By Michael Lewis for BigAppleSoccer.com
When students attend college, life's most important lessons don't always happen in the classroom.
Sometimes they happen on the athletic field.
For the likes of Bruce Arena, Shep Messing and Bob Montgomery, those lessons came on the soccer pitch at Nassau Community College some four decades ago, under the tutelage of the late Bill Stevenson. Those three men not only excelled at the beautiful game at the Garden City, N.Y. school, but have gone on to leave their own marks in the sport.
Stevenson of Bay Shore, N.Y., passed away on March 16 at the age of 78.
Arena, the coach of the defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy, won five NCAA Division I men's titles at the University of Virginia. He went on to Major League Soccer, where he directed D.C. United to the first two MLS Cups crowns. He also directed the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics and the Americans at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Messing, who played for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, backstopped the Cosmos to the 1977 North American Soccer League title and four New York Arrows teams to the Major Indoor Soccer League championship.
Montgomery directed his four-year alma mater, Adelphi to 258 wins and to seven NCAA Division I tournaments over 29 seasons. He also coached two U.S. internationals -- Mike Windischmann, the captain of the 1990 World Cup team and Chris Armas, regarded as the best MLS defensive midfielder of his generation. He also coached Paul Riley, who also coached Paul Riley, who is coach of the New York Fury and a two-time winner of the Women's Professional Soccer coach of the year.
Stevenson was a successful coach, but his impact on the lives of these three men when they were barely out of their teens went well beyond the usual X's and O's and W's, L's and T's.
"There's a group of us in the soccer community who owe our livelihood and career to Bill Stevenson," Messing said.
When Arena, Messing and Montgomery reminisced about their former coach earlier this week, a familiar theme came up in each conversation -- a class act.
"He never got overwhelmed with the coaching part as much as the personal contact and the relationship," Arena said.
"For all of us, for anybody who knew him, he was an iconic coach," Messing said. "I can't tell you how much great a man he was."
"Bill was a major, major influence on my life," Montgomery said. "I don't think I realized it at the time. . . . He knew how to deal with people."
Messing was influenced by Stevenson at The Wheatley School in Roslyn, N.Y. He was on the wrestling team, but switched sports because of Stevenson, who introduced soccer to the budding keeper in the 10th grade.
Messing had played with some of the best soccer players on this planet, but there was no greater influence than Stevenson.
"More than Pele, more than anyone," Messing said. "Bruce Arena will tell you the same thing."
Messing and his brother Roy said they had two sporting role models.
"We joked in high school that he had two heroes," Messing said. "He was handsome. He was athletic. We thought he was Mickey Mantle because we grew up in New York."
Stevenson was sportsmanship preached sportsmanship.
"There was no tougher guy," Messing said. "You can play hard, but at the end of the game, you shake hands. You respect your opponent. The Only way you would make him furious was a lack of respect for your opponent."
At that age, Messing liked to do things his way.
"He told me, 'You can hot dog, but never show disrespect,' " he said.
Arena, who became an All-American lacrosse player, was a walk-on on the soccer team. Even though he wasn't recruited, he felt right at home from day one.
"I showed up there one day to take my shot at playing goalkeeper there. Bill Stevenson was an unbelievable man on how he welcomed me, made every day enjoyable and then he brought Shep in to be the goalkeeper coach. It was a connection that had a great influence on my career; Bill as a coach and Shep as an athlete. But Bill Stevenson was probably the first coach I encountered that I had high regard for. He treated everyone first class. He made the whole environment enjoyable. He earned the greatest respect out of a unique group of athletes, guys from all different kinds of backgrounds."
Arena called Stevenson "a wonderful man."
"Everybody saw the way he conducted himself and carried himself," he said. "He made an unbelievable impression on the young men that we were. Because of Bill, I fell in love with the sport, fell in love with coaching. Geez, 40 years later now, I'm still in that business. I have to look back and say that Bill Stevenson was a great influence on my life."
Regardless of the sport, some practices can be tedious. Stevenson's presence made it special.
"Every day I would just show up and there would be this gentlemen there with a sense of humor," Arena said. "Whatever he said got your attention and made the day worthwhile for you, a unique characteristic."
Arena said that Stevenson had "a drive to excellence that he did in a really reserved manner. He never drove us into the ground. Athletes were a team and that we had to win this and that. He just created that environment because of his love for coaching and his love for players. It was quite obvious. He just created that tremendous environment."
Not surprisingly, Montgomery had similar sentiments and stories.
"College is supposed to be the best time of your life," he said. "The best time of my life was at NCC."
Montgomery, an East Meadow, N.Y. native who became team captain, remembered Stevenson steering him in the right direction -- with his team and after graduation.
"I was a little bit of a hot head," he said. "Bill talked about using emotions in a passionate way. He talked to me about cooling down when talking to my teammates.
"He was a wonderful person, someone who treated everyone fairly."
In, fact, Stevenson got Montgomery his first job after he graduated from Adelphi University -- at Farmingdale State, which was then a two-year school.
When Montgomery applied for the Adelphi coaching position a few years, athletic director Ron Bazil told him that Stevenson had recommended him.
Montgomery remembered some sage advice from Stevenson: "You have to make sure you treat the players on the bench with the same respect as the ones on the field."
Two years ago, Montgomery was inducted into the NCC Athletic Hall of Fame and he got an opportunity to talk to Stevenson.
"I was very fortunate," he said. "I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to him.
"It's a great thing because when people leave this world, there are things that are never said."
Bob Montgomery got that opportunity.
There probably are other former NCC players who never got that opportunity to thank one classy soccer coach.