Tales From The Tournament: The Kuntz Factor
by Mike Villamor, Assistant Commissioner/Communications
Belief can take a team a long way. In the realm of winning, belief is the foundation upon which men’s soccer mentor George Kuntz has raised a combined six tournament championship banners between two schools.
Routinely fielding multiple nationally ranked programs, NCAA Tournament participants and a quality of play that rivals any other conference in the country, the Big West is notoriously difficult to navigate on the road to a championship. There are no cakewalks.
But Kuntz has found a way to succeed when the pressure is ramped up, when seasons are on the line and when stress is bubbling to the surface. The six Big West titles have occurred in an eight-year span. Kuntz’s all-time tournament record – 12-1-1 – crafted entirely within Orange County borders, includes four championships at UC Irvine (2008, 2009, 2011, 2013) and two more at newfound home Cal State Fullerton, which, incidentally, took place in each of the last two years.
Meaning, his first two years as the face of the Titan program, which had experienced nine straight losing seasons before his arrival.
Winning, therefore, has not come by accident. It is not a fluke.
What’s the formula coach?
“If I knew that answer, I’d put it in a jar and sell it,” said Kuntz, who became the eighth head coach in Fullerton history on Dec. 16, 2013.
“Keeping a thought process of believing that everything is going to work out and it’s going to be okay. Even though we all worry about things, I try to keep a perspective that everything is going to work out. If you can put players at peace, if you can somehow find a way to get your guys to have that inner peace, they can play without stress and worry, and really play their game.”
EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY
Kuntz came to Fullerton after 19 seasons as the head coach at UCI, where he turned the program into a perennial power, which included two NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances.
He arrived amid fanfare, but that didn’t mean his players instantly took to him. He inherited 14 seniors to that initial 2014 club, who, just months earlier had viewed him as the adversary.
“We were underdogs,” Kuntz recalled.
The Titans struggled to a 0-3-2 start. After a reprieve in which they reeled off four straight wins, CSF began Big West play with two straight losses.
“We had a really poor start, and a lot of seniors here, and everybody is giving me the stink eye,” said Kuntz. “Tried to get these guys to listen to me because why would they listen to the guy who was the enemy? They finally started buying in toward the end of the season. We kind of got on a roll.”
Getting his players to adjust their attitude was a gradual process. He knew mistakes would be made along the way.
He likened the development process to raising his own kids – son Jordan and daughter Sevilla.
“You’re sending your kids off to school and you’re praying they’re going to be okay. You’ve got to trust the process that they’re going to be okay,” Kuntz said. “Let them kind of experience rather than holding their hand.
“I’m giving you the empowerment that you can handle this.”
Kuntz learned to develop his players over several years of trial-and-error while at UCI. A school on the quarter system, with classes that begin in late September, he knew his players would typically come down with colds in early October, a byproduct of the stress associated with training, practices, games and schoolwork – the life of a student-athlete indeed.
Eventually, he discerned that as guys got banged up as seasons wore on, that pushing and prodding might not be as effective.
“The more you beat them up; it’s diminishing returns,” Kuntz said. “The more you say, the more you do, you can actually hurt them versus help them.”
Not that there isn’t a fiery side to Kuntz. At times, he might use yelling as a tool, the kind of veins popping out of your head emotion to emphasize a point in early season practice. But as the nicks, dings and fatigue began to build, his approach morphed into something less critical and more constructive.
And allow your kids to make mistakes.
The 2014 Fullerton team did just that. They were talented, but weren’t together. They knew how to score, but were more concerned about who got to score the goals. The roster contained plenty of players capable of producing on the pitch, but too much fretting about actual playing time.
“That’s where the bite back was,” Kuntz remembered. “There was a lot of questioning of that. Once things kind of settled down, and guys that were playing 10 minutes, and giving us quality 10 minutes and adding to our team instead of coming in and pouting, then we started doing better.
“Those guys were very impactful. Those are the guys that really carried us in the end. They hadn’t gotten a lot of minutes but they were still quality players and they started buying in because the team was on a roll.”
They also weren’t as worn down as some of the regulars on other squads.
The 2014 Titans were not just a collection of individuals. They became a team.
