By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Gene Bartow was given the unenviable job of succeeding John Wooden at UCLA.
George Gelnovatch had to follow Bruce Arena at UVa.
As a college coach, Arena did not surpass in men’s soccer what Wooden achieved in men’s basketball, but he guided the Cavaliers to five NCAA titles in a span of six seasons.
The last of those championships came in December 1994. In January 1996, Arena left Virginia for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, and his top assistant, Gelnovatch, got promoted to head coach.
The Cavaliers continued to win under Gelnovatch, advancing to the NCAA tournament every year, but each of his first 13 seasons ended with a loss.
No. 14 had a happier finale. The Wahoos edged previously unbeaten Akron in a penalty-kick shootout Sunday afternoon to capture their first NCAA title since 1994.
Arena, now general manager and head coach of MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy, was in Cary, N.C., for Friday night’s semifinals and saw UVa beat Wake Forest 2-1 in overtime.
Two days later, Arena watched on TV as his protégé ascended to the pinnacle of the college game.
“I think it’s fabulous,” Arena said Monday. “George has never had an easy job there, and he’s consistently had a team that’s in the top 10 in Division I soccer. And that’s remarkable.
“The championship, I believe, validates the fact that he’s an outstanding coach and he’s done an outstanding job at Virginia.”
Gelnovatch, an All-America forward under Arena in the ’80s, has compiled a record of 214-79-25 as the Cavaliers’ coach. During his tenure, UVa has reached the College Cup three times and won the ACC tournament four times.
This season, the ‘Hoos (19-3-3) allowed only eight goals, and they closed with a 16-game unbeaten streak.
Virginia defeated Maryland, Wake and N.C. State to win the ACC tournament. In the NCAAs, UVa beat Bucknell, Portland, Maryland, Wake and, finally, Akron.
Of the four teams that reached the College Cup, three were from the ACC: North Carolina, Wake and UVa.
“It’s a fabulous year for the team, and again I think it was a great year for the ACC as well,” said Arena, whose son, Kenny, played for Gelnovatch at UVa.
In 18 seasons at UVa, Arena went 295-59-5 after starting with what he called “more or less a fraternity team.”
His first season was 1978. The Cavaliers’ first ACC title under Arena came in 1983, their first NCAA championship in ’89.
Of college soccer then and now, Arena said, “I think the eras are different. Not that the [modern] accomplishments aren’t as great, if not better. Don’t get me wrong. But the circumstances are different.”
College players today “are more experienced from top to bottom,” Arena said. “The facilities are greatly improved, and on some campuses it’s a result of Title IX, because the facilities were built for the women. At Virginia, it was different. We built [Klöckner Stadium] to build a national power. We had that kind of support.”
Arena had such stars as Gelnovatch, Jeff Agoos, Jeff Causey, Jeff Gaffney, Brandon Pollard, Damian Silvera and A.J. Wood for four seasons each. With the growth of Major League Soccer and increased interest from pro leagues overseas, elite players today are less likely to spend four years on college teams.
Asked about the effect of pro soccer on the college game, Arena said, “I think it motivates kids at the youth levels now that they believe that they have a future in the game if that’s the way they want to go. And certainly it’s not to the extent that it is in football and basketball, and all of that, but it’s probably going to happen.
“We have Americans that are making fabulous livings off the sport, not only in the United States, but obviously all over the world. So I think that’s a motivating force. I do think it makes it somewhat difficult on college campuses in that if you have an elite player, there’s a chance you’re going to lose him early.”
Two years after he won his first NCAA title as UVa’s coach, Arena collected his second. Gelnovatch’s program has a strong foundation, and it’s realistic to expect more trips to the College Cup for the Cavaliers.
“Will [the first championship] make it any easier for him to another one?” Arena said. “Perhaps. Who knows? From year to year, it changes. You can see, there’s very little that separated the four teams that were in Cary.”