Matt Fannon played for Division 2 Davis and Elkins University after time at academies in Darlington and Nottingham Forest in England. He got his NSCAA Premier Diploma and coached youth club teams, before becoming Assistant Coach at Regis University. After a spell in Laramie working as Assistant Coach at the University of Wyoming, Matt became Head Coach at Wittenberg College in Ohio. In his first season on the sidelines in Springfield, Fannon guided the Tigers to a share of the 2013 North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) regular season title with a 5-1-2 record.
You’ve had a mixed start to the season, with a 4-4-1 record. How happy are you with the team’s progress and pre-season preparations?
I made a conscious effort when I started here a year ago to slowly implement my philosophy with the team because I think whenever you get started with a new program it’s really difficult to say boom, this is what we’re doing from now on. Especially because the coach who was here before me was successful. One of the hardest things to do in coaching is follow a successful coach, as David Moyes found out following Alex Ferguson. I met the team last August and last season I got to know them, what their strengths were, and the personalities of the squad. It really took the entire season to do that. From there I was able to start implementing my philosophy on a bigger scale and start to bring in players that I think fit the playing style that we want to play.
In the spring in Division 3 we are only allowed 15 days of training and one day of competition with the players, which is a dreadful model but what we work with. So we have a new system for the fall, with ten new players, of which at least five have started every game. On top of that we have five important and influential players who have serious injuries, so it’s hard to be too disappointed at the moment. However, as a coach, you are always striving for more, so if we were 9-0 right now I probably still wouldn’t be completely satisfied!
Your home record is stronger than away. Is that just luck or a challenge you face? How do you try to mitigate the problem for your players?
One of the big challenges for university soccer is the budget. When I coached at Wyoming, any time we drove more than an hour we stayed in a hotel. Here at Wittenberg the rule is anything above four hours of driving, so to keep in the budget we need to be very careful with who we choose as. Some of the teams we play against in our division will travel over eight hours on a bus on the same day to play a conference or national tournament game.
As a new coach I am still learning which approach works best for us. We try to keep the players relaxed on the bus, with a movie for them to watch. When we get to within thirty minutes of arriving we turn it off, turn phones and music off, and start focusing on the game. We try to arrive a couple of hours before the start time, and we give them a light meal at that time. As they get off the bus they do some yoga-type stretching to help their bodies be prepared for the game, then from that point we try to make the routine identical to the one we have for home games. Our current away form hasn’t been great and many of these steps we are looking to implement to help improve that.
When you’re recruiting, what kind of players do you look for?
We have a very specific recruiting philosophy that I have had in my head for a while, and what really helped me was putting it down on paper. We look for people who are going to be good in the classroom – who we’re not going to have to worry about academically becoming ineligible; we also look for people that fit our philosophy and style of play now; and lastly and probably most importantly we look for good people. There is nothing that will destroy a team more than having a bad apple personality in there who is all about themselves. So we spend a lot of time during recruiting getting to know them, which also gives them a chance to find out what we are about to help decide whether our program is right for them.
Do you choose players to fit positions or adjust your system to fit the players?
When I first arrived I played a system that best fit the players in the squad. As I’ve been here longer players have graduated and others arrived which allowed us to try to fit them to a specific system. Clearly though if you are looking to play a specific system it can easily go wrong if you can’t find the players for it. Similarly though, if you just pick the best players without a system in mind, you will struggle to create a successful team. By meshing the two approaches we have adapted to the players we have but can bring in new squad members to develop the system. For example, David Beckham in his early career as a wide-midfielder wouldn’t fit with how we play, but if we found a player of David’s quality we would adapt our system to fit them in. We can’t be as choosy as some of the Division 1 coaches can be when it comes to bringing in players, as we cannot offer them athletic scholarship. But we are very specific about who we bring in.
One of our current forwards doesn’t fit our system particularly well with the way she plays. She is adapting and so are we as she is our top scorer and leads the points table for the team – so it’s about being able to adapt to make it work for everybody, in whatever way is best for the team to be successful.
Most of your players are from Ohio. Does that come from you targeting local players or is it the nature of the university as a whole?
I think it’s the history and background of the university. We have some schools within our conference who have barely any Ohio players, so it is not specific to Division 3, but to our program. The previous coach focused recruiting on local players, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Ohio is a hotbed for youth soccer. The budget also plays a part as we don’t have a large budget for recruiting. In Wyoming every weekend we would go to a different tournament in a different place. I went to Nova Scotia in Canada, and the other coaches were in Australia… We traveled all over to see players. Here we don’t have that luxury so we need to find players that we can see play. The easiest way we have to do that is to see players at games and tournaments that are local to us.
