
Claudio Reyna: The environment was very professional. The level and intensity of training every day was very, very high. Oftentimes, our training sessions were more difficult than our games. We were a very strong team, and he pushed players. When I was a freshman, the seniors would certainly kick me up and down during training, and that was all part of the environment that he created. Everyone around Bruce, around the team and staff, hates to lose and wants to do everything to get an edge to win, and I think that's what really prepared me [for a career in Europe].
Going pro (1996)
Major League Soccer, the first real stab in the U.S. at a Division I league since the NASL's 1984 demise, was to arrive in 1996. Longtime soccer official Kevin Payne, D.C. United's president, met with Arena during the 1995 NSCAA Convention in Washington to ask him about becoming the club's coach. Arena would guide D.C. -- with John Harkes and Jeff Agoos among nearly a dozen UVa alums on the roster -- to MLS Cup championships in the league's first two seasons and to CONCACAF Champions' Cup and InterAmerican Cup titles in 1998.
Kevin Payne: The biggest thing he said, and this was very typical of Bruce, he was very focused on ensuring the everyday work environment for the players was a very professional one. So he said, “Look, I'm really interested, but until I know more about training facilities and things of that nature, I'm not going to commit.” That was kind of music to my ears. I wanted to have a coach who understood that at the professional level, everything that happens all day everyday has an impact on your ability to be successful on the field. And that the culture of the club was just as important as the quality of the players.
I didn't want to just be a good team. I wanted to be looked at as a club that did everything well, where players wanted to play, and when players got to the club and put the shirt on, they automatically became better players. Bruce shared that, but he doesn't tend to intellectualize this. Bruce is a very, very bright guy, but he doesn't talk a whole lot about the process. It's just not the way he operates. But the way he conducts himself is what produces results. There's no question that Bruce's attention to detail, organization, his ability to recognize the value that players had and not focus on the things they didn't do well all were big contributing factors to the culture we created around the club.
Jeff Agoos: The story of that first team was we had people who contributed game in and game out, and not just the one through 11, the one through 18 or 20, whatever the roster was at the time. Bruce made it known that everybody was going to have to contribute, everyone was going to have to pick up their share of the weight, and Bruce made our trainings more competitive and more challenging than some of our matches. I think the trainings and the contributions from every player on that team were why we were able to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the final [against Los Angeles], come back in a very climactic way and score a winning goal in sudden-death overtime.
It was never real formal with Bruce. There weren't any sit-downs. 'Just stay with us. You'll save some money. You'll eat better this way. You won't be eating that f***ing Taco Bell all the time.'"
Payne: The real turning point of the season was when Bruce really got Marco [Etcheverry] on board. Basically, there was a stretch of three games where Bruce only played Marco 45 minutes, and we won all three. Then Marco came to us and said, “I'm not a 45-minute player.” And we said, “Well, you have to prove that.” So he did, and then his relationship to the club -- to me personally, to Bruce personally -- was cemented. And from that point on, he was going to do whatever he could do to win games, and he ended up becoming the best player on the team and maybe the most influential player in the history of the league.
MLS's Project-40 initiative looked to bring in top college underclassmen, and one of the prizes ahead of the 1998 season was Ben Olsen, who had developed at Virginia into one of the nation's best wingers. He signed a deal to rejoin Arena at D.C., and Arena and his wife, Phyllis, offered him a place to live in their home.
Ben Olsen: I could have lived on my own, but Bruce offered, and I already knew Bruce and his wife and Kenny and considered them kind of family anyways at this point. And Bruce has a history of opening up his home to players and their families. That was something I always really admired about Bruce, and that kind of led to the team camaraderie and the family aspect within his teams. A bunch of guys would be staying there. If someone was in town, Bruce and Phyllis always made you welcome. How I ended up living there? I don't know. It was never real formal with Bruce. There weren't any sit-downs. “Just stay with us. You'll save some money. You'll eat better this way. You won't be eating that f***ing Taco Bell all the time.”
The setting there was ideal. Kenny was in high school, and he essentially had a whole basement to himself, which I ended up being down there quite a bit. In some ways, we were like brothers living in a basement. My room was upstairs, on the third floor, but I went there just to go to bed. I was mostly downstairs with Kenny. It was great.