SUCCESS VISUALIZED AROUND THE CENTER CIRCLE
Those Titans ended up in the Big West Tournament championship game against none other than UC Irvine, the program Kuntz one year before had guided to a fourth tournament title. In a surreal moment, the game transpired at Anteater Stadium, a place steeped in wonderful memories for the three-time Big West Coach of the Year.
The team stayed overnight at a Newport Beach hotel and ate spaghetti together prior to a one-hour walkthrough at the field.
Kuntz, who drove separately, stopped off a convenience mart and purchased a 64 ounce orange Gatorade bottle that he brought in his duffel bag.
He met with each position group – defenders, midfielders, forwards and goalkeepers. Told them, from experience, what they would see, what they would feel, what they would hear on game night.
And then he brought them all together to stand around the Anteater Stadium center circle.
He asked the group, “How many of you guys have won a Big West Tournament?”
Silence. No hands were raised. Well, except one.
That hand belonged to assistant coach Carlos Aguilar. Aguilar played for Kuntz on UCI’s first two tournament championship teams in 2008 and 2009, and was the tourney MVP in 2009.
Aguilar has been a part of all six Kuntz championship teams – either as a player, volunteer assistant coach or full-time assistant coach. He led Kuntz to Ibarra as a recruit from Taft College. Aguilar has played at key role at Fullerton in recruiting, in training and in the community.
“Experience plays a huge role in his (Kuntz’s) success in the Big West Conference Tournament,” said Aguilar. “Coach Kuntz' passion and competitive nature elevates in the Big West Tournament. Being able to be around him as a player and coach has been an unbelievable experience.”
Of Aguilar, Kuntz said, “He’s a winner. He’s been a catalyst.”
Kuntz removed the Gatorade bottle and said, “This is what a trophy feels like. I want you to hold it; I want you to pass it around; I want you to visualize you holding this trophy tomorrow night.”
Guys kissed the “trophy.” Held it up. Hugged it. Felt the weight of it.
Kuntz had purposely scheduled the walkthrough to coincide as closely as possible with the final horn the next night.
He instructed everyone to hold the Gatorade bottle in the middle of the circle.
“This is what it will be like this time tomorrow night, at 9 o’clock,” Kuntz said.
“That was a big moment. The game, in my mind, was won the night before. When we walked off that field, I felt like we had a one-goal lead.”
In actuality, no one ended up scoring. The Titans and Anteaters fought intensely to a 0-0 tie through regulation and two overtime periods.
The game came down to penalty kicks.
“I was praying,” Kuntz said. He thought of how he’d approach them, win or lose. They won, 3-2, as the last attempt hit the post and bounced away.
Kuntz paused, and harkened back to 2008, the inaugural year of the tournament. His Anteaters were decided underdogs at powerhouse UC Santa Barbara, and felt that no one gave them a chance to pull off the upset. But a ramped up bunch came out firing, and winning, 4-2.
So he had embraced the underdog challenge before, and the task of building belief in a squad expected to be nothing more than a participant. A return to underdog triumph was in order, and here were the 2014 Titans, celebrating and hoisting a trophy – this time for real.
“All the parents crying from Fullerton, saying for four years coach and we’ve never seen anything like this team. What happened tonight was magical.”
Once wary of his presence like a stranger at the front door, they yearned for three more years with him.
And I said, “It’s not me. It’s them. They did it."
“You go back to beliefs, and it wasn’t that they didn’t have the talent. It’s which team believes, and then you’ve got to execute when you have that momentum.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Kuntz, watching the program he built and that toiled for success, experience the dissatisfaction of defeat.
“It wasn’t happiness at the end of the game,” Kuntz said. “It was relief because I felt bad for the guys.”
However, he knew UCI was going to the NCAA Tournament. They had had a stupendous season under Chris Volk, a man who spent 17 years as Kuntz’s trusted assistant and now controlled the reins of the Anteater program.
“I knew we were out if we lost. I knew they were in the (NCAA) tournament. I was relieved that we were in, and I was overwhelmed with emotion to see those guys that I had recruited on the ground and sad,” he said.
Ultimately, UCI did get into the NCAA’s as an at-large, and advanced to the Sweet 16. With an automatic berth, CSF returned to the NCAA’s for the first time since 2000.
