September 20, 2013 8:35 AM
Tim Vom Steeg remembers, vividly, the first day he walked into his new office at UCSB.
"When I showed up, everything had been cleared out," he said of that early January day in 1999. "Everything had been taken out of the office here at the stadium and all that was left was a phone, no desk, and a pile of letters on the ground."
The new men's soccer coach, who had returned to his alma mater after a successful playing career from 1985-88, was saddled with the task of building a program that was one of the worst in the nation on the Division I level the year before - one that had produced a 2-18 record, with only one of its wins coming against a D-I opponent.
Today, Vom Steeg's spacious office, its lobby and the offices of his assistant coaches in the intercollegiate athletics building is a shrine - complete with photographs and hardware - of a body of work that has produced a national championship, two College Cup finals appearances, 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, six Big West Conference regular-season titles and 199 victories.
"Kenny Preston (former UCSB men's volleyball coach) said when he picked up his 500th win, 'All that means is that you've been around for a while,'" Vom Steeg said with a chuckle. "I do think I've been around for a while."
Long enough to become the winningest coach in UCSB and Big West Conference men's soccer history, and with a chance to secure his 200th victory tonight when the Gauchos host the Yale Bulldogs at Harder Stadium at 7 p.m.
"I do think it's a milestone," he said. "If you look at how hard it is to win games at the Division I level, it's gotten increasingly harder as the level of play has improved throughout the country. I also think it's gotten harder because when we won our first national championship, it forever changed how we were treated.
"Before 2006, we could always go somewhere and surprise somebody. But, literally, after 2006, that was done. It's made (winning) the second hundred much more difficult. Obviously I give credit to the players and the coaches, but the 200 means that we've done it with a bunch of different players and a bunch of different teams. Every time you have a new group that comes in, you have to do it all over again, so I guess 200 for me means that we've been very consistent."
That consistency began in his very first season, when the Gauchos finished 13-7 to complete the best turnaround in the country on the Division I level from the previous year. Vom Steeg recalled how it took his first bold move to develop a new culture for the program.
"One day in late spring of 1999, I let 18 players go," he said. "We kept about five or six freshmen, and then we started again. It was a whole new team that fall, and I think it was one of the better things I did in terms of trying to change the culture right away by just changing the players."
There was also something else Vom Steeg did that helped shape the future of UCSB men's soccer: He opened those letters on the floor left by the previous staff.
"The first thing I did was I started flipping through these letters from players who were interested in coming to UCSB," he said. "Just flipping through, I came across a 6-foot-4 Canadian national player named Rob Friend and a goalkeeper named Kyle Reynish."
Friend, as a senior in 2002, set the program's single-season mark with 20 goals, a record that still stands. Reynish secured the Gaucho goal line during their 2006 national-championship season. They were two of 17 All-Americans Vom Steeg's program has produced over the years, and two who are still playing professionally today.
"We just started putting some pieces together and recruiting from a pile of letters on the floor," he said.
Along the way, Vom Steeg has earned two National and three Big West Conference Coach of the year honors.
His list of memorable wins includes the 2-1 result against UCLA in the '06 national championship game, the 2-0 victory over the University of San Diego in 2002 - which was the first of 12 NCAA Tournament games UCSB has hosted, the 3-2 victory over Northwestern in the NCAA quarterfinals at Harder Stadium that got the Gauchos into the 2006 College Cup, and the first game he ever coached, a 2-0 besting of Cal Poly.
There have been a number of others as well.
But long before he built the program that has led the nation in attendance for six straight years, came a moment for Vom Steeg shortly after his first season that made him realize he could take UCSB men's soccer where it had never gone before.
It was when one of his best players on the '99 team, midfielder Chris Schwandt, quit.
"He told me, 'You know Tim, I'm done,'" Vom Steeg recalled. "I said, 'What do you mean you're done? You're a junior and you had a great season.' He said, 'No Tim, you have to realize, I came to UCSB because I didn't have any nice way of telling my parents I didn't want to play anymore. I came to UCSB because the program was dead. I could come here, play a little bit and it wouldn't be that serious. But you're here now, and it's different.'"
As 199 victories proves, Schwandt was right.