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Manning is quietly turning Utes around

Soccer coach Rich Manning delivers instructions during a recent game.
Soccer coach Rich Manning delivers instructions during a recent game.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

During a game, he stands nonchalantly on the sideline, an arm wrapped around one of the metal poles holding up an awning that covers the Ute bench. If you didn't see the large green soccer field in front of him, you'd swear Rich Manning was casually waiting for a bus to come by.

Manning may not look like your typical coach, and not just because of his slight build and less-than-imposing presence. It's more that he doesn't act like one. He rarely utters a word during a game, just occasionally shouting an instruction to a player in a calm tone of voice. Manning believes in doing his coaching during the week and letting his players do their thing on game days.

So far, the coaching style has worked well.

Manning has turned the Utah women's soccer team into one of the top teams in the West in the three years he's been the Ute head coach. He's already led the Utes to their two best records in history, two NCAA berths and their first-ever conference regular-season and tournament titles. And Manning truly believes the Utes could contend for an NCAA title in the not-too-distant future.

The 40-year-old California native certainly knows what it takes to win a national championship, having served as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, which won a national title in 2001 and made the NCAA semifinals twice during his four years there.

This year the Utes are 11-4-2 as they head into Saturday's big game against BYU at Ute Field (1 p.m.). A win will secure a second seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament in Provo and a good showing there should land the Utes in their third straight NCAA tournament.

"I knew we could do well here," Manning said. "The support of the school, the athletic department and the community at large has been great. We have a really good group here."

Manning grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California and started playing soccer at the age of 9, almost by accident. His father went to sign up his son for baseball, came back and said, "Sorry, it was full. I had to sign you up for soccer instead."

Although young Rich was "really upset," he gave the game a try and liked what he found. He played in AYSO organized leagues for several years, although there wasn't very good soccer instruction 30 years ago in California.

"I grew up without coaches," he said. "We had great parental support, but I learned from the people I played with. We'd put two trash cans out there and the coach would drive by, wave and say, 'how's it going.' "

By the time he was 18, Manning started to get expert coaching from people like Ralph Perez, who went on to be an assistant coach for the L.A. Galaxy of MLS, and Steve Sampson, who went on to coach the U.S. National team.

"I had some wonderful role models," Manning said.

Manning went north to play for Santa Clara, which had 1 1/2 scholarships for the whole program. Manning claims he was "an afterthought" and always the "slowest on the team." But he worked hard, and because he had good skills and was a "fast thinker," he played four years, finally earning a third of a scholarship by his senior season.

After graduating from college, Manning taught high school math for 11 years in Southern California. He helped coach soccer at high schools in Pasadena and Anaheim, the latter at an all-boys school.

When he was given the opportunity to coach the Southern California Blues girls club team in the spring of 1992, Manning declined.

"I said 'no way, I don't want to coach girls,' " Manning said. Manning had nothing against girls, rather it was the fear of a different type of coaching. But when friend Larry Draluck offered to help coach his goalie, in return for helping coach the girls, Manning accepted the offer. And he hasn't looked back.

"I went from not wanting to coach girls at all to coaching them for the last 12 years," Manning said with a laugh.

In the spring of 1998, Santa Clara women's coach Jerry Smith came to Southern California to watch a tournament and told Manning he had an opening for an assistant coach position.

"I thought about it for about three seconds," Manning said. "It was a wonderful opportunity to go back to my alma mater and work with one of the top two or three teams in the country."

In four years Manning was an assistant coach, Santa Clara went to three Final Fours and sent 10 players to the U.S. national team.

In 1998, Santa Clara didn't lose a regular season game and had 16 shutouts in 17 games. However, in the NCAA semifinals, the Broncos lost to Florida 1-0.

The following year, Santa Clara was even better, going 23-0 ("an incredible team," Manning said) and made it to the NCAA semifinals again where it faced Notre Dame in front of 15,000 fans in San Jose. But the Broncos lost 1-0, again, to end the season.

In 2001, Santa Clara lost six games but ended up winning the national title. A year earlier the Broncos defeated BYU 2-1 in the NCAA tournament and the memory of that game convinced Manning that he could win a national championship at Utah.

"That might have been the best team in the country," he said. "What a team. That BYU team was so dominant. I've always thought, if they could be that good, there's no reason we can't."

When Manning came to Utah before the 2002 season, he didn't inherit an empty cupboard. The previous coach, Amy Winslow, had five winning teams in seven years, but could never lead the Utes to the next level.

Manning says he's grateful for players such as Shauna Gurr-Bingham, Maren Harper, Missy Dennis and Amber Brower, who led his team over the past two years as well as current seniors Tracy Stratton Garner, Lauren Field, Julie Herdic and Erin Pruitt.

"I owe those players a lot," he said. "I feel lucky they accepted what we tried to do even though they had been recruited by a different coach in a different system. I just organized them."

In his first year at Utah, Manning made a mark early, defeating No. 3-ranked Portland 2-0 in the opening game. Portland later went on to win the NCAA title and beat the Utes in a second-round NCAA game. The Utes finished with their best record ever, 13-4-3, and also beat rival BYU for the first time in an exciting NCAA overtime game in Provo.

Last year was even better as the Utes went unbeaten in Mountain West Conference play and won the MWC tournament title on their way to a 16-2-2 record.

"Last year's season was almost surreal," Manning said. "We didn't have much adversity until the end."

The end came on a cold, wet November afternoon at Ute Field. It was a first-round NCAA matchup against Idaho State, a team the Utes had already easily beaten earlier in the season. Despite dominating most of the game, the Utes couldn't score and after 90 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime, it was still 0-0. But the Bengals prevailed in the shootout, ending the Utes' "surreal" season.

Over the past couple of years, Manning has brought in several top players to blend with the holdovers. Katie Battazzo from Boise was an all-league defender in 2002 as a freshman. Amanda Feigt from Jordan High, was first-team all-MWC last year as well as freshman of the year, while goalie Ashley Mason from California was also all-league.

The players enjoy playing for Manning and like the way he creates team unity. For example, when it rained earlier this week, the players went bowling together rather than practicing.

"He instilled in us what it takes to be a champion," said Pruitt.

"He's really quiet, but he's always excited for games and is very enthusiastic. He always says, 'It's a great day for soccer."'

"Rich is really focused on the championship level," added Garner.

"He's raised the standard. He's a really knowledgeable coach and his attitude has helped the players here to become better players."

Manning says he isn't planning to use Utah as a springboard to another job, although it might be hard for him to turn down a job at Santa Clara, where he went to school and used to coach.

"I'm happy doing this," he said. "I can't see that I'd get better support somewhere else."

Manning may be quiet, but he isn't shy when asked what his goal is.

"Taking Utah to the College Cup and winning the national championship," he said.


E-mail: sor@desnews.com