Michigan men’s soccer coach Steve Burns helped launch the coffee house proliferation of Ann Arbor. And despite narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament this year, his latest project may be just as successful.

Paul Wong
Steve Jackson

A life-long entrepreneur, Burns and his wife, Judy, borrowed $20,000 in 1991 and started selling cappuccinos, frappuccinos, espressos and lattes from a curbside stand near the corner of South University and East University. It was an instant success. Burns cashed out quickly and went on to start two other small businesses (an adventure travel company in Costa Rica and a semi-pro soccer franchise in Michigan) before returning to his alma mater for his greatest challenge – turning Michigan into a “soccer school.”

“My personality is I like to start things from nothing, nurture them, watch them grow and make them great,” Burns said. “I get a kick out of that. I find this extra source of energy deep inside and use that to get all the little details done – to make something out of nothing.”

Burns may not be the most experienced coach in the country, and he may not be beloved by every player on his team. But one thing is for sure – Burns is a builder. And he is pouring his heart and soul into making Michigan soccer his most successful business venture to date.

When he arrived on campus, Michigan had no varsity soccer program, and the men’s club team was nothing to write home about. He started by changing the expectations of how much work a club team needed to do. After cracking up the commitment of his players, Burns led the Wolverines to a 121-51-26 (.677) record in seven years as head coach, including back-to-back club national titles in 1997 and 1998.

Burns, who captained the club team as a student in the 1980s, was inspirational in the process of bringing varsity status to the men’s soccer club. When he was named the program’s first head coach in 1999, the building process started all over again.

“I know that I loved starting businesses, and soccer is a business so I decided to go about the business of being a coach,” Burns said. “I always hoped that I would be able to get this program started. It’s been really kind of a fairy tale, taking this thing from just plans on paper and making it real.”

In each of Burns first three seasons, the Wolverines have improved. After a 6-10-0 opening campaign, Michigan stormed out to a 7-1 start last season. But the Wolverines fell apart down the stretch, finishing with a 10-7-1 record and missing the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Michigan faced its toughest schedule to date, including games against new opponents like California-Santa Barbara and Yale. The Wolverines weathered the storm of its sub-par start by finishing the year with a bang. Despite playing without star midfielder Knox Cameron for the last several weeks of the season, Michigan finished second in the Big Ten regular season standings and lost in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. With an all-time best record of 11-7-2, the Wolverines appeared to be a lock for the postseason.

All the players dressed nicely for the ESPNEWS cameras and stood together in Crisler Arena as they anxiously awaited the announcement of the program’s first NCAA berth.

But then came the bad news – the brackets were filled with 48 other teams and Michigan’s season was done.

Players reacted with a variety of emotions ranging from sadness and bewilderment to bitter disappointment and even anger.

But Burns didn’t waste time complaining about who was on the selection committee or lamenting his team’s unfortunate setback. He was already looking forward to a 2003 season with 10 returning starters and just one departing senior (Robert Turpin). Amid all this emotional turmoil, Burns knew that this was the best thing for the success of the program.

“Is this the best thing? In the long term, I’d say yes at the expense of short-term expectations and short-term desires,” Burns said.

This stumbling block will leave a sting in the hearts of Michigan’s leaders, and will provide the entire team with a limitless source of motivation between now and next September.

“When it’s a Thursday morning in the middle of February and it’s cold and dark and all the guys are sleepy-eyed, we will pull this out. That will give us all the motivation we need to get us over the edge,” Burns said.

This incident is just the sort of juice that can force budding stars like Cameron, Peter Dzubay and Mychal Turpin to become the leaders that Burns needs them to be to reach the next level. They have seen what it takes to start strong and to compete with Indiana, Penn State and the other elite teams of the college soccer world. They know what they can accomplish together, and they have the motivation to get there next year.

I’m excited about watching this team take the field next season, but performance is just part of Burns’ vision. And he won’t relax until Michigan soccer becomes the most successful business enterprise of his life.

“I won’t sit back and put my feet up until we have a nationally competitive team playing on a soccer-only field with lights and more than 2,500 fans at every game,” Burns said.

That’s an impressive vision for a team that still needs to shoo away the intramural softball players before its home matches at Elbel Field. But as unlikely as it sounds, I actually expect to come back to Ann Arbor in a few years, grab a cappuccino and watch with thousands of other soccer fans as the Wolverines knock off Indiana, Wake Forest or UCLA.

Steve Jackson can be reached at sjjackso@umich.edu.

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