Interview: Dr. Michael Giuliano, Wheaton (Ill.) head coach
D3soccer.com had the opportunity to interview the coaches of the four men’s teams that have advanced to the Final Four in Kansas City this weekend. Dr. Michael Giuliano, head coach at Wheaton (Ill.), spoke with Ryan Harmanis about the Final Four, Wheaton’s resurgence and his final season at the helm of the Thunder.
|Dr. Michael Giuliano - 8-year and outgoing head coach
of Wheaton (Ill.) Thunder
Wheaton Thunder Athletics
Ryan Harmanis: Dr. Giuliano, congratulations on reaching the Final Four. Let’s talk about the tournament thus far. I wouldn’t call any NCAA game comfortable, but you won 3-0 [over UW-Whitewater] in the first round and you were on fire against Wartburg [in a 5-0 win]. Can you talk about going from that to the Trinity game, where you struggled for the first 20 minutes?
Coach Dr. Michael Giuliano: Trinity was the best team we’ve seen this year. There’s a transition time that it takes, with the amount of effort and how quickly you play the ball around, when it has to improve and increase. Trinity took full advantage of that transition time. In the first ten minutes, I don’t think anyone would have been putting money on Wheaton. But I think my boys weathered that storm as well as they could have, then once we got the [tying] goal, we weren’t getting great looks but we had stopped the bleeding. Then we made some adjustments at halftime that the boys really put into effect well. For me, as a coach, the second half was a thing to behold, because Trinity is one of the best teams I’ve seen in a long time and we had the run of play and deserved the victory.
RH: You always play a tough schedule, including five NCAA tournament teams outside of conference play this year. How does that prepare your players for the NCAA tournament?
Coach Giuliano: I think it’s the same concept. If adjusting to Trinity is a negative thing—in other words, we have to work to do that—the fact that we play so many hard teams helps. I also think the CCIW may be one of the most underrated conferences in the country. We played some big-name teams out of conference, and there are at least four teams in our conference that were just as tough games as anyone else. I definitely think it helps. We have to adjust to a team like Trinity, but we’re not shocked by it because we’ve played Whitworth, we’ve played Calvin, teams like that. So long as I’ve been the coach I’ve been committed to that, but some years it’s bit us in the butt. Three years ago when we didn’t make the tournament, I think we had the number one schedule in the country. But if you lose six games, you won’t get in and that’s what happened. We love playing a harder schedule; I’d rather lose a game 2-1 than win 8-0.
RH: You have an experienced team, with your top six scorers all upperclassmen. Most of these guys played in that Elite Eight run in 2012. How does that experience help, particularly in close games or if you fall behind?
Coach Giuliano: Yea, we fell behind early against Trinity, and in our conference semifinal. Against Montclair State we went up 3-0 early and then, wanting to be gracious to our hosts, gave all three goals right back. When you think about having a senior-junior team, they don’t panic, and they have a lot of faith in their ability to come back and score goals. When we’ve been behind we’ve done pretty well. This team’s age and experience together, and their trust for each other, it can only help us this weekend.
RH: From an individual perspective, the Golz brothers [Jordan and Stephen, 29g, 10a combined] and Noah Anthony [7g, 10a] have really stood out. Can you talk about how important it is to have individual players that can turn games?
Coach Giuliano: What I love about this team is that we ask ourselves, “How would we stop Wheaton?” Now, clearly we’re not unstoppable, we’ve lost three games, but our weapons come from so many different places. You have one of the top goal scorers in the nation [Stephen Golz] next to his brother [Jordan] who is on fire right now, next to a third forward [Adam Blackman] that many say is our most skilled attacker. Then they’re in front of one of the quickest guys in Division III in Marshall Hollingsworth, and one of our best ball handlers in Elliot Borge. Then, you have Noah Anthony and Jon Clark coming out of the back. That’s a lot of offensive options for us.
We talk about, if you can stop a team’s main guy, you have a great chance of winning the game. Although we’re definitely capable of being stopped, and I know Oneonta has a great plan for us, I don’t know who our main guy is or who you should focus on. You’d say Stephen because he has 20 goals, but at the end of the game we don’t know who it’s going to be. It’s been Jordan the last few weeks, but Stephen is a classic target forward who can have a rough game for 85 minutes and score the winner in the 86th. We don’t need anyone to have the game of their lives to win.
RH: Every team that makes it this far has some unsung heroes, who maybe don’t have the stats or get the headlines but mean just as much to the team. Is there a player or a group of players that deserves some extra recognition?
Coach Giuliano: I love this question, because I think in most systems with three midfielders, there’s usually a holding mid that’s the key to everything you do defensively and even starts most things offensively. We have one, [freshman] Ben Bakke. I’m looking at the voting for all-conference and stuff, and he’s not really getting a sniff of it, but most of the coaches and people who understand the game see it. I had the second-winningest coach in Illinois watch a game, and afterward he told me, “I have a man-crush on your holding mid, he was just amazing.” But you know, you don’t notice him because holding mids don’t make the last tackle to save the day, and they don’t score the goal that puts you ahead, they do everything in between. So Ben, as soon as I heard this question, this has to be him. We would not be here now without him.
