Area sports fans would be forgiven if they thought the only recent coaching change around here occurred in the UNC football program. But as the Butch Davis catastrophe was unfolding in Chapel Hill, a far more positive, and remarkable, story was playing out for a young coach in Cary who could well be the Next Big Thing in North American soccer.
Martin Rennie, the Scotland-born, 36-year-old coach of the Carolina RailHawks, which plays in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second tier of professional soccer in the Americas, has become more famous in the soccer world. On Tuesday, Aug. 9, he was named as the new coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer, the top professional division in North America.
The new job, which Rennie will begin in November after he finishes the RailHawks season, is the latest step in a meteoric career. As Rennie reminded two area reporters who visited him late last week, just five or six years ago he was working a regular job and coaching under-12 girls soccer.
Now his regular job will include coaching games in a stadium newly renovated for $600 million (Canadian), as well as figuring out how to stop such opposing superstars as Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Landon Donovan.
Despite Rennie's lack of "major league" experience, the reaction from the North American sports media, which has rarely noticed him, has been largely positive. One writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website even began a column by comparing Rennie to Scottish coaching legends, including those who managed England's two most storied teams, Liverpool F.C. and Manchester United. The headline was: "Martin Rennie: the next great Scot?"
This is heady stuff for a guy from the boondocks—the very north coast of Scotland, in fact, a village called Bettyhill. He often jokes about playing soccer with sheep as a child, and his coaching experience was earned appearing in front of 2,000 spectators, not 20,000.
The world of professional club soccer coaching is a clubby, cloistered one. Critics of the MLS have complained that the league's insular culture encourages the recycling of the same coaches. In a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated, one of Rennie's future players, the now-retired Mark Schulte, said, "I think MLS will benefit from just having new coaches, period. They use all the same coaches; if one gets fired he just gets hired at another place. So I think any sort of new blood will help MLS."
When jobs came open at Vancouver and also Montreal, which currently plays with the RailHawks in the NASL but will join the MLS next year, it was striking how few unambiguously strong or new names were being bandied about as candidates. Rennie, by contrast, has enjoyed unbroken success in America's lower leagues: He began with the now-defunct Cascade Surge of the amateur fourth division, put in two strong years with the also-now-defunct Cleveland City Stars of the professional third division, and two and a half reputation-sealing seasons with the RailHawks.
When the RailHawks hired Rennie in 2009, he took over a team that had been mediocre in its first two years. He turned over nearly the entire roster, and he was given the resources to recruit players far and wide. Although the first ambitious international signing was a disaster, Rennie later brought in players from Japan, Scotland, Guyana, Brazil, Gambia and, most spectacularly, Malta, where he found the mercurial Etienne Barbara.
Rennie also shrewdly combed the refuse of the MLS, where he came up with, among others, Daniel Paladini and Josh Gardner—both of whom have since returned to the MLS, their careers and reputations revived. He also brought in trusted players from Cleveland, including Schulte, whom he named captain.
Rennie brought sophistication to his teams' training and preparation, born of his early business career and his coaching education in Europe. Rennie's coaching role models are European as well, including the imperious Sir Alex Ferguson, a fellow Scotsman and the longtime czar of Manchester United, and Jose Mourinho, the controversial, brilliant coach of Real Madrid.
Although Rennie's polite, deceptively modest demeanor is at odds with the debonair and bellicose Mourinho, who wears haute couture on the sidelines and speaks five languages, the similarities are otherwise striking. Both men got into coaching after failed, small-time playing careers, and both worked their way up through the coaching ranks, beginning with kids' leagues. Lacking reputations as former players, they instead rose quickly by dint of hard work and a cerebral approach that welcomed modern thinking to a sometimes hidebound game.
But Rennie admits that not everything he tried worked.
"You have ideas as a coach of what you think you want to do," he says, "but it's not until you're doing them every single day that you realize, 'Well, that didn't work out as well as I thought it would,' or 'I need to do things differently.'
"In the middle of last season we were playing well, we were possessing the ball well but we weren't scoring enough goals," he continues. "We changed a number of things, the way we trained, the way we did things. Since then we've been very consistently high scorers."
But it wasn't just improved tactics and training. Sometimes you need better goal-scorers, and Rennie found them, bringing in Barbara, Pablo Campos from Brazil and, in a brief but spectacular loan spell last fall, Tommy "Teen Wolf" Heinemann, who now plays for the Columbus Crew of the MLS.
Rennie's first team, in 2009, was heavy on players he brought from Cleveland teams. It also reflected his own temperament, and in some cases, religious faith. Cleveland was a team with a stated Christian mission—and indeed, one of his players retired after a single season in Cary to become a missionary in Central America. But a well-behaved, self-effacing squad doesn't necessarily produce goals, the coin of the realm in soccer. In the past, Rennie's players may have lifted their jerseys after scoring goals to reveal messages bearing their religious convictions. This year, the goals have come more easily—and celebrating players are more likely to reveal tattoos.
It's a harder-edged squad this year, with a swagger that isn't always appreciated by opposing teams and fans. But if the players seem a bit tougher than in the past, it's not the result of a change in Rennie's personal approach.
"I've had it confirmed to me that trying to treat people well and respectfully is the way to do it," he says. "Show them that you care about them and want them to have success, and back it up as best you can. Being positive with people is better than the other ways of doing it."
Although Rennie could not have achieved so much so quickly without extraordinary hard work and focus, he sounds a reflective note.
"There's a fine line between work and play for me, because it's fun. I really enjoy scouting teams and all that. But for me, the bigger picture is more than football. There's my family, my faith as a Christian, which are much more important.
"There are times you can step back from it and say, 'Hey, it's a game.' You don't want to play with fear, you don't want to be paralyzed by expectations. You want to enjoy it, too."
Rennie won championships at his first two senior coaching jobs, but that goal remains unfulfilled with the RailHawks, who have led the NASL wire-to-wire this season but now find themselves in the mid-season doldrums. Still, the RailHawks are safely in the playoffs, and they're still in first place, six points clear of second-place Puerto Rico.
The playoffs don't begin until October, but area fans should be sure to catch this team, which is likely to disperse after the season.
Or, as Rennie says, "It's important to build more memories now."
Although it's been a magical ride for Rennie and the RailHawks, the high-flying coach will be gone next year, and most likely the team's top players will move on, too. For area soccer fans, the glory days are now.