He remains a passionate advocate of the college coaching system, listing off the coaches he learned from, including many from other sports.
O’Leary points to the likes of now retired Kenyon College swim coach Jim Steen, who won more NCAA national championships (50) than any other coach in any NCAA sport. “He’s viewed as one of the most innovative swim coaches in the world.”
At George Mason, he pointed to former basketball coach Jim Larranaga who led the Patriots to five NCAA tournament appearances, including the Final Four in 2006.
“Every day you’ve huge resources to help available aid with your coaching development,” he said. “So it was a fantastic learning experience for me.”
Early courses taught him Xs and Os, O’Leary said. But other coaches helped him learn how to help and manage people.
“To them, I’m eternally grateful. I learned an awful lot from coaches outside of the world of football.”
He also notes that the U.S. made it to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup with 17 players on the roster with college experience.
“Ireland went once to the quarter-finals of the World Cup (in 1990) and we’re still celebrating, still talking about it,” he said. “If Scotland ever went there, the place would be shut down for a yearlong party.”
“I always laugh at when people take a pop at the role college soccer has played in developing players,” he added. “It’s sent many players to professional leagues around Europe.”
There was disbelief in some quarters when Toronto FC hired Nelsen and O’Leary, with critics decrying their lack of MLS coaching or — in Nelsen’s case — any coaching experience.
O’Leary says he was too busy to pick up on any negative vibes.
“There’s so much work to be done here, I don’t read anything,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll always choose to decide what I’ll allow to get in my head.”
He reminds skeptics that Payne, who chose the new coaching staff, has four championship rings (from D.C. United) and also hired Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley.
“He’s seen what I know about Ryan. I know how strong a person he is, I know what a strong football brain he has and I know how he handles people. ... So I would always say ‘Well, look at Kevin Payne’s track record of identifying talented coaches,’ and I think he’s nailed another one in Ryan Nelsen.”
The paths of O’Leary and Nelsen first crossed more than a dozen years ago.
Nelsen switched to Stanford in 1999 from Greensboro College. At the time he had already played for the New Zealand under-23 and full senior side, along with former Stanford players Gerard Davis and Simon Elliott. Former New Zealand coach Bobby Clark was coaching Stanford at the time.
O’Leary had succeeded Clark as coach of Dartmouth in 1994 after the former Scottish international took chare of New Zealand.
“So we’re all intertwined in a way,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary met Nelsen briefly at a couple of camps in Stanford and had to scheme how to play against him when the two teams met.
O’Leary remembers watching video of Nelsen playing for New Zealand against Brazil in the 1999 Confederations Cup before 53,000 fans in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“And we were going to be facing him a few weeks later,” he recalled. “So it wasn’t a happy experience, my first experience (of him).”
Even back then, the word on Nelsen was he was an intelligent player with great leadership ability. He was also a good athlete, having represented New Zealand in cricket at the youth level.
Nelsen had big shoes to fill at Stanford, following Elliott — who went onto play in MLS and the English Premier League.
“Ryan didn’t miss a beat,” said O’Leary.
Nelsen also fitted in well off the field.
“He’s a humble guy,” said O’Leary. “He maybe had a better resume than a lot of them from a playing perspective but the way he carried himself, you would have never guessed it. I think it stayed that way today. Now he’s built up — over the course of many years — a very very impressive playing resume, but if you met the lad you’d have no idea he even kicked a ball.”
In 2001, O’Leary took over the George Mason University program in Fairfax, Va. D.C. United drafted Nelsen fourth overall that year and it wasn’t long before Nelsen and then D.C. United ‘keeper Nick Rimando dropped by to ask if they could help at training.
“I think, at that stage, they both had a real brain for the game and had an eye on going into coaching when their careers ended. So even they were at the front end of their playing career, they were already looking to the back end and a career in management.