Yes, everything turned out to be okay.
EXERCISE IN FITNESS
Over the years, Kuntz’s teams have been incredibly fit. Fit teams outwork opponents, and a group with a stronger work ethic is much more equipped to handle a compacted two-month season.
Soccer tends to be a punishing game for the unfit.
“Fitness is a key and an expectation of our program that people are fit,” said Kuntz. “We can maintain fitness, but it’s not our job to get you fit. You have to come in fit.
“You’re working 10 months for two months and then the tournament. And the tournament is so impactful.” He likens it to a “mini World Cup in our environment.”
He’s had players at UC Irvine like Cameron Iwasa and Miguel Ibarra, both whom have gone on to play professionally, noted for being beasts in training.
He’s had less heralded players, even walk-ons such as Joel Bagby and Jon Spencer, that paved the way for great Anteater teams.
Kuntz has found ways to take players from various talent levels and mold them into productive players.
Perhaps most emblematic of that pedigree on the 2016 Titans is senior Alex Heilmann. A defender who was converted to a forward this season, the 6-3 Heilmann became a first-team all-conference selection.
In his two previous Titan campaigns, Heilmann had appeared in 16 games with no career goals and no accolades.
He currently leads the Big West this season with 11 goals entering Saturday’s conference tournament first round matchup with UC Davis.
Heilmann didn’t start for pockets of games this season.
“But he’s a presence,” noted Kuntz. “He needs to start. He is a handful, and if you don’t have your best marker on him, good luck. And if you do, that’s good for us because somebody else is going to find his way.”
He didn’t play extended minutes under Kuntz in either of the last two seasons.
“He didn’t come in fit the other two years he was here,” Kuntz said, flatly.
Heilmann wasn’t making the “Cooper,” a 12-minute run that tests fitness levels. This year he made the Cooper, and did so handily.
Heilmann found his way despite the setbacks.
Let them experience rather than holding their hand.
The CSF coaching staff knew they wanted to move the big and strong Heilmann from the back to the front, and as the biggest guy on the team, players look up to him literally, as well as for his work ethic.
“When he came in, he made us believe that we have each other’s backs and could trust in each other,” said Heilmann. “Whether you were a freshman or senior, you played the same roles on the team. He made sure everybody was together as a family on and off the field.”
Though he’s hard to handle within the 18, the transformation didn’t occur overnight.
“There were times he was not happy with me,” Kuntz related. “Wasn’t sure about me in the beginning.”
Like learning a new language, the transition took some getting used to throughout the team. Trust had to be earned not only from player to player, but from player to coach and vice versa.
“At first, him coming from UCI, not a lot of players were molding well and everyone had an idea of what his philosophy was and what kind of coach he was,” said Heilmann. “A lot of guys bought in once we started winning. ‘Wow, we can really do this and we’re a legit team.’ He’s changed the culture at CSF.”
The team took a trip to northern California earlier in the year. On the Southwest return flight, Kuntz was in the last boarding group.
“There’s one seat, a middle seat next to Heilmann,” Kuntz chuckled. “I could see him as I’m walking and he’s thinking ‘please don’t sit next to me, please don’t sit next to me.’
And I said, “You’re the winner.”
And he’s like, “Oh gosh.”
Kuntz talked to him the whole time on the one-hour flight home about the team. Heilmann’s teammates teased him about having to sit next to their coach. But Kuntz won’t waste an opportunity to teach, to offer up a lesson.
Heilmann joked, “I was sitting in an emergency exit seat and thought I had a good deal. But, it turned out to be beneficial.”
There is a bigger picture within the Fullerton program.
“I’m trying to change people’s lives,” Kuntz said. “If I can do this with these guys, they are going to be successful in whatever profession they go to.
“We’re in the education business. When they face adversity, when they face crisis, and I’m pushing them, they’re going to use that with their own kids.
“They’re going to feel when they have to get up, and they’re sick, and they’ve got to get their kids to school, and it’s raining, and their kids are hungry, and one of them lost a sock…
“They’re going to be able to handle that a little bit better I think. They’re going to be able to say ‘everything is going to be okay.’”