You have several out of state players, including girls from Nevada, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Is that just based on who applies or are you targeting certain areas?
Honestly it’s a little bit random. I didn’t go to Nevada to get our player from Las Vegas. I met her when I was doing a camp for Danny Sanchez at the University of Colorado. She was there, we stayed in touch and she ended up coming out here and has played every game for us so far this year. My philosophy has tried to match the school’s mission statement which is being able to realize and develop the wholeness of a person through a wide range of areas including diversity. The cultural diversity of having players come from different areas helps develop people in the squad. I think especially at the Division 3 level our job is a lot more to do with developing people for the real world than just winning soccer games.
In most Division 1 programs if you don’t win soccer games you lose your job. In my interview here I was told that no coach has been fired here because of results. You have to be ambitious and to strive for wins, be we bring players in for different reasons than solely you are a good soccer player.
How do you attract them to Wittenberg?
The good news for me is that the school sells itself. We have a beautiful campus, a nice town, a fantastic academic reputation and a great athletic reputation. There are not a lot of schools that have both of those reputations together. Other than that I think recruits want to see a philosophy that they agree with and want to be involved with. We build relationships with the student athletes that we are bringing in – both myself and our staff – and we help them to meet the existing players to build relationships there also. Everything builds towards them making the decision that this is somewhere that they would like to spend four years of their life.
Is it difficult without Athletic Scholarships? What other means do you have to support players?
Honestly one of the strange things is that not having scholarships can make it easier because everyone wants a full ride, and when you can’t offer that there is no longer the resentment of feeling you think I’m only worth this percentage of a scholarship and so on. We don’t have to deal with any of that: everybody is on a level playing field. At our school there are so many opportunities for personal and academic scholarships though, that it is just about the student athletes going out and finding them. The cost for everything at our university – including housing and classes is about $50,000 per year but the average person pays less than $20,000, so it actually works out at about the same price as a state school. This is common in Division 3 – if recruits are looking at a school they should pursue all available scholarship avenues to make it affordable for them.
How do players get noticed by you? Does writing letters and calling really help?
Writing traditional letters can be hard work because we have to transfer it from paper to our online system so I prefer an email. 99% of kids are doing that now, so it is not so much of a problem anymore. Getting in touch with coaches is vital though. I probably have in our database about 500 kids who have been in touch with us about coming to play soccer at Wittenberg. Now some of those have contacted us very specifically and others have reached out to 1000 schools or have seen that our school was listed as being present at a tournament so they emailed everyone on the list. That said, we will try to see every player who has been in touch with us. We are limited by time and budget on being able to do that, but we will try to find ways to make it work. If I get contacted by a West Coast player either they will need to take part in a tournament over here that I am going to or I would have to fly out there. I went to a friendlies event over the winter in Colorado and was able to see a bunch of players there and remain in contact with some. Without a doubt though, the more contact you have with the coaches, the more chance you have of getting to play college soccer.
What is the value of tournaments for getting spotted? Which ones do you go to and like?
I would love to get to the bigger tournaments, in California, Florida, Las Vegas and Dallas, but it not always financial feasible. We have some fantastic tournaments in Cincinnati and Columbus where for the day with gas and meals it will cost me $50 to be there. I’ll see 50 different kids at the event too, but flying somewhere will mean $500 and probably seeing fewer kids who are actually interested. The question being: how many players that far away are interested in playing for a small, private liberal arts school in Ohio?
A good way to start is film though. We can watch it and say ok this is someone who is worth watching a game of. I don’t think it is a good idea to recruit based solely on clips of players though because you are only going to see their best moments and you don’t get to know them either. But it is a good place to start.
How important is playing ECNL, WCDA or any of the other programs currently out there for youth players?
I would say yes and no. When it comes to ECNL, you know for the most part that the players are going to be good, so when you get an email from a player saying I play for an ECNL team there is more likelihood of you going to try to watch them play. They are consistently playing against the best opposition and you assume that they are getting a high level of training, although I don’t want to take that for granted.
Now the flip side though is if you are the 16th best player on an ECNL team, you’re probably getting a lot less playing time and less opportunity to be seen than the 5th best player on the next best level or the level below that. Also if you know you are the best player on a weak team you are probably comfortable and are going to perform better than the weakest player on the best team, so there are a lot of different factors to consider. I would say that if you are playing at the top level then you will get more schools interested, but it isn’t the be all and end all. I would say to play wherever makes you happiest though. If you don’t enjoy club soccer you are probably not going to go to college and love playing there!
