When Creighton hired Elmar Bolowich last February to be its men's soccer coach, this school of 4,000 undergraduates in Omaha, Neb., didn't just manage to land a respectable steward for its program. It basically upended the entire space-time continuum of college sports.
Not only did Bolowich win a 2001 national title, he was also the winningest men's soccer coach in the history of the school he came from. Even more surprisingly, the school he came from wasn't a small fry—it was powerhouse North Carolina.
The idea of a small school nabbing a top coach from a major sports factory would be unthinkable in most other forms of college sports. But in the context of men's soccer, the Bolowich theft was actually a bit of a yawner. "When you look at it deeply," said Charlotte soccer coach Jeremy Gunn, "it makes perfect sense."
Small schools act like big fish in soccer, winning titles, throwing around money and slapping around bigger-name schools on the pitch. More than half of the teams in this season's final top-25 poll were "mid-majors"—schools that are not members of the six major conferences. The list includes Old Dominion, Monmouth and No. 1-ranked New Mexico. The eight teams left in the NCAA tournament, who are vying this weekend for a spot in the College Cup, include Charlotte, St. Mary's and Creighton, the No. 2 seed.
Other college sports have had brushes with little-guy greatness. Boise State comes to mind in football. There's also Rice in baseball and Butler in men's basketball. But soccer is in a lilliputian class all by itself.
The sport's reigning men's champion, Akron, has had the last two winners of the Hermann Trophy—the sport's Heisman Trophy equivalent. Men's soccer was one of five Division-I sports in the 2010-2011 school year that had a champion from a small conference. The others were men's golf, men's ice hockey (which isn't played nationally), and rowing and bowling, two niche sports.
Some of these soccer mid-majors are prospering in front of crowds that would be impressive by basketball standards. In 2010, UC Santa Barbara had the country's highest attendance for the fourth straight year, averaging 5,873 per game. The crowd of 15,896 that saw the Gauchos beat UCLA in September 2010 was the season's biggest. "You want to be involved with a program where you're taken seriously and given the opportunity to compete at a national level," said New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein. "It doesn't really matter whether that's a Big Ten or ACC school—or a Missouri Valley or Big West school."
Never was that more apparent than when Bolowich left North Carolina, where he'd been coach for 22 years. In Chapel Hill, men's soccer takes a backseat in autumn to football and even women's soccer, which has 20 NCAA titles. Last year, according to government data, North Carolina spent about $75,000 in game-day expenses for men's soccer while Creighton allocated about $160,000. Other mid-majors like UCSB, Southern Methodist and the College of Charleston have ranked in the top 20 recently in soccer spending. "Football is an arms race," Bolowich said. "It's not only killing the smaller schools that do have football but it's putting a lot of pressure on the bigger schools with football programs to keep up with the Joneses."
That's not a problem at Creighton. In 2003, the school built a 6,000-seat stadium for soccer, which is the only fall game in town. "Before basketball starts, there is very little going on," Bolowich said. St. Mary's and Charlotte don't have varsity football yet, either.
College soccer still has its bluebloods. Indiana, Virginia and Maryland have dominated the College Cup, the sport's final four, in past years and Connecticut, UCLA and Louisville are in the hunt this year. Even North Carolina hasn't suffered from losing Bolowich. The Tar Heels are the tournament's top seed.
If the bracket holds, they'll face Creighton for the title.