Every time a decision is made it has the ability to dramatically change the course of a journey.
On a rainy afternoon, Coach Dave Giffard candidly shared how the pieces fell into place bringing him to VCU and a little history of what has transpired on his journey to date. We spent most of our time off script bouncing back and forth over a variety of topics: mostly soccer, some other sports, and a lot about perspective and experience. What I learned is that Dave Giffard truly is a reflection of the qualities he values in VCU. He’s a dynamic story teller and he has a lot to share. He is exceptionally easy to have a conversation with and it’s clear that he loves coaching. He believes in his players, and is excited about the future of men’s soccer at VCU. After following the team for a short time and getting a chance to sit down with Coach Giffard, I am completely invested in where this program is headed. If you aren’t a fan yet, you just might be once you learn a little about where the program has been, where it is headed and the coach determined to take them all the way to a national title.
In the fall of 2009, Dave Giffard was an assistant coach for the Akron Zips, where the current men’s soccer program was having an exceptional season. One benefit for the program is having the soccer stadium located on campus making it easily accessible to students. Another benefit was being the best team in their league. That combination was great for attendance, which averaged 4500 per game at the peak. As an assistant, Giffard was happy in his role at Akron and the team was within reach of the possibility of bringing home the NCAA championship.
It’s unusual for an Athletic Director to just stop by an assistant’s office, but one day Akron’s Hunter Yurachek did just that. Giffard wasn’t sure what to expect from the impromptu visit. Yurachek had come to mention that the Athletic Director at VCU, Norwood Teague, was interested in speaking to him about a job opportunity. Giffard’s response was “I appreciate it, but I’m focused on winning a national championship.” If Teague hadn’t been as persistent as he was in pursuing him despite this initial response the story might have ended there. Thankfully that was not the case. Determined to change his mind, Teague kept himself involved by following Akron’s progress and texting Giffard after games to share his thoughts and what he liked about the team’s performance.
Meanwhile, during their pursuit of the NCAA championship, Akron’s head coach, Caleb Porter, was being courted for a position by DC United. The possibility that Porter could leave at the end of the current season meant uncertainty for Giffard’s future at Akron. He decided there were several possible scenarios to consider. They included being unemployed if Porter left, and Akron made changes to the coaching staff, moving to DC to support Porter and taking a role with a youth team in the DC area, putting his name in the hat for head coach at Akron (which would be pursued by experienced head coaches), or the unknown (including the opportunity at VCU which he wasn’t actively pursuing at that time). Even though he wasn’t sure where he’d be in a year, he maintained his focus on his current team and current goal of winning the 2009 NCAA title.
Akron did make it to the championship game in 2009 but capped off their season as the runner up to the University of Virginia. Second place wasn’t quite the result the team had hoped for when they started this championship run, but the Zips suffered several player injuries and they ended their season with a heartbreaking loss in penalty kicks to the Cavaliers in the finals. Giffard was on a plane ready to head home when he received a call from Teague. The VCU AD was determined to get him to Richmond for a visit. Teague asked him what he had planned for the next day and gave the gentle push of “Come for a visit. We’ll fly you out tomorrow”. Giffard was still a little apprehensive. Soccer coaches don’t often wear suits and Giffard had worn his only one on this trip. He also didn’t have a current resume because he wasn’t actively looking to change jobs. Teague reassured him neither were necessary and told him to wear khakis and a polo shirt on the visit. Giffard consulted Porter about the opportunity and he encouraged him to make the trip and check it out.
Giffard wasn’t about to arrive unprepared. That night, he sat down at his kitchen table to burn the midnight oil working on his resume and making an unsuccessful attempt to refresh his only suit. Late that night he received his second unexpected phone call. This time it was Porter who had made the tough decision to stay on as head coach at Akron, had negotiated raises, and asked Giffard to stay with him saying “Let’s win it next year.” Already scheduled for the visit to VCU, Giffard kept his commitment to make the trip to Richmond, VA and see what the university had to offer.
He arrived in December 2009 to a VCU campus that was already in the midst of a great transformation with no expectations. He remembers the “buzz” as he toured the facilities and made his observations. Another former Akron coach had already joined VCU in the spring, and new men’s basketball Coach Shaka Smart was also someone that Giffard had consulted when considering the visit.
Giffard’s first impression from his recruitment trip remains unchanged to this day. He views “VCU as the real world with a diverse population in ethnicity, religious affiliations, socio-economic backgrounds, and language. You can’t find a more unique, diverse group and that’s what I like. You can always find someone like you but also a lot different. This is the type of place that leaves the door open.”
At the end of the visit Teague posed his most important question, “What do you need to win a national championship here?” Giffard had already been pondering the question “what can we do here”. He had focused in on the potential for men’s soccer at VCU and recognized the opportunity to build a program capable of competing at the highest level and winning a national title. So, after dinner, he texted 2 other coaches he knew and told them if they didn’t know anything about VCU they should take a look and do some research. As for Giffard he’d already made the leap from no expectations to his decision “This is the right thing to do” in his whirlwind day and a half visit. The two coaches he texted would become his first assistants at VCU. Brett Teach came from Tusculum College where he was a head coach and has been helping Gifford build his vision ever since. His other first year assistant, Ryan Pratt moved on after 2011 to the head coaching position at Jacksonville University.
When now official head Coach Giffard took over in December of 2009 there were some challenges to tackle early on. He faced changing the mentality of the existing student-athletes and recruiting a lot of newcomers. He says he has been fortunate to have the support of the athletics department as well as other coaches and kids that work hard every day. Since his arrival at VCU, he has been shaping men’s soccer into a highly competitive program successfully climbing in polls and bringing the team from the bottom of the national ranks into the top 25. He made an immediate and impressive impact on results starting a steep climb from 161 (currently there are 205 teams) and continuing to improve each year. The team went as high as #8 at one point and was a 14th overall seed in 2013. He is well on his way to realizing his vision for the VCU soccer program, and while he has done great things on the field, it’s not just his success on the field that captured our attention.
