Steve Sampson’s life, both professionally and personally, has been a whirlwind for the better part of the past nine months.
When the former U.S. men’s national team head coach accepted the job as Cal Poly’s men’s soccer coach in December, it was equal parts surprising and exciting for the Mustangs.
Having been away from collegiate coaching for several years, it took some time for Sampson to get up to speed with new NCAA compliance issues, incoming recruits and the roster he inherited.
“Every level has it’s own specific challenges,” said Sampson, who brings an unprecedented championship pedigree to Cal Poly. He was an assistant coach on UCLA’s 1985 national championship team and led Santa Clara to an undefeated record en route to the 1989 co-national title.
“I love this age group from the standpoint of being able to impact them in more than just the soccer piece,” Sampson said. “I love mentoring young coaches, I love mentoring young men. Helping them make life decisions, helping them prepare for a professional soccer career.”
The longtime coach said he couldn’t be happier with the decision to return to college coaching and he and his wife, Sheri, have settled into their new home in Avila Beach.
Sampson takes over a Cal Poly program picked to finish second in the North Division of the Big West Conference this fall. The Mustangs return nine starters from last year’s team that did not qualify for the conference tournament, including Big West goalkeeper of the year Wade Hamilton and midfielder of the year Chase Minter.
“There’s been definitely a shift in mentality,” Minter said. “But it’s pretty great because it’s all about accountability, about responsibility. He’s just one of those guys that demands professionalism.”
Minter was second among Big West players in assists (five), third in goals (seven) and points (19) and sixth in shot attempts (53) as a junior last season. The fifth-year senior was pleased to hear Sampson would be on the bench for his final collegiate season.
If it weren’t for Sampson, Minter may have never ended up at Cal Poly.
After a standout performance at an international club tournament in Dallas as a high school junior, Sampson approached Minter about his plans for college.
At that point, a somewhat discouraged Minter had received little recruiting attention and simply wanted an opportunity to continue playing in college.
Sampson contacted ex-Mustangs coach Paul Holocher and Minter, a 46-game starter, never looked back.
“One of the challenges that I think will help him become a great pro,” Sampson said, “is his ability to make more final passes and to score more goals.”
Sampson said all four seniors — Minter, Hamilton, defender Kip Colvey and midfielder Matt LaGrassa — have legitimate chances of playing in the MLS.
His eye for talent is better trained than most, having coached the Los Angeles Galaxy to the U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Cup in 2005.
That coaching stint came after a successful campaign as an assistant coach with the U.S. men’s national team at the 1994 World Cup. He took over as head coach in 1995 and coached the Americans at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Sampson added two coaches to the Cal Poly staff who have worked with him previously on the professional level — Shaun Harris and Ignacio Hernandez.
Sampson said Hernandez is the first full-time goalkeepers coach in program history, emphasizing the importance of the hire given the specific and challenging nature of the position on the field.
“Physically, tactically, technically, he gets everything that we need,” said Hamilton, who has played every minute of every match the past two seasons. “Having him, I can already tell that we’ve gotten better as a goalkeeper group.”
Instilling a professional culture was one of Sampson’s first priorities when he arrived. He admits that’s not something expected to evolve overnight, but Sampson believes the Mustangs are on the right track.
They’ll find out one way or the other Aug. 28 when Cal Poly hosts UNLV in the season opener at 7 p.m. at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“The work that we’ve done so far this fall hopefully will provide enough for us to get a good result and I believe we will,” Sampson said. “I’m really excited about the seniors and their opportunity.”