Through the eyes of coach Steve Burns
Steve Burns often looks at his souvenir cup from the 1999 Syracuse-Michigan football game. He couldn’t tell you how the triple threat of Drew Henson, Anthony Thomas and David Terrell squeezed the Orangemen into a pulp. He couldn’t even tell you the score of the game. The details of the event have disappeared from his mind.
But the date has been etched in Burns’s memory forever. The date on the cup – September 18 – was a day that Burns lived in a state of euphoria. The only reason Burns remembers the game is that the night before, he received a phone call from a member of the athletic department that attended the game. The call was to inform him he would be the first head coach of Michigan’s newly instated varsity soccer program.
What makes this moment so monumental is that it almost didn’t happen. A few months before the Syracuse-Michigan football game, Burns was on vacation in Florida with his wife.
So even though Burns may have been sipping pina coladas and developing a nice tan, his thoughts were weighed down with what changes his future would hold.
The couple was mentally preparing to make a major move, away from Ann Arbor and away from the University of Michigan. This move was going to be tough, considering that up until this point, Michigan soccer had been the focus of Burns’s life.
As a two-year captain of the 1987 and 1988 club team, Burns returned just four years later to take a more active role as the team’s coach. The team saw tremendous success between 1992 and 1999 (121-51-6 record) under his guidance, while Burns waited patiently for the moment when the University would make his team varsity as it had done for the women’s soccer program in 1995.
The moment never seemed to come.
Burns thought that in order to reach his dream of becoming a varsity coach, he had to move on. And by the end of 1998, he had sent out more than 150 resumes to Division 1 programs across the country.
So when Burns arrived in Florida, he was two weeks away from committing to a program that had impressed him. But halfway through the vacation, his thoughts were interrupted by the first fateful call. It was the athletic department asking him not to accept any other offers just yet.
When Burns returned from vacation, he told the other program “no,” opting to interview for the Michigan position instead. After Burns impressed the athletic department with his vision for the coming varsity program, he was chosen to take its helm.
Hail to the Victors:
Through the eyes of Ian Hirschfield
Nearly a year later, then-freshman Ian Hirschfield stood with the other 24 members of the new team on the sidelines of Elbel Field as his coach prepped him and his teammates for the first game in Michigan varsity soccer history.
Surrounding him were 1,478 soccer fans including then-University President Lee Bollinger, local soccer lovers and even the Michigan marching band. Freshmen who had just arrived for Welcome Week’s Maize Kraze sat to watch the game as they ate barbeque.
The midfielder was both anxious and excited about this game. He wanted the team to win not only in honor of the new program, but because his parents were in the stands – attending the only game they could that season.
Burns jokingly told the team he would lose his job if they didn’t win their first home-opener, but evidently Hirschfield took his coach seriously.
Four minutes into the game against DePaul, Hirschfield was 25 yards out from the goal.
He looked up, seeing a clear path to the net, and recognized that this was his perfect opportunity. He seized it, sending the ball over the goalkeeper’s head to make the first goal ever for the varsity team.
Hirschfield stared in shock as the crowd remained silent in an equal state of disbelief. No one expected the first goal to arrive so early in the game.
But Hirschfield quickly recovered and ran the length of Elbel, stopping in front of the bleachers where the band was seated. When his teammates caught up to him, Hirschfield and the others conducted the band in a round of “Hail to the Victors” while the crowd joined in.
Assistant coach Ernie Yarborough had told him and the rest of the players just a few days earlier that they had better come up with a creative way to celebrate after the first goal, and Hirschfield had obviously done his homework.
Hirschfield played the remainder of the game in a state of nirvana. The crowd chanted “Let’s Go Blue” over and over for the last five minutes, encouraging a tired Hirschfield to help his team hold on for a 1-0 victory.
The midfielder is reminded of this magical moment every time he walks into his coach’s office. The soccer ball that went in for that first winning goal now sits on Burns’s desk, autographed by Hirschfield.
Through the eyes of Steve Burns
In the second season of the program’s history, the team won seven out of its first eight games. But the team was a sophomore, and in Latin, sophomore means “wise fool.” Perhaps this adjective fit the team’s performance. The Wolverines went 0-5-1 in their next six games.