Coach Giffard says there’s a lot more to his passion than the hours of practice and games on the pitch. He feels very lucky to be able to do what he loves as a career admitting that coaching is very rewarding, but it can also be challenging. “Coaching is easy.” He says that coaching is the fun part but it’s only a couple hours of his day. “I also play the roles of academic advisor, parent, and counselor”. As a coach at the collegiate level you can “make a large impact on young men and women at a very formative time in their lives”. His goal for his student-athletes is to reach their potential as a person, student, and a player in their time here. He strives to create an environment of competition in the classroom, community, and on the field. He believes people should push themselves to be their best and if you mess up there should be appropriate consequences.
His team is a great example of the dynamic population and diversity on campus. Giffard has coached players from a multitude of backgrounds and has created a culture that values diversity, potential, and doing the right thing. The average daily schedule for his players is intense beginning around 6 in the morning and often finishing as late as 10 in the evening.
Several of his players have faced unique and complex challenges including adapting to dorm life after years of being homeless or adapting to classes in English because it is several languages removed from their native speech (sometimes their 4th or 5th). It doesn’t matter where they come from or what their individual goals are they all have something in common – the potential to be successful on and off the field and the determination to achieve both. Whether it’s putting extra work into their training or their studies this group has a process and it works. Giffard’s office walls are covered in framed certificates of his players’ accomplishments and he is proud of the work they do on the field and in their academic pursuits. That investment in his players is a trait he and Coach Shaka Smart seem to share.
In his “easy” role as coach he has to manage one of the unique aspects of soccer which is the game flow. The clock doesn’t stop and start for every foul or possible injury. In fact the clock rarely stops and the players have to adjust and keep moving when the unexpected happens. Giffard thinks that’s how it should be and he coaches to the fact that he can’t control the pace of the game. Soccer coaches don’t have time outs and they can’t stop the game, collect their players, and dictate their moves using a clipboard. The players have to think and play the game and react to trigger points. They have to be able to think for themselves and adapt.
Giffard’s coaching strategy is to “prepare kids to think tactically individually and collectively and solve problems”. As a coach he stands on the sidelines and he has to let the player’s play. Soccer also operates on the principle that once a referee makes a call it stands, no second guessing, no instant replays. That can be frustrating but Giffard tries to take it in stride. “We all make mistakes. We hope we all get better. Players and coaches make mistakes all the time.” When there are mistakes Giffard prefers using a self-analytical model to identify and begin working on improving. It consists of 3 key questions:
- Why did it happen
- What was my role
- What do I need to do differently to improve or change the outcome
His model of observation includes video and diagrams to determine what went wrong and what to change. First you identify and then you practice – first without any pressure and then under pressure.
In order to be a top 10 team you need to “get up to speed and continue to improve”. Giffard believes in “focusing on the moments”. You have to see the big picture but be ready to move on. He wants his players to focus on each moment and not get caught up thinking too far ahead. Playing each possession as it happens and keeping things moving forward. It’s a simple philosophy. If you focus on the moments and win more of them, then the rest should take care of itself.
A couple things that Giffard has learned over his years as a coach:
- The more removed you are emotionally the more objective you can be and the better decisions you can make.
- Never read anything on a message board. People hide behind a cute picture and can write terrible things.
- Do good things in the community. No one needs to know about it because you’re doing it for the right reasons, not for publicity.
- Sports give you the opportunity as a fan to be part of something bigger than yourself. It creates a feeling of a collective “we” and nothing compares to being part of it, especially a big win.
- The thing he would miss most if he couldn’t coach is the day to day with the team. It engages you more than anything else and he loves what he does.
Giffard lives soccer but he enjoys watching other teams and other sports and occasionally participating in them as well. When he first came to VCU he went on a golf outing with donors. He says “I don’t know golf, but I like golf.” Sharing that what he enjoyed about the day was getting to know the donors as individuals. He says that hearing personal stories about their lives and their perspectives made it more interesting.
Giffard also knows a few things about basketball. He says he has always been impressed with basketball players and their ability to move on when something happens. He likes the players’ accept it and move on with the game mentality. In basketball when there’s a call the response is “Yep, I fouled him.” Then the other team shoots or inbounds and they keep going. A fun trivia fact for basketball fans – at one point he coached a women’s intramural basketball team for 3 months.
He is very encouraging to new fans. He says even when you don’t know the sport you can tell when a player is good at something. “It’s easy to pick out someone who just looks different from the rest, who is special.” It also becomes easy to pick up when something is off and impacting a player. Adding you probably won’t know what it is (affecting them) and you shouldn’t. He’s not a fan of the spotlight that can be on collegiate programs. The downfall to the rise of social media is that “People read about you (players/coaches) and know your name so they think they know you. There are no secrets in the world anymore.” Fans and supporters spend a lot of money and there’s a lot of attention on these players and people can forget they are just kids.
Even well intentioned fans can be very judgmental. Giffard recalled playing soccer when he was a kid, “My grandma would come to games and afterwards come up to my friends and say “The ball was right in front of the goal. Why didn’t you just put it in?” Fast forward to his first year as head coach at VCU and a heckler in the stands who would yell “Get ‘em going Giffard! They’re doing terrible today!” It’s very easy to think you know everything from the outside looking in and it’s easy to make judgments in hindsight. Sum it up as you have to take the bad with the good and this is one coach that’s got his eye on his. He’s going to focus on the moments, get his team competing at the highest level, and chase that national championship title. It’s going to be a fun ride to the top for the VCU soccer program and we are looking forward to watching it all unfold.