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Original Issue

Having fun, seriously

Lynchburg Coach Bill Shellenberger set a record by playing the game his way

For one moment last week, during halftime of a game his Lynchburg College Hornets were playing against neighboring Radford College, Bill Shellenberger looked pleased, even moved. The break in a college soccer game is fairly casual—no hypertense locker-room scenes—and Shellenberger's players were gathered around him, admiring a plaque he was holding aloft. On it there were 23 small brass plates, each inscribed for one of the seasons he'd been the soccer coach at Lynchburg. "All right, no big deal," he said. "We've got a game to win, let's go."

For Shellenberger, a weathered and tanned 57-year-old with a Bob Hope nose and Johnny Cash sideburns, it may indeed have been no big deal, but for college soccer and Lynchburg (not the one in Tennessee where they make sippin' whiskey, but the one in Virginia where they make Chap-Stick) it was cause for celebration. The weekend before, when his NCAA Division III Hornets had won two games in the Blue Ridge Tournament, Shellenberger had become the winningest coach ever in college soccer. The Hornets had beaten Alderson-Broaddus 4-0 and Mount St. Mary's 6-1, thereby giving Shellenberger 252 wins during his 23 years at Lynchburg, a 1,500-student, private liberal-arts college nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The previous record was held by Glenn Warner of Navy, who retired in 1975.

Lynchburg's president, Dr. Carey Brewer, had appeared on the field to hand Shellenberger the plaque, noting that there was room left for Shellenberger's 300th win. "Oh, boy," said the coach, "here comes the pressure again."

In college soccer, Lynchburg is respected mainly because of Shellenberger. It is not a school that will rise to national soccer prominence like a University of San Francisco, an Indiana or a Hartwick. Like most other Division III schools, Lynchburg doesn't offer athletic scholarships.

Relaxing in his comfortable house on Faculty Drive—it is next door to the president's residence, thereby serving as a visible reminder of soccer's prominence at football-less Lynchburg—Shellenberger sat with his two dogs and his favorite occasional beverage, bourbon and Pepsi, and talked about his moderate approach to the game and his old-fashioned ideas about the place of soccer, and athletics, in America.

"I would be against offering athletic scholarships even if the trustees were for it," he said. "My idea, and the college's, is that athletics should cause as little interference with education as possible. I've had offers from schools where they want to build a championship soccer squad, but I always turn them down. I don't like the pressure of that situation, and I don't like blue-chip players who are headstrong."

When Shellenberger was growing up near Reading, Pa., playing soccer in high school, and later at Penn State, the star player system didn't exist. It still doesn't for him. "There's something terribly wrong with college athletics today," he says. "It's taken the dollar turn. I don't see how building a championship football team for millions of dollars benefits the students at all."

The night before the game against Radford last week, Shellenberger made a short speech at a faculty meeting where professors were telling their colleagues what they did on their recent sabbaticals. After listening to a talk on "The Novel in the Spanish Civil War" and an agonizing ramble on German-Russian economics in 1900, Shellenberger ambled to the podium and told of his three summers visiting soccer "camps" along the East Coast, concluding that many of them were rip-offs. "They're in it to make a buck, a lot of them," he said. Someone asked about the sport's future, and Shellenberger didn't adopt the blue-sky approach that seems to infect everyone in the game these days. "It's a great game, a great game for kids," he said, "but I don't believe that it will ever become the national pastime. It's not going to push Monday Night Football off the air. We'll never win Howard Cosell for soccer—so we've got that to be thankful for."

One began to wonder how this skeptical coach produced a 252-101-23 record until one realized that the school is right on his wavelength. In fact, the soccer field itself is almost in the middle of the campus, bound on one side by neo-Colonial dormitories within 30 feet of the sideline. At home games the dorm windows are full of students sitting on the sills. The porch roofs are jammed. And the most enterprising drag couches and easy chairs from the lobbies to sit on the sidelines, sipping beer and gently heckling the opposing players and the officials.

Lynchburg games regularly draw 1,500 to 2,000 fans, including a matched pair of the longest, fattest basset hounds in Virginia, who forage for Fritos crumbs and sport red ribbon collars. The whole thing reminds one of a hoedown where the exercise is soccer instead of square dancing.

It really isn't quite that casual, as a look at Lynchburg's roster reveals. Sixteen of the 23-man squad are from New Jersey, with a sprinkling from New York and Pennsylvania. Only two players are from Virginia. "The college started attracting a lot of students from the North in the '60s," says Shellenberger, "and that was to my benefit, because New Jersey is a hotbed of youth soccer. We don't recruit foreign players, like Clemson and Howard do, from Africa and the Caribbean. When we say 'foreign player,' we mean Bergen County." Shellenberger and Assistant Coach George Grzenda, who just happens to be from Trenton, make one recruiting trip a year to Tenafly, New Brunswick and Ridgewood. "I'm the master of soft-sell on the road," says Shellenberger. "After all, I've got nothing to offer them except playing soccer." That, and Lynchburg's reputation for excellence on the field.

Shellenberger is also Lynchburg's athletic director. "So I avoid one of the prime complaints of soccer coaches," he says. "I make sure soccer gets a good budget." He also coaches golf and teaches a heavy load of five phys ed courses.

"I came here as a temporary basketball and track coach in 1952 and stayed on. Maybe I'm crazy," says Shellenberger. He started soccer at Lynchburg in 1954. "We had dropped football in the '30s, and our only fall sport then was cross-country."

Art Kraus, now a Roanoke businessman, played for one of Shellenberger's teams in the '50s. "We Virginia boys had never seen a soccer ball," he said last week. "We were all high school football players then, and the way we played soccer was that if you didn't get the ball, you got the man. Our games looked like World War II."

Against Radford, the current edition of Lynchburg soccer looked as smooth as any college team in the country. Stymied for the first 10 minutes by the hard-charging, free-tackling style used by Radford, the Hornets pulled themselves together and scored their first goal at the 12-minute mark. Shellenberger employs a 5-3-2 configuration, using the inside forwards as galloping midfielders when necessary. It's about like driving an Edsel onto the Star Wars set.

"It worked for 23 years, and it's simple," Shellenberger says. "Why change now? The players we get now are tremendously sophisticated. First, they're so much better at basic skills that it's sometimes frightening, and they all know so much about soccer. They get irritated with me. One of them will ask, 'Coach, do you think Shep Messing comes off the line too far in a one-on-one?' and I have to ask, 'Who's Shep Messing?' Once I get past Pelè, I'm lost in the pro game."

Leading 2-0 at halftime and with his plaque stowed away under the bench, Shellenberger stood stiffly at the sideline, totally involved in the game, reprimanding a player for a missed shot, congratulating a midfielder on a good tackle. He would often pull out a boy and give him a mini-clinic on the sideline. His harshest words were, "Judas Priest, get it through the hole, son." That's Shellenberger riled up.

"The secret of winning so many games," he says, "is to stay healthy. You've got to last a long time for that. And have fun. Serious fun. Don't get in over your head and blow out your teams for championships."

In the end, the Hornets walloped Radford 6-1. On Saturday they went on the road and tied tough and skilled William & Mary 1-1. The record: 253-101-24. No big deal at all if you're Bill Shellenberger. But if you're anyone else in college soccer, chances are that yours is one of the congratulatory telegrams or letters piled on the coach's desk.