Sept. 12, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Thirty years ago, Joe Baum was finishing up his collegiate soccer career in East Lansing, Mich., as a standout goalkeeper for Michigan State. He led the Spartans to a 33-1-7 record over his three-year span, including a 33-game unbeaten streak.
More than thirty years later, Baum is still leading Michigan State soccer to milestones. Last Sunday at Vermont, Baum - head coach of the Spartans for the past 31 years - captured his 300th career win. He is the 26th coach in NCAA Division I history to reach the coaching milestone and joins Indiana's legendary Jerry Yeagley as the only Big Ten mentors to ever reach the mark.
"You know heading into last Sunday, I didn't think about 300 at all, but once it was over, I had the opportunity to reflect a little," Baum said. "I have been so fortunate to work here at Michigan State and compete in the Big Ten for the past 31 years. I just feel very blessed."
Perhaps it is Michigan State that has been most blessed though, providing the continuity Baum has maintained over the course of three decades and the fact that from 1986-90, he even served as the school's first women's soccer head coach as well. And he didn't just show up and run his players through drills either. In five years, he compiled an impressive 69-23-5 (.737) record.
But the journey first took off in 1974 when Baum came to Michigan State as an assistant to Ed Rutherford. Baum held the position for three seasons, helping State post a record of 25-7-3 (.757). Prior to the 1977 season, he was promoted to the head coaching position and then what would soon be the three-decade-and-counting era of Joe Baum began.
Throughout his tenure, Baum has coached in 565 contests and has compiled a record through Sept. 12 of 300-217-48. Some of the top highlights include being named the conference's Coach of the Year in 1996 and 2000 and mentoring 1996 Big Ten Player of the Year Reid Friedrichs. A year prior to Friedrichs, Baum guided the 1995 squad to a mark of 12-3-3, his highest seasonal winning percentage (.750) while at MSU and the program's best mark since 1975. Most recently, his 2004 team captured its first Big Ten Tournament Championship, which included an upset of defending national champion Indiana, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years. Just this past season, Baum coached the Spartans to the program's greatest regular-season upset in school history, a 1-0 victory against third-ranked and 2005 national runner-up New Mexico.
Kenzo Webster, one of two senior co-captains on the squad this year, scored the game winner in the upset over New Mexico. Webster notes how big of a personal moment it was for him, but Baum was not surprised by his performance. In fact, Baum talks about Webster as if he is the model of what the Spartan head coach has tried to build over the last 30 years.
"Kenzo is the hardest-working forward not only that I have coached, but I have ever seen. He has set the standard for the entire team," Baum said.
"I just try to lead by example," Webster admits. "Hopefully others will follow."
What Webster and the rest of the Spartans are hoping does not follow them is the injury bug that plagued the 2006 squad last year. Baum is the first to point out that his MSU teams never have had a lot of depth and when three or four players go down with injuries, such was the case last year, the team struggles.
"I'd like to think we always have 14 kids that are ready for Big Ten play," Baum said. "But this year we have our health back and we have some key freshmen in Spencer Thompson and Nosa Iyoha that have Big Ten experience and have already been competing."
When talking with Webster though, he's quick to point out that one of the things that attracted him to Michigan State soccer was how Baum treated his players. It didn't matter if you were a senior captain or a freshman walk-on, you were always going to be treated fairly.
That of course wasn't the only thing that brought Webster to East Lansing. He was born in Lansing, and his father, uncle and brother all attended Michigan State, while his sibling, John Minagawa-Webster, also played soccer under Baum.
"I'd always ask my brother about his time at Michigan State," the younger Webster said. "I would ask him questions about the team and the coach and he always said that coach Baum puts the person before the player and treats everyone with respect."
And perhaps it is the respect he shows to his players that makes them return it right back to him.
Off to a 4-0 start on the season, Michigan State is playing with confidence and determination to contend during the Big Ten season and become eligible for NCAA Championship play.
An expert on college soccer - you are labeled an expert if you have been in the biz for over 30 years - Baum continues to see growth in his teams and in the sport in general. He remembers years ago that only three or four players would be gifted and talented athletes, while the others were just hard workers.
"Now though when you look at the Big Ten teams," he said, "every single kid is a fine all-around player. They are faster, stronger and much more knowledgeable about the game. It's been great to see the game evolve."
For many of the Spartan soccer faithful, it too has probably been great watching Baum and his teams evolve.
"(Coach's 300th victory) didn't even dawn on us really until No. 298," Webster said. "We knew if we won both games in Vermont it was give us 300. We always want to win, but it became a big deal for us last weekend to get him that milestone."
And now that he has reached the milestone, Baum is quite humbled to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Indiana's Yeagley.
"He is one of the greatest college coaches of all-time, in any sport," he said. "I'm almost at a loss for words thinking about it. I guess I've just paid my dues, had good support from my assistants and in the end, it has all worked out well for me."
Yet there seems to be no end in sight for Baum and his Spartan squad appears as focused as ever.
Focused on No. 301.