The New England Revolution haven’t had a coaching vacancy since promoting Steve Nicol to head coach in 2002, but the choice of whom to replace the longest tenured coach in history is, at the very least, one of the most intriguing decisions the team could’ve made—and could certainly pay off.
Continuing with a new trend in hiring ex-MLS players to coach their former teams—think Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake and Ben Olsen at D.C. United—the Revolution ownership has chosen retired defender Jay Heaps to be the organization’s new head coach heading into the 2012 season.
Some fans may worry that Heaps doesn’t have any previous coaching experience. What he lacks in soccer coaching experience he makes up for in other areas.
For starters, Heaps who enjoyed a fine 10-year playing career (eight with New England), is one of the most popular and productive players in Revolution history. He’s first in the team’s record books in games played (243) and minutes played (21,619). He was the 1999 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Miami Fusion and he has been capped by the United States Men’s National team four times. He was a successful player at every level and knows what the players are going through.
He also has championship experience. He was a member of the U.S Open Cup champion team in 2007 and the SuperLiga champions in 2008. He was on the USMNT that finished second in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup and played for the Revs all four times the team made it to the MLS Cup final. He knows what it takes to be a champion, especially in the MLS, and that can go a long way in guys buying into what he has to tell them.
While he played for Nicol, who was a fine coach, he’s also been exposed to legendary coaching. While at Duke, Heaps was spotted by basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski—who tied an NCAA Division I record with 902 career wins on Saturday—and was given a spot on the team’s roster.
In four years he only played in 30 basketball games and scored eight points (compare that to 45 goals for the soccer team), but Heaps picked up a few valuable lessons from his time with the team.
Heaps acknowledged in an interview in 2008 that being one of the bottom guys on the bench helped him fully understand the true concept of what a team is.
“On the soccer field at Duke, I was the guy that played every minute of every game and was a player looked at to lead the team from a playing standpoint,” Heaps said. “Then I went to basketball, where I was probably the smallest guy on the team, one of the last guys off the bench, and I saw how you can still impact the greater good of the team no matter what your role might be.”
His time as a bench warmer makes him not only relatable to his lower-end players, but he knows how to get the most out of every player and keep everyone engaged in practice.
Heaps’ relationship with Coach K can also help guide him as he begins his own coaching career. During some of his offseasons, Heaps returned to Durham to spend time with Krzyzewski and his staff, observing the legend at work. While Krzyzewski coaches basketball and not soccer, and won’t be able to help Heaps with tactics, you don’t win 902 games (and counting) without having great leadership skills that transcend your sport.
It also should be mentioned that, for the past couple of seasons, Heaps has been the color commentator for Revolution games on television and radio. He has observed every game, seen not only the talent and flaws of the Revolution players but also witnessed first-hand the same qualities in every team in the league. He has stayed familiar with MLS and the Revolution and that should keep him sharp as well as allowing him to figure out what would be good player-acquisitions for his team.
Don’t take the notion that he’s a Revolution-lifer for nothing, either. The fact that he has played and worked for the organization shows a dedication to the team. He’s going to want this team to perform well for beyond just personal ones.
Some fans worry that hiring such a popular figure with little actual experience is just to make the fans forget about bigger issues inside the organization’s framework, but that isn’t Heaps fault. As far as being a leader and a coach, he should be up for the opportunity.
The Revolution team is a shell of its former self and Heaps doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, currently. It may be a rocky road to begin with, but there’s plenty of potential to turn this franchise around, and fans could very well be pleased with the results.