By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In November 1996, an own goal off the foot of University of Virginia sophomore Matt Chulis in the 78th minute enabled George Mason to record a 1-0 victory at Klöckner Stadium in the first round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament.
Thus ended George Gelnovatch‘s first season as head coach at UVA, where his predecessor, Bruce Arena, had won five NCAA titles. A year earlier, the Cavaliers had advanced to the NCAA semifinals. Now they were out after a single game.
“It was horrible,” Chulis recalled.
“Unbelievable, right?” Gelnovatch said Monday, shaking his head. “I remember there being a picture somewhere of me helping Matt off the field. I didn’t see him for two days afterwards. Nobody knew where he was.”
As the disappointment of that defeat set in, Gelnovatch wasn’t sure if his first season atop the Cavaliers’ program would be his last.
When Arena left in January 1996 to become head coach of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, Virginia quickly named Gelnovatch as his successor. But it would essentially be an extended audition for Gelnovatch, who received a one-year contract from Terry Holland, then the Cavaliers’ athletics director.
There was considerable interest in the job from more experienced coaches, and UVA’s search committee wanted to see how Gelnovatch would fare in his new role.
The Wahoos finished the 1996 regular season with 15-1-3 record. Still, their abrupt exit from the NCAA tourney left Gelnovatch and his wife, Missi Sanders, then UVA’s head field hockey coach, uncertain about what would happen next.
“I remember my wife crying in the car and saying, `Are they going to fire you?’ ” said Gelnovatch, who can laugh now about that scene. “I said, `I don’t know. I have no idea.’ ”
They need not have worried. Not long after the season ended, Holland met with Gelnovatch and gave him more job security.
“As the first year unfolded, it was obvious that Coach Gelnovatch and his dedication to UVA Soccer made him an easy choice to lead the UVA program,” Holland said in an e-mail Monday.
More than two decades later, Gelnovatch is still at his alma mater, and on Friday night he reached a milestone. In its season opener, Virginia scored on a penalty kick in double overtime at Klöckner Stadium to defeat Villanova 3-2 and give Gelnovatch his 296th victory — the most of any coach in program history.
Arena, in 18 seasons at UVA, posted a 295-59-31 record. Gelnovatch, in his 22nd season, is now 296-121-49. Every one of his teams has reached the NCAA tournament.
“Congrats, boss,” Chulis, now an associate head coach at Virginia, said as he shook Gelnovatch’s hand Friday night. “I was there for the first one, and I was here for this one.”
Gelnovatch’s debut as head coach came on Aug. 31, 1996, when Virginia blanked Old Dominion 4-0 at Klöckner Stadium. He was 31 years old. Following a legend such as Arena would be a monumental challenge for any coach, but “I was probably too young and naive to fully appreciate that dynamic,” Gelnovatch said.
“Thinking back on it now, it’s not easy. It’s hard. It was a little bit of a double whammy for me, too, because I had to adapt really quickly to Major League Soccer, with guys leaving early.”
His 1997 team reached the NCAA championship game, where UVA lost 2-0 to UCLA. Not long after the season ended, three of his best players — Ben Olsen, Scott Vermillion and Brian West — left UVA with eligibility remaining to pursue MLS careers.
Arena had such stars as Gelnovatch, Jeff Agoos, Jeff Causey, Jeff Gaffney, Brandon Pollard, Damian Silvera and A.J. Wood for four seasons each at UVA, and Claudio Reyna for three. The landscape of the college game has changed dramatically since then. It’s not uncommon for elite prospects to leave college early to pursue pro careers. Some never make it to college.
“That was something I had to live with and figure out,” Gelnovatch said.
After the 1997 season, the `Hoos didn’t return to the College Cup until 2006, when they lost to UCLA in the semifinals. Three years later, Gelnovatch finally broke through. In Cary, North Carolina, after 110 scoreless minutes, Virginia defeated Akron in a penalty-kick shootout to capture the program’s sixth NCAA title.
Chulis, then a UVA assistant, remembers jumping on Gelnovatch afterward. “I was like, `We did it, we did it,’ ” Chulis said. “He still couldn’t comprehend it. It was amazing, once it finally hit him, just seeing him there with Missi, his kids, his parents.”