RH: You stepped into the job at Wheaton in a difficult position, replacing the legendary Joe Bean. What was it like, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Coach Giuliano: It was challenging because I took over from a team that made the national championship game, and yet at one point they were 8-8. So they had this magical run, but the guys on that team would tell you that they were up and down that season. But when a new coach takes over a team that just made the national championship, everyone expects you to be there every year. Now that was a good team, don’t get me wrong, and we made the second round my first year, but it was challenging.
What I’ve learned about our alums and expectations, it’s not personal. When people are upset about what’s going on, those same people are driving to Kansas City this weekend. Our big recruiting pitch is that there are many reasons to come to any school, including Wheaton, but for the soccer component we’re one of the three winningest programs, all divisions, in history. The point is, soccer’s a big deal here, so the alums expect us to be successful every year. And as demanding as they are when we don’t win, when we do they couldn’t be more complimentary and excited, and they’re driving out to Kansas City to try to give us a little advantage. I knew what I was getting into, so there were no surprises. The alums are passionate, so I’m glad I could finish this journey by giving them this year and setting them up for next year.
RH: Your team seems to favor an up-tempo, pressing style that combines high pressure and athleticism with a lot of technical skill. Can you describe the style your team wants to play, and how that might play out against Oneonta State?
Coach Giuliano: On a perfect day, we want minimum touches and maximum pressure. If we had to sum up everything in three seconds, that’s what it would be. We don’t always do that, but when we do I think we play pretty good soccer. We’re like any other team, we’re inconsistent, and Oneonta presents some unique challenges. Of the four teams, I think they’re the most effective in the last 20 yards. And there, it’s not pressure that’s called for, it’s intelligence, and so we’ll see if we can intelligently look off the ball and find their players. They make that unexpected pass that no one sees coming.
RH: Oneonta’s seniors have Final Four experience, while this is the first trip for your players. And, conversely, do you think Wheaton’s pedigree as a program helps provide an edge in these kind of situations?
Coach Giuliano: I don’t think it has a huge impact. Here’s what I can say with certainty: because they were here in 2011, and because of our pedigree, neither team is just happy to be here. Both teams would be devastated to lose that game, because they have been two times in four years and we used to get here on a regular basis, so we both expect to win.
RH: You always have great home crowds, and I’d expect your fans to travel this weekend. How much does that kind of support mean to your players?
Coach Giuliano: If you notice, we lost a couple games at home this year. The upside and downside of having fans, you love that they’re there but you feel the pressure to perform for them as well. So early in the year, we’re getting over a thousand in the stands, I think the guys were pressing. I think it’s a positive and negative in terms of impact on the guys.
The worst coached game I ever had at Wheaton was my first home game. I sat there, and I think I probably looked at the stands for 80% of the game. I was thinking, “Who gets 1,400 people for a Division III soccer game?” I came from Division I, and we’d get about 120 [people], so I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had to get used to that to coach, but it’s been so cool to have this kind of fan support. It partly explains why Wheaton has done well over the years, because there are so many people in the stands pushing for them.
RH: If you had to single out one specific thing Wheaton needs to do to win a third national championship this weekend, what would it be?
Coach Giuliano: For us, we have to look off the ball constantly. Oneonta, OWU, Tufts, these teams are organized and they make great runs off the ball. Oneonta in particular, I think that’s their glory, they just move so well off the ball, and if you aren’t watching your blind side then you won’t be able to do it. I would say our success is partially determined by how much we look off the ball, so there’s no “where did he come” kind of thing. And if we do that, then we’ll see what happens, but that’s the key.
RH: Finally, this is your last season as Wheaton’s coach. Do you even have time to put things in perspective, or is that going to have to wait until after this weekend for you to take a step back and really look at your time at Wheaton?
Coach Giuliano: Coach-speak suggests I should say, “Well, right now I’m just focused on Oneonta, and that will come later,” but the truthful answer is that this is hard for me. I love being a college coach, I love being the Wheaton College coach, and this is the best team I’ve had in 28 years of coaching. So this has been a very, very challenging time. So when you go to the Final Four with a group of guys I love as much as these boys, it’s very fulfilling, and it takes some of the sting and the pain off. I’m doing this [leaving] for family reasons, it’s the right reason, and I could not be happier to honor my wife in this way.
One of the things I love about sport is that it doesn’t always play out like a movie script. The good guys don’t always win; there’s not that massive comeback in the last two minutes that you always see. I actually like that; I like the drama of sport in that way. But in this case, it’s sort of gone the way a movie would. You’ve been coaching for 28 years, you’re leaving, hopefully for the right reasons, and it would be great to go out on top. Now I don’t mean literally on top, we have two games to go before we worry about that, but certainly it’s the best run we’ve had since 2006. I’m just so thankful to God that I could be involved in this way in my last year. So yes, I’ve reflected a little about it and just been thankful every day. I’m just having a blast. I’ll be devastated if we lose, but I think eventually I’ll look back and say “Wow, what a fun way to end it, win or lose.” But obviously, we’d like to win both games.
Wheaton (21-3-0) squares off against Oneonta State (21-0-2) in the first NCAA Men’s Semifinal at 11:00 AM (CST) on Friday, December 5th.