When a soccer coach wins three straight NSCAA Pacific Region Coach of the Year awards, grooms two Hermann Trophy winners in as many years, leads his team to consecutive College Cup Finals and fails to record a regular-season loss in 57 games–well, you know there’s something seriously fishy going on.
“Two weeks ago, we were doing headers,” said senior midfielder Kristy Zurmuhlen, “and [head coach Paul Ratcliffe] told us that the proper way to head the ball is that you have to look like a salmon in midair, and leave your feet. So it’s kind of a running joke with us now, that every time someone goes up for a header, we say, ‘salmon.’”
Ratcliffe may not seem like the vocal type; compared with visiting coaches who, like him, are amplified by cavernous echoes off the expanded Cagan Stadium bleachers, he’s rarely audible. But when the coach and the comic in him come together for his players to hear, it truly sticks.“He’s quiet, but he definitely has a sense of humor, and we all get along really well, so it’s been great,” Zurmuhlen said. “Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from him in terms of the type of soccer that he wants us to play, keeping the ball and working hard. I feel like I’ve gained a lot of knowledge in terms of the right way to play the game.”
Teaching the “right way” to play soccer has earned Ratcliffe a 201-69-26 record as a head coach, with 146 of those wins coming on the Farm. His teams have not had a losing season–in conference play or otherwise–since his first year in charge of the St. Mary’s program.How fitting for wins 200 and 201 to come against perhaps the biggest rivals of two different eras for Ratcliffe: USC, his archrival as a student-athlete, and UCLA, consistently Stanford’s toughest Pac-12 competitor. Last Friday’s dominant 3-0 performance by the Cardinal against the Trojans got Ratcliffe to the 200-win plateau, and with a shocking rout of the Bruins two days later, the team moved into excellent position to capture its third conference title in a row. But its head coach is quick to deflect the credit.“If I get to that 200th win, I owe them to all the players,” Ratcliffe said leading up to the USC game. “They’re the ones that make things happen.
“I think I’m very fortunate to be here and get the opportunity to coach such fantastic players, and the thing I’m most proud of is that we’re attracting the best players in the country right now,” he added. “And not only soccer players, but great students as well.”
Ratcliffe first made his mark on the soccer world as a student himself, playing for the 1990 NCAA champion men’s soccer team at UCLA. He continued as a graduate assistant with the men’s team there, and after a brief stint playing professional indoor soccer, Ratcliffe returned to Westwood as an assistant coach for the fledgling women’s squad.
When then-head-coach Joy Fawcett retired, Ratcliffe took over the program, but was offered the St. Mary’s job that same offseason. He never had the chance to coach a game for his alma mater, instead turning the struggling Gaels into a squad that would average 11 wins a season over his five years at St. Mary’s.
Stanford hired Ratcliffe in 2003, and eight years later, he has not yet failed to take a Cardinal team to the postseason. That’s where, according to Ratcliffe, the biggest memories have been born.
“The first game where we won in the quarterfinal to go to the 2008 Final Four–our first Final Four–was always a memorable game,” he said. “Ultimately there are so many great memories: so many great games and goals, the kids that have come through here and the personalities that we’ve had.”
The only thing missing from Ratcliffe’s head coaching repertoire–and, for that matter, the Stanford program’s–is clear: an NCAA title. Yet that’s not the only thing Ratcliffe is working for on a day-to-day basis.“I just want [the players] to play to the best of their ability, enjoy the games, enjoy the practices and work very hard,” he said. “But there’s got to be a huge enjoyment factor there, and we’ve got to compete. We’ve got to compete and represent Stanford. It’s an amazing university, and I feel like Stanford deserves the best, and we’re trying to produce the best results for them possible.”