Oct. 18, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
Being a college coach can be very rewarding, but it also requires sacrifice. South Carolina men’s soccer assistant coaches Justin Cook and Tyler Kettering have many reasons why becoming a part of head coach Mark Berson’s staff was the right move for them, in addition to their respective contributions being the right move for the program.
“I knew the area really well, and I was familiar with South Carolina after playing and coaching against them in the past,” Kettering said. “The school has everything here. It’s up to the coaches and the players to grab that success. There are not a lot of road blocks in your way. It gives you a clear picture of what you can achieve. This satisfies a lot of career goals in terms of the ceiling being really high for achievement. There was also a lot of benefit on the family side as well.”
“It’s a program that has a pretty rich tradition,” Cook said. “With the players that have gone on to play on World Cup teams, and with the success the team has had over the years, I wanted to be a part of that. I thought that South Carolina was the kind of place that if we get the right players, everything else is here for them to excel and win national championships. That’s what I want.”
Cook came to Columbia after ten seasons as an assistant Tulsa, and he was the Big Ten Player of the Year at Ohio State before moving on to play professional soccer. Kettering joined the Gamecocks after one season as an assistant at Dayton and seven as associate head coach at his alma mater, Gardner Webb, where he led the nation in saves for two seasons. He later played professionally in the MLS and USL. Cook and Kettering have established themselves as outstanding recruiters, and both know what it takes to succeed on the pitch.
“I can look at a player, and I can determine pretty quickly whether or not that guy is going to cut it,” Cook said. “I think I’ve got a good eye for players. I have a good understanding of the college game and the type of player it takes to win at this level, and I can go and find them. That’s one of the things that really drew me here. Mark basically told me we have a budget where I can go look at any player I want. That’s huge for me because the recruiting part of it is something that I really love. When you find a quality player that comes in and performs, and you win with the players you brought in, there is no better feeling.”
“For any assistant coach, recruiting has to be one of your biggest abilities,” Kettering said. “The game itself has turned into an enormous global market. We recruit locally, and we also recruit a lot internationally. To have the financial ability to go put eyes on a player rather than just watching him on a screen or getting kids here for visits, that really opens things up. The communication with athletes is also big. The standard that’s set for them has to be clearly defined, and they have to be continually challenged. We want to give them every opportunity to be successful. Once we get a kid on campus, it’s really difficult for them to say ‘no’ because they can see all of the things that are available to them.”
I’m fortunate to be under a coach that has coached more players than probably anyone in the nation.
Both coaches acknowledge that facilities and tradition also play a big part in recruiting, and they also have to be sure that prospects can handle themselves academically. Because the Southeastern Conference does not offer men’s soccer as a championship sport, the Gamecocks compete in Conference USA, which has earned an excellent reputation in the sport and requires the program to remain nationally relevant.
“Conference USA is a good soccer conference,” Cook said. “Most recruits these days are pretty well informed, so they know that. You still have kids that want to be at an SEC school even though we don’t play in the SEC in men’s soccer.”
Coach Berson is currently in his 40th year leading the Gamecocks, and both Cook and Kettering have worked under long tenured coaches before. They see his flexibility as a key asset.
“He’s done a very good job of asking for new ideas and says ‘prove them to me,’” Kettering said. “He’s always bringing new ideas to us, too. He’s researching things, talking to other coaches and watching a lot of games. I mean, 40 years here, and he still wants to learn.”
“It’s amazing because it would be very easy for Mark to fall into the ‘I’ve being doing it this way for this long and we’ve been successful’ mentality, but he is constantly trying to educate himself and be involved with the game,” Cook said. “He is open to suggestions. That’s how you have to be as a coach. It’s refreshing to see it from one of the older coaches because there are those guys out there who never change. Mark’s not that way. He’s passionate.”
In the bigger picture, this may not be the last stop in Cook and Kettering’s career as both have aspirations of being a head coach someday, but they’re not in a hurry and are confident that being at South Carolina can help them reach all of their goals.
“Any coach that isn’t interested in coaching his own team and see what he is made of, probably isn’t going to cut it,” Cook said. “I believe this is a place that gives our program a chance to win a national championship. When you do that, all kinds of doors open. I just want to win a national championship. This is the kind of place where it can be done.”
“I feel the same way,” Kettering said. “Sometimes players and coaches can look too far ahead, and they forget to be successful where they are. Win where you are, and that will take care of the rest. This place really affirms that. I’m fortunate to be under a coach that has coached more players than probably anyone in the nation, and he’s got a lot of knowledge to continue to give. You look at his coaching tree and the players who played for him that are now coaching, he does a really good job of educating and challenging his assistant coaches.”
While working your way up through the ranks as a coach is part of the process, up-rooting a family can be a challenge, especially since both men are married with children.
“We had just done it the year before when I went to Dayton,” Kettering said. “That was a tough adjustment for my kids because they were right at that age where they had really developed some friends in North Carolina. That initial transition was probably the hardest. This one wasn’t as hard because we hadn’t been extremely settled [in Dayton]. It would have been harder if my children were a little bit older. We’re fortunate to have this opportunity with where we are in our careers, but also with where we are with our families.”
“My oldest daughter just started kindergarten, so it was a little easier for her,” Cook said. “It was probably toughest on my wife, because she was a nurse at St. Francis [hospital in Oklahoma]. So she built a lot of friendships in 10 years there, but she married a coach and, thankfully, knew what she was getting into. It’s always tough to start over, and I do appreciate that.”
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