So when Burns arrived in Columbus for the final Big Ten conference game of the season, he was faced with a difficult task: to find a way to rally his team to beat No. 14 Ohio State on its own turf. That turf just happened to be the brand new, 10,000-seat Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. New silver bleachers provided seats for the many fans wearing scarlet and gray, while a regal red-bricked building holding concession stands and lockerrooms painted an impressive backdrop across one end of the stadium.
Before the game, Burns made a captivating speech to his players, telling them not to be intimidated by the abundance of Buckeye fans or the fact Ohio State had defeated Michigan on Elbel, 3-0, a year earlier.
But much like the team’s very first game against DePaul, Michigan managed to score a goal early in the first half, courtesy of then-freshman Knox Cameron.
By halftime, Michigan had been successful in keeping Buckeye goals out of its own net, but had racked up two yellow penalty cards. It forced the team to play one man down for the remainder of the game.
Burns gave another speech at the half: “You know what, if we’re going to be a good team, we have to learn how to win against good teams being a man down.”
His team listened. The second half turned into a defensive battle in which they ultimately sent Buckeye fans heading home with a loss and looks of disappointment.
Out of reach:
Through the eyes of Kevin Robinson
Kevin Robinson, a junior at the time, was present at the Big Ten Tournament championship game in the program’s third year of existence.
But he wasn’t on the field.
After beating Northwestern and Michigan State in the first two rounds, the team faced Penn State for the title.
Robinson and defender Kevin Taylor received red penalty cards in the game against Michigan State, forcing them both to remain spectators in this game of a lifetime.
The team missed Robinson in the forward position, always ready to assist or score a goal, and Taylor on defense, who often yelled directions to anchor Michigan’s defense.
Robinson could only watch as the team began with a shaky first half against the Nittany Lions. At the half, the Wolverines trailed 1-0.
In the second half, Michigan fell further behind when Penn State scored another goal. But senior captain Robert Turpin turned things around a minute later when he notched one in for Michigan, and then almost tied the game with another goal. But his efforts fell short.
Robinson watched the clock run down and felt the team’s chance at a championship title slip away.
He remembers feeling helpless in the stands, knowing the team was so close to victory, but couldn’t grasp it.
Lift me up when I’m falling:
Through the eyes of Joe Iding
The morning after losing to Penn State, then-junior Joe Iding woke up back in Ann Arbor.
Even with the loss fresh in his memory, he had reason to be excited because with the team’s record, he knew they were likely to be awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, the team was so confident that it would earn a bid, Burns arranged for the players to be professionally filmed while watching the selection show in Crisler Arena.
After Iding put on a Michigan polo shirt and khakis, he drove to the arena to meet his team, sure that this was going to be a festive afternoon.
At 4:30 p.m., the selection show began. The entire team sat on the bleachers and prepared to see its name go across the television screen.
The names started rolling by, including Akron and Oakland, both of which Michigan had defeated.
That’s when Iding got worried. He knew that his teammates felt it, too, but no one said a word. And then the last school name flashed across the screen – the selections had been made and Michigan had not made the cut. The Wolverines had the best record of all the teams not picked.
The cameramen were hoping to capture joyous celebration from the players, but all they saw through their lenses were speechless, drooping faces. The team dispersed immediately while Iding stayed behind with Turpin to interview with a Fox Sports Detroit reporter.
It was hard for him to put into words his emotions at the time. He felt even worse for Turpin because it was the senior’s last moment with the team.
The tape aired that evening and Iding owns a copy – though it probably just collects dust on his shelf. It is a memory that he does not like to revisit.
Sky’s the limit:
Location: Elbel field
Sept. 10, 2003
The sun lowered as the end of a practice neared. The Michigan band played Aerosmith’s “Jaded” in the background, but the team was anything but.
Watching the Wolverines play with such enthusiasm even in the last 10 minutes of their practice, one would never guess that the snub from the NCAA Tournament was still at the back of their minds.
The team remembers the moment, but is determined it will not be repeated this season. The players’ and coach’s comments after the practice certainly capture this mindset.
Joe Iding: “We wanted (not getting an NCAA bid) to make us more determined, make us more hungry … now we have to take it a step further.”
Kevin Robinson: “We have a couple injuries – a couple kinks in the armor – but if we take every game seriously and have fun, I think we’re going to do well.”
Steve Burns (on the moment when Michigan realized they did not earn an NCAA bid): “I’m going to (try to) make sure we are never in that position again. And the team has done everything in their power … with how hard they worked in the winter and spring and with how hard they pushed in the weight room (to prevent it).”