Sept. 29, 2009
By Larry Watts
How do you replace a man with 39 years of ties to the Michigan State men's soccer program? You simply bring in another Michigan State man.
The Spartans are hardly missing a beat in the transition from the Joe Baum era to the Damon Rensing period. And though Baum retired as head coach last fall after 32 years of directing the program, he didn't exactly walk off into the sunset. Wanting to see this year's junior class through graduation, he promised to stick around as Rensing's assistant for two seasons.
"It's great to have Joe back on the sidelines," Rensing says. "For anyone who knows Joe, there's no ego about him. At the same time, he has a world of experience and it's great to bounce ideas off of him.
"He gives me his thoughts and I process what I think works best for the team. As far as role reversal, all the decisions, good and bad, now come back to me as opposed to Joe."
Baum, who turned 62 in July, played three years (1966-68) in goal for the Spartans before returning to East Lansing as an assistant coach in 1974. He was promoted to head coach in 1977 and even operated as the women's first head coach from 1986-90. Only the second coach in Big Ten history to post over 300 wins (320), the three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year led Michigan State to four NCAA Tournament appearances. His final season may have been his most rewarding, winning his first Big Ten regular season championship and second Big Ten Tournament title.
"That was like a dream come true," Baum says. "A couple of times I had to pinch myself and wonder if this is really happening. This conference is so difficult with so many powers, so to do that in my final season is something I am grateful to be part of. I had six seniors starting in that final game who had been with me for four or five years, so for it to all end on a happy note for them was really satisfying."
The selection of Rensing as his successor was a no-brainer as far as Baum was concerned. A four-year letterwinner (1993-96) and former All-Big Ten first-team selection for the Spartans, Rensing was an assistant women's coach for one season (1997) at Michigan State before taking a similar position at UNLV for one season. He returned the following season to work on Baum's staff and was promoted to associate head coach in 2004.
"There are four things that immediately stand out in my mind about Damon," Baum says. "First, he's an extremely hard worker. He's a very knowledgeable soccer person, proving that as a player when he basically ran the team and an assistant with all the work he did on game plans and scouting. The third thing is he has great communication skills; he gets along with the players, parents, fellow coaches at MSU and the administrators. And fourth, he's a Spartan. He's been back here at his alma mater for 10 years and loves Michigan State and everything about Michigan State soccer.
"This is more than a job; it's a career/passion for Damon. We didn't want someone coming in here for a couple of years and then moving on to California. I think we have long-term stability with him in charge."
"Coming back as a Michigan State alum and being head coach is both amazing and surreal," Rensing says. "I fell in love with this place the first time I stepped on campus in 1993. I never thought I would be back here as a head coach, let alone an assistant."
The St. Louis native chuckles when he remembers words from his father when he dropped his son off in East Lansing for the first time.
"He said, 'You may meet someone and never come back (to St. Louis),"' Rensing remembers. "I thought he was crazy at the time, but shortly after coming back here the second time as an assistant, I met my wife Daune and I haven't been back to St. Louis in over 15 years. I guess my father was a little wiser than I thought."
Other than switching office locations, which they did in January, the biggest change Rensing has made is altering the defensive scheme. The Spartans have gone from the tradition of marking backs and sweepers to a flat four.
"What has stayed constant is our concentration on defense," Rensing says. "Michigan State has always been successful when we've had good defensive teams.
"In order to win the Big Ten championship, defense has to be a priority. Most Big Ten game are 2-1 or 1-0 and the difference usually comes down to one big play by a certain team or a careless mistake."
Rensing appreciates Baum's philosophy on not handing out any individual honors in the postseason. There are no MVPs, no award for being the top scorer or an award for the top defender.
"You can learn the X's and O's from a lot of people in this sport, but Joe is one of the best people managers I have come across," he says. "He gets people to buy into the team concept. If the team wins and is successful, everyone is happy. If not, we're going to go back and see what we can do better. We don't need to recognize individuals because it's important for the 26th player on the roster to know he is just as important to us as the No. 1 person."
Aside from training, video and weightlifting sessions, Baum still plays a key role in recruiting.
"The asset I bring is I can talk to the parents," he says. "Damon is much better with the student-athletes than I am, but the parents really seem to be comfortable with me. I have a 29-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter, so I understand some of their decision-making that's involved and can be helpful in answering their questions."
Rensing still shakes his head in disbelief when thinking of the way Baum built the Michigan State soccer program.
"It wasn't until the mid-90s when he finally got the full scholarship allotment (9.9)," he says. "For a long time Joe was operating with just one scholarship and dividing it up in as many ways possible while other coaches were getting 9.9.
"For him to win the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in his final year, it couldn't have happened to a better guy. He has dedicated so much of his life to Michigan State."
Yet, Baum couldn't walk away. His wife, Janice, set the tone two years ago when she retired after 34 years teaching special education in public schools.
"I have seen a lot of my friends walk away during my tenure and I admire people who can just do that," he says. "But for me, that would have been kind of difficult. This way I can kind of phase myself out and figure out what I'm going to do with life. One of the problems is I don't have any hobbies or outside interests. My life has been soccer, soccer camps and soccer clinics.
"I used to think people who were 62 were old, but I don't think that way any more. There are things out there for me to do (in retirement); I just have to explore and put together an agenda."