'I want to build an empire': How Gunn made Stanford into a superpower

Jim Shorin-ISI Photos

There are a lot of reasons why Stanford shouldn't be a men's soccer power, but after two national titles, Jeremy Gunn wants more.

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They’ve just finished their warm-up, culminating in passing pattern drills. Today’s focus was moving the ball through the outside backs. The team moves over to an 11-a-side game with goals on a small field. Beyond putting the ball in the net, each team gets a point for executing the pattern they’ve just done in the warm-up.

Five minutes in, a center back receives the ball, looks up, and drives a long ball to his weak-side outside midfielder. The ball lands perfectly at the midfielder’s foot, who moves to take off with the ball. The whistle blows.

The rest of the country gets heartbroken when a recruit chooses another university. We get our heart broken by admissions.

“What the hell was that?” the coach yells from the sideline, taking a few steps onto the field. His British accent takes on a raspy tone when he starts to yell. “That’s not what we’re doing. Get the ball to your outside defender!”

None of the players blink an eye. Nobody mentions that the 50-yard ball has just landed perfectly on the player’s foot and opened up the game. Nobody mentions they are probably about to score. Everyone understands the point that is being made. Everyone understands the process.

Six years ago, head coach Jeremy Gunn took over a Stanford University men’s soccer program that had not yet won a national championship. Today, he sits with two big trophies in his office.

What’s happening over in Palo Alto? How is it that the school with one of the toughest academic standards among scholarship-granting universities in the U.S. has now won back-to-back NCAA titles?

“It’s having a clear vision and moving everyone to move in the same direction. And then keep that accountability and keep moving towards that constant vision,” Gunn tells FourFourTwo. “When you’ve got a team and the center back does things his way and the center mid does things his way and the forward does things his way, you’ve got chaos and you’ve got a disjointed group.”

“We are not arguing that that is the best way; we are arguing that is a good way, but if we do it well we are in good shape.”

It’s all refreshing to hear. American soccer has been pulled in different directions over the last few years. We’ve tried to figure out the right places for our best players to play, the best environment for the them to excel, the proper way to get the most out of them. The one thing we haven’t discussed much is how to get the most out of a team.

I’m not fascinated by coach Gunn and his Stanford program because I’m an alumni and care about the team (full disclosure: I train with the team from time to time). I’m intrigued by what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, and, more so, what the rest of us can learn from it.  How have they overcome their competitive disadvantages and turned into a national power? What’s the secret?

You’ve got to be willing to make a dictatorship and get people to buy in. If you give people other options, they will take other options.

If you spend five minutes with coach Gunn, you realize he has an answer for everything. He has thought out every detail of the game, and he has factored it into his plans. He thinks of every facet of the game. A player doesn’t have a proper stride and has a high risk of injury? Gunn pushes him to change his running motion. There’s zero randomness in his approach.

The tough part for most coaches, of course, is getting the team on board with your ideas. If a coach had told me to change the way I run, I probably would have laughed as I walked away. Gunn, though, has a captivating presence. There are different ways to get players to buy in. Sometimes the track record speaks for itself, a la Alex Ferguson. Sometimes the resume draws admiration; the Zidane model. Or sometimes the coach has a charisma that brings players on board, like with Jurgen Klopp.

Gunn has the third one in spades.

He has a special quality to get people to follow him. Gunn’s magnetic, cool. College kids want to be like him. When he speaks, the players listen. As such, he can mold the team to his vision.

“You’ve got to have a real strong will power. You’ve got to be willing to take on the group in some ways,” Gunn says of coaching. “You’ve got to be willing to make a dictatorship and get people to buy in. If you give people other options, they will take other options. Once the program gets traction and the things get moving, you can figure out who is on your side and who is going to become the leaders from within. You are not going to survive if you take on the group the whole time.  You need to find and say ‘he’s our captain, he’s going to push the team forward.’”

Despite winning its second national title in two years, the team has still taken criticism for its style. For some, it’s too rugged. Playing a laissez-faire style, though, just isn’t in the cards for Stanford. As Gunn explains, those kids aren’t the ones that are going to get into Stanford. Stanford kids are organized and disciplined; they like targets that they can knock down, and the kind of kids Gunn can recruit dictates how the team plays.

The academic restrictions are no joke. “Normally the rest of the country [coaches] get heartbroken when a recruit chooses another university,” Gunn jokes. “We get our heart broken by admissions.”

At a showcase tournament with around 300 kids, some schools show up with a blank notebook and see who dazzles. The Stanford coaches, however, show up with a list of 40 players that they think they can get into school. Throughout the recruiting process, they say they usually have to knock 20 names off the list because it turns out the player actually probably wouldn’t get into school. So while the rest of the country has a pool of a few hundred potential players – potential employees – to choose from, Stanford has a pool of around 20.

Whatever people think they are capable of doing, they are probably capable of more.

Fortunately for coaches around campus, those 20 kids usually don’t need much convincing. When I was at the combine before the MLS SuperDraft, the team doctor for the Seattle Sounders mentioned his son wanted to go Stanford when he was older. He said they had emailed the coach asking if he was interested. Two years later, Jordan Morris played his first game for the Cardinal.

When you speak to players and coaches around the team, there is one common theme that keeps coming back. Playing soccer isn’t just a physical activity; it’s a mental challenge. When they talk about a game, the first thing they talk about has nothing to do with the technical or tactical aspects, but always some mental or emotional component. They didn’t win a game because they finished their chances, they won because the forward missed a chance but refocused himself and took the next one.

Look no further than Stanford’s penalty-kick successes over the last two years. Three of the team’s four wins in the past two final fours came via penalty kicks. In the most stressful of circumstances, players are prepared. When they train penalties before playoff games, they each line up to shoot without a goalkeeper in front of them. The shooter is left alone, with no one to beat or lose to except himself. With everyone watching, hit your spot. The penalty victories haven’t been random success, but rather, proof of concept.

“Whatever people think they are capable of doing, they are probably capable of more,” Gunn emphasizes. “You inspire and you push and you get more out of people. Most human beings will naturally settle for just giving it a good go and settling. You try to create a culture where that is not acceptable.”

With two national championships under his belt, it begs an obvious question: What’s next for Gunn?

“Well, my big thing is, I want to build an empire here.”

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