CARY, N.C. — Bob Gray and Jack DeFazio were all smiles as they took in the festivities on Monday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
For the two former Marshall men’s soccer coaches, the run of the Herd to the NCAA College Cup title game was something even they never could have imagined.
“Oh my goodness, it’s just phenomenal,” DeFazio said. “Take it one step farther. With the exception of I-AA football, what are the chances of a Marshall University making it to a championship game? The odds are just not in your favor.
“You think of where it was and being involved in the beginning and now seeing where it is today, it’s just an absolutely phenomenal experience.”
To say that, at one point, Marshall’s men’s soccer program was closer to extinction than a championship is not a far-fetched idea.
In fact, in 2003, Marshall University officials nearly eliminated the Thundering Herd’s men’s soccer program.
“Ironically, I got called into the AD’s office and it was April 1,” Gray said. “He told me that he was dropping the program. I said, ‘Ahh, good one.’ I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. He said, ‘No, I’m serious. We’re going to drop it.’ I told him that we weren’t going to take this lying down.”
From there, the soccer community at Marshall took over, according to Gray.
“We rallied alumni and the community,” Gray said. “We had every doctor, lawyer — anybody to write letters throughout the state.”
DeFazio remembered that time vividly.
“It was not a good time,” DeFazio said. “There was a lot of animosity, a lot of anger within the soccer community. It just showed the powers-that-be at the university that when you do something to a group of people, they are going to rally around it.”
The move worked as Gray said he got a call soon after.
“I got a call from (Marshall President) Dan Angel clear out of the blue — I didn’t even know he had my number — and he said, ‘Call off the dogs. We’re not dropping soccer.’”
The community’s rallying around the program started a groundswell of support that has helped the sport grow in the time since it became nearly defunct at Marshall.
Gray and DeFazio, who coached the Herd from 1982-88, each helped spearhead that effort on the youth level and now has seen soccer rise to its top level of interest ever within the state of West Virginia.
“This community has grown tremendously, soccer-wise,” Gray said. “If you look at the youth tournaments that were hosting and building the new soccer facility from what we used to play on, it’s unbelievable.
“When I first came, we didn’t have a locker room. We didn’t have a field to practice on. Jack went through the same thing. It’s certainly rewarding to see this.”
“We went from the dark side to where we are now — playing for a national championship,” DeFazio said.
They also know that Marshall’s current run under head coach Chris Grassie will help exponentially toward the future.
“This is the dream for everybody,” Gray said. “I just wanted to get into the NCAA Tournament and take our chances. All the credit goes to Chris. It’s been an amazing job, and it’s only going to continue.”
DeFazio said the growth has already shown itself in the fan support over the past few matches.
“This is my fourth match and our fans have outnumbered other fans, 5-6-7-8 to 1,” DeFazio said. “It’s been amazing how well we travel as a university and as a city.”
DeFazio added that the memories made over the past three weeks with his former players will last a lifetime for all, which makes the run that much more special.
“To experience it with a lot of the guys that played for me during the ’80s who are scattered all over the country is just great,” DeFazio said. “Here we are today, standing in Cary, North Carolina, getting ready to take on a soccer power as Indiana in a national championship.”