My telephone rings; it’s 7:30 a.m. A knot of nervousness grabs my stomach – only bad news calls this early. And, as it turns out, it’s USF men’s soccer coach George Kiefer, who is already at work.
“I wanted to make sure I got to you,” he says later, by way of an apology.
According to players and staff, Kiefer brings the same dedication and results-orientated approach to every aspect of his new role as head coach. Five games and four wins into his new career, the former UConn assistant’s attention to detail and will-to-win has been more than evident.
“He is a super-intense guy. He doesn’t let anything by,” said senior midfielder Jeff Thwaites. “He concentrates on the little things more than anything. He works just as hard as any of us.”
Such attention to detail has already manifested itself in training. The day prior to a match, the Bulls train in the same conditions and at the same time as kickoff. Daily practice under Kiefer, said Bulls goalkeeper Troy Perkins, is never practice for practice’s sake.
“Everything is game orientated every day,” said Perkins. “Even during training, there’s no let down. You’re there, full concentration all the time, if not, he demands it from you.”
A love of soccer runs deep through Kiefer, a passion he traces back to his earliest childhood watching his older brother play.
“Basically, my mother would have to tie me to the chair cause I would run out onto the field,” Kiefer said. “My first memory as a human is on the soccer field.”
Kiefer’s obsession with the game led him naturally into college soccer.
As a player at Southern Connecticut State, he won conference titles and a pair of Division II national championships. Kiefer culminated his playing career with the Connecticut Sea Wolves of the United States Indoor Soccer League in 1994-95, but success on the soccer field did not come naturally.
“It wasn’t like I was given God’s gifts – I had to work for everything I got,” said Kiefer.
His coaching career began back at SCSU as a full-time assistant in 1995 before moving to UConn in 1997. It was there that his eye for spotting talent came to the fore, recruiting nine All-Americans and seven Big East Player of the Year winners.
During his time as assistant, the Huskies won four straight Big East Championships and were the NCAA National Champions in 2000.
Having been completely entrusted with recruitment at UConn, Kiefer said he felt more than prepared for the transition to head coach.
“I don’t see (the head coach job) as too different. I was fortunate to work for a guy that gave me a lot of freedom and responsibility,” the 29-year-old Kiefer said.
The lack of security inherent in a results-orientated business would give many cause to ponder before accepting such a position, but for Kiefer it is something to push to the back of the mind.
“I don’t get too caught up in the winning and losing and the threat of losing my job,” he said. “I’m confident in my ability to find players, and I’m confident that being at USF you can attract good players.”
While the expectation from the university is conference titles and NCAA participation, long-term Kiefer has set himself tougher goals.
“If that’s the only thing we are doing I will be a miserable person. I’m hoping we can at least meet those standards and then springboard from there,” he said.
To meet those targets Kiefer’s ability as a recruiter will be crucial.
In addition to numerous weekends and evenings watching matches in state, a scouting trip to Brazil has already been scheduled for December, with a trip to Trinidad also in the pipeline.
“The Hunter Wests and the Brian Gils, I will miss them when they’re gone, but hopefully I can find guys that are as good or better,” said Kiefer. “I never want to be in a situation when I’m rebuilding.”
And recruitment is about more than success on the field.
“I enjoy the way you get to mold young men,” said Kiefer. “Going into a house and looking a mother in the eyes and tell her you’re going to help her son get a degree – that stuff is important.”
According to assistant coach Mike Duncan, the sincerity that Kiefer brings to his coaching is just as important as his attention to detail or tactical acumen.
“As a head coach you need to get the players on your side, to believe in you. I think these players really believe in him,” said Duncan.
The next test of Kiefer’s reign comes tonight against conference rivals Memphis (4-1-0).
Kiefer said he is anticipating a difficult match against a team known for their ability to break up the play of their opponents.
Coached by Ireland-born Richie Grant, Kiefer likened their style to the Irish national side under English coach Jack Charlton.
“They play a 3-5-2 (formation), don’t mess about at the back and are good on restarts,” Kiefer said. “The guys are gong to have to be ready for a street fight – it might not be a pretty game.”
Kiefer’s preparation comes as no surprise to Ray Reid, UConn’s soccer coach and Kiefer’s former boss. Reid characterized Kiefer as driven, organized and loyal.
Reid said his decision to entrust all recruitment to Kiefer was rewarded with recruits of the caliber of Chris Gbandi, Herman Trophy winner and 2002 MLS draft first pick.
“He’s everything you want in an assistant or a head coach,” said Reid
When Reid hangs up, I look at my clock; it’s 7:25 a.m. No need to wonder where Kiefer learned about dedication.
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org