In 2013, the `Hoos made it back to the College Cup, where they lost to Maryland in the semifinals, and a year later they secured the program’s seventh NCAA championship. On the same field where they’d ousted Akron in 2009, WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, the Cavaliers beat UCLA in a penalty-kick shootout after 110 scoreless minutes.
Over the past decade, UVA and Stanford (2015 and ’16) are the only schools to win multiple NCAA titles in men’s soccer. Virginia entered the 48-team NCAA tournament as the No. 16 seed in 2014.
“It’s not my most talented team,” Gelnovatch said after the NCAA title game. “In fact, of the five College Cup teams that I’ve had, it probably ranks as one of the lowest teams in terms of talent … But the team spirit and chemistry and intelligence and adaptability to tactics were off the charts.”
Gelnovatch, who grew up in New Jersey, played forward for Arena on teams that went 67-14-4 at UVA. A first-team All-American as a senior in 1986, he still ranks fifth in career goals (49) at Virginia.
He joined Arena’s staff as a part-time assistant in 1989 and became the team’s top assistant in ’92.
As a player, Arena told VirginiaSports.com in 2014, Gelnovatch “was not the proverbial coach on the field. He was a player still finding himself on and off the field, but obviously turned into a great player and an All-American and soaked up a lot. I was absolutely shocked when he started coaching with me how good he was and the insight he had.”
Even so, Gelnovatch faced a steep learning curve when he took over at UVA.
“When you’re an assistant coach, you try as hard as you can to think about what you would do [as head coach],” Gelnovatch said. “But you can’t even imagine or come close to the reality of now being thrust into a head coaching position.”
He remembers a conversation with Holland after the 1996 season. “Terry called me in and said, `You probably learned more in your first year than you could have ever imagined,’ and he was right.”
Arena’s support helped him land the UVA head job, Gelnovatch said, and they’ve remained close. During Arena’s first stint as head coach of the U.S. national team, Gelnovatch served as one of his assistants at the 2002 World Cup. (Arena was hired as U.S. head coach again last year.)
“I drop him a line [periodically], but he calls me more than I call him, and I appreciate that,” Gelnovatch said.
Chulis, who was an All-America defender at UVA, joined Gelnovatch’s staff in 2006. He’s gained a new appreciation for his former coach.
“Being on the other side has helped me to see what goes into it, how hard it is to coach, how hard it is to manage guys, and just to see how George has progressed,” Chulis said. “Because when you’re a player, you always think if you’re not playing, `These guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ But when you’re on the other side of the line, you see how much work goes into it, how much he cares, how much of a competitor he is, how he wants to do well for UVA.”
Gelnovatch has embraced technology and analytics in his quest to improve. “I’m such a better coach than I was 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” he said.
“I can’t speak for other coaches that have been at one place for 20 years, but I still feel driven, and I feel challenged, and I like to learn … I do feel like my best work is yet to come.”
Defense has become the Cavaliers’ hallmark, and Gelnovatch came under fire from some for his tactics in the 2014 NCAA title game. Against the more talented Bruins, Virginia focused more on preventing scoring chances than on creating them.
“There’s a saying in soccer that sometimes teams park a bus in front of the goal,” UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said afterward. “It felt like today there were two buses in front of the goal.”
The criticism didn’t faze Gelnovatch, whose team had been more aggressive offensively during the regular season and in its NCAA semifinal win over UMBC.
“Most of the season we were not even close to playing like we did in the national championship game,” he said.
However, Gelnovatch said, “I have a pragmatic side to me that if I need to do that to win a game, especially a championship game, I will in a heartbeat do that. Can you play like that all season? I don’t think you can. But in a championship game, in a one-off, if that’s what I feel we need to do, I will do it.”
His latest team appears to have considerably more offensive firepower than some of its predecessors. His aim, Gelnovatch said, is “to put together a team that can win championships and score goals.”
The Cavaliers (1-0) are back at Klöckner Stadium on Thursday night. At 6 o’clock, in the first game of a doubleheader, the 12th-ranked Virginia men host Hofstra (1-1). The fourth-ranked Virginia women (3-0) will take on Wisconsin (3-1) at approximately 8 p.m.
Against Villanova, Virginia failed to convert several excellent scoring opportunities and had some costly defensive lapses. That’s to be expected at this time of year, Gelnovatch said.
“I get nervous if we’re too good too early, too hot, everything’s going right,” he said. “I think we’re in a good place.”