How about ID and summer camps? Do you actively recruit from them?
We do run camps but we have a rule that we can’t recruit on site at ID camps. The rule is probably designed to take pressure off players. We get to see them playing but would have to contact them later if we were interested in them playing for us. ID camps are about as perfect a situation to recruit players as is possible from the coach’s perspective. For players the drawback is that it costs money to do it, but for us we get to meet the person, find out more about them and get a sense of them as an individual. We can then adapt the situation to see how they respond (in different positions or with different players). As an individual you get to see the campus, meet the team, and get a feel for the coaches; so if you are interested in the school an ID camp is a great way to go.
What’s the attrition rate? How many drop out before the end?
We try to tell the student athletes to choose the school that they love for more than soccer. Everybody’s opinions and beliefs change over time. You might find after a year that you are in a different place mentally and if you are at a school that you don’t like, then you just wasted a year. As a coach it can be hard to take when it happens – you could blame yourself or make excuses – but there is always attrition. Recently we spoke within our department about attrition from sport vs attrition from the school and found that every player who left soccer is still at the university, which is good for the school. Statistics show that about 20% of student-athletes in all sports will quit their team, regardless of the school that they are at, before they complete their four years of eligibility. So it’s very normal across college sports. And it is not always bad; if someone changes their mind about what they want, choosing a different path is the best thing for everyone.
How important is it to you to build a relationship with your players off the field? What do you say or do?
It’s extremely important: I think it depends upon your philosophy. I’ve spoken to players elsewhere who have said that their coach told them during recruiting that I’m talking to you now during recruiting but there is every chance that we won’t have another individual conversation again. Hearing that surprised me because my philosophy is very different to that. Building relationships is very important. We do a lot of teambuilding and spend a lot of time together off the field. We have monthly individual meetings with the players and it doesn’t even seem like enough. We have a door open policy and see them almost every day with our schedule. Players are encouraged to discuss everything with us and we make sure that the trust is there in both directions. As an example during the pre-season one of the captains spoke to me and said Matt, everyone is exhausted and I know we are training this evening, is there something lighter that we can do? To which I responded that we would take the session off. In my opinion, if a captain is coming to you saying that, they need to know that we trust them and that they can trust us to work together. Having that relationship in place is vital.
During the season, what does the week look like for your players?
We train in the mornings from 6:30am until 7:45am. Players have class from 8:00 am and will have a typical college schedule from then on during the day. All of our players have other things they are involved with like sororities, SAAC, Student Involvement, etc., so we moved practices to the mornings to accommodate that. They have the evenings open to do their other things. We will train 4-5 days each week and usually two games. They are required to have a day off, so it can be 6 days each week. I think a lot of parents and players are concerned about the commitment level in college and how much time it takes, but it is very similar to a high school schedule. The question is more how much of your college life you are willing to give, because with the travel it can be 20 or so hours per week that you are giving to soccer.
How can coaches best prepare their players for college with you?
It is important to let players learn the game and lead it, rather than just follow directions. They need to be able to make mistakes and have the opportunity to get a better understanding of the game in an environment that allows them to do that.
How can coaches get into working at college level?
I think it is one of those things where if you want it enough you will find a way in. It is almost always starting at the bottom rung though. I started as a volunteer coach and would put in time that I didn’t really have as I had a full time job, was coaching two club teams, and family at the same time. Find someone who is willing enough to give you an opportunity and go in with the attitude that you will not let them down. I knew the coach and had a friend recommended me, which got my foot in the door. As a volunteer assistant I got all the jobs that no one wanted, like breaking down film and writing off-season training plans. As you get more involved you get to the point where you decide whether this is something you would like to make into a career or a hobby. Coaches need to have the ability and willingness to learn and to be able to learn from their mistakes, so this is key to their success.
How would you compare working in youth club soccer to college level? Would you go back to coaching youth club level?
College is definitely a different world. It is something I love doing and it is for me, but when I was at the club level my love is managing people rather than development of U7-8 players. I always wanted the older players, so that was my passion. Now that I am at the college level I don’t see myself going back. I have had offers but I want to concentrate on the team I have rather than trying to add club to it. With a family I don’t have the time either, and have got to the stage where I can be choosier about how my time is divided. In the club game there is a lot more bureaucracy, dealing with parents and politics. At college it is a lot less to do with that and more about running the program and that is where my passion is.