Freitag Era Over at IU

[Editor's note: this is a FanPost by TacoJohn that I have bumped to the front page, and adds some much-needed content on IU's most important non FB/BB sport] Mike Freitag's firing as the head soccer coach at Indiana University ends a tenure that while not disastrous, was certainly nowhere near what IU had come to expect historically. The story of the decline of IU soccer from the top of the mountain to its present level is a curious one as well. In the end, too many signs pointed to the head coach as the problem, ultimately why athletic director Fred Glass made the change.

When Freitag was elevated to head coach as Jerry Yeagley's handpicked successor in 2004, all was right with IU Soccer. Yeagley had retired in storybook fashion. Following the worst start in school history, the team rebounded to sweep through the Big Ten and Big Ten Tournament, winning both titles. Along the way, the Indy Star helped out with an assist that resulted in the NCAA statistic being changed and Yeagley earning the title of winningest coach ever. IU played survive and advance (outside of a 5-0 thrashing of VCU) to win the program's sixth national title and send its patriarch out on top.

Freitag kept the ball rolling in 2004. Arguably a more dominating regular season ended with IU capturing yet another Big Ten title. A slight hiccup in the Big Ten Tournament saw IU ousted in the second round after a bye by Michigan State. But momentum returned, and IU rolled to the College Cup without conceding a goal before two thrilling victories in double overtime against Maryland and in penalties over UC-Santa Barbara to win the seventh national title. Midfielder Danny O'Rourke added the cherry on top winning the MAC Hermann Award, the Heisman of college soccer.

2005 was supposed to be the beginning of a dynasty. O'Rourke, defender Drew Moor and goalkeeper Jay Nolly were big losses to graduation. But with forward Jacob Peterson and midfielder Brian Plotkin returning, most of the firepower was back. And there was a major addition in the form of Lee Nguyen, the national player of the year. But the team never gelled. It lacked a hard nosed ball winner like O'Rourke or veteran leadership in the back. A loss to Penn State and ties against Northwestern and Ohio State denied IU a Big Ten title, and Penn State took the tournament crown. IU started the NCAA tournament with a dominating 45 minutes that didn't produce a goal followed by Notre Dame getting two goals in the second half to send IU home.

2006 and 2007 were remarkably similar. Freitag continued the pattern he had started with Nguyen of targeting the US Youth National Team residency program for his top recruits, with players like Daniel Kelly, Ofori Sarkodie, and Kevin Alston. Both teams won the Big Ten title, and in 2006 the team captured the Big Ten tournament crown. But each team showed signs of weakness. The 2006 squad was pushed to overtime far too often, including a bizarre 5-4 overtime loss to Notre Dame. The 2007 team dropped games IU should traditionally have rolled through, namely UAB and Louisville.

The two seasons ended in similar fashion. At home, against an opponent IU should have been able to take care of, the Hoosiers failed to score a goal and ended up losing in penalty kicks to Santa Clara and Bradley respectively. Over three years, from 2005-2007, IU managed just one win in the tournament, against Northern Illinois in 2006. On average, IU would have been expected to go to a College Cup in at least one of those years.

After three straight disappointments at the end of the season, the pressure was clearly increasing in 2008. Freitag appeared to return to IU's traditional Midwestern recruiting base, nabbing decorated high school players like Will Bruin and Tommy Meyer. But in the regular season, IU was once again wildly inconsistent. IU was walloped by Dartmouth 4-0 and lost three conference games to finished tied for third. But after a first round by in the NCAA Tournament, IU appeared to have exorcised the demons of '05-'07 and beat St. Louis and Michigan handily to earn a trip to St. John's. Up 2-0 with less than three minutes to play, IU collapsed in stupendous fashion. Two quick goals earned the Red Storm the overtime and PK four minutes into the extra frame ended IU's season.

With seven starters returning including stars like Sarkodie, Meyer, and Bruin, IU looked poised to get over the hump and back to the College Cup after graduating the first class in history that didn't go to soccer's Final Four. Once again, IU stumbled out of the gate and never righted themselves. Two wins at the Notre Dame tournament merely balanced a single point earned at the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic. The low point of the season was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Louisville where afterwards Louisville players said playing IU had no mystique about it. IU rebounded for two good tournament wins against Louisville and Butler (who had also beaten IU) before losing to UNC in the Sweet Sixteen.

The disappointing record is only part of the story. Chris Korman reports that Glass ultimately decided that Freitag had lost the team. More importantly, he had lost the support of Jerry Yeagley. The relationship between protege and mentor appears to have disintegrated as well as Freitag took Yeagley's baby and (at least in Yeagley's opinion) ran it into the ground. We can only guess what the tone of the meeting with the players and administration was, but I doubt it was unanimous support and admiration for Freitag.

The manner in which Freitag was fired also tells a lot about Jerry Yeagley's continued influence on the program. Yeagley clearly is not just around the program, he remains involved and either has some real power to make decisions or an opinion that is valued quite highly. For now at least, we know the head coach of IU men's soccer has to answer to two masters: Fred Glass and Jerry Yeagley.

Not only is this the first coaching hire for Fred Glass, but also the first time IU has truly hired a varsity head soccer coach. Yeagley was in place when the club team was elevated to varsity status 35 years ago, and Freitag was Yeagley's handpicked successor. For both those reasons, IU will be expected to hit a home run.

The smart money would be on Caleb Porter, who has turned Akron into a national power currently steamrolling their way through an undefeated season and looking like the prohibitive favorites for the national title. With Yeagley involved, his son Todd, the head coach at Wisconsin will probably be a candidate, as well as Brian Massinoueve, currently an assistant at Louisville. Or perhaps a successful ACC coach such as Jay Vidovich can be lured to IU. Other dark horses might include Tim Von Steeg of UCSB or John Trask of Illinois-Chicago, another former IU player and assistant.

Above all, Freitag's firing just five years removed from a national title shows that IU is serious about men's soccer. The next head coach will be expected to deliver College Cups and national titles, as well as restoring the mystique surrounding the most successful program in the sport over last 30 years. Maybe Freitag is simply the victim of being "the guy after the legend" or he got caught up in a program that has an outside influence that is simply too strong and meddling.

Unlike Glass, I believe the record speaks for itself. Freitag simply did not deliver the wins, the performances, or the hardware that IU Soccer demands. Having set the standard, it's now on Glass, Chris Reynolds, and maybe Jerry Yeagley to prove that the support of the administration is equal to the expectations.

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