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A Reverend Wins With Irreverence : Seattle Pacific Coach Clowning His Way Into Soccer Immortality

October 07, 1985|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Life has laughed at the Rev. Cliff (Uncle Nubs) McCrath for the better part of his 49 years, laughed at his maimed left hand, his eccentricities, his innocence, his tragic past and his old-time religion.

McCrath chuckles right back, pretending to go along with the joke until, suddenly, you realize he is guffawing his way toward NCAA soccer immortality.

And, the way he figures it, toward something a bit more rewarding.

Folks never have known quite what to think about this McCrath fellow--and with good reason. One of his favorite pastimes is catching someone, uh, probing nasal or ear passages. McCrath stares until the unsuspecting person realizes that he has an audience.

"But here's the great thing," he says. "They always look again to see if you're still watching them."

So, as if every middle-aged minister does this sort of thing, McCrath takes his left hand, the one with three digits missing, and pretends to be searching his ear or nose. Well, it's not a pretty sight, but McCrath says that it makes him laugh and that on occasion it makes the other guy laugh, too.

And isn't that what life's about? he asks.

In 1978, McCrath told a small gathering that if his Seattle Pacific University team won the NCAA Division II championship, "I'll shave my mustache, crawl from the campus to the Space Needle and buy everyone at school a Pepsi."

Yes, well, to his surprise, Seattle Pacific won the national title. Soon after, McCrath had raw knees, sore wrists and aching shoulders, byproducts of the 2.7-mile journey from SPU to the Seattle landmark. So painful was the 3-hour 10-minute crawl that he went down hills backward.

McCrath lost seven pounds, but added to his growing reputation as a man who may never have had oars to put into the water in the first place.

The day wasn't a total disaster, though. A soft-drink distributor paid for the Pepsis.

McCrath has jumped into a truck filled with Jell-O to celebrate a victory. Once he performed a wedding ceremony while the happy couple ran in a marathon. McCrath backpedaled for 1.5 miles.

"He's bizarre," said Dennis Gunnell, a former SPU player and now McCrath's assistant coach.

"He's nuts," said an NCAA official. "But don't quote me."

"Absolutely nuts," said Walt Bowman, one of McCrath's former players who now is athletic director at Chapman College in Orange. Bowman should know. When Bowman played at Wheaton College in Illinois, McCrath not only coached the team but also doubled as the trainer.

McCrath wore a suit and tie--"No one knew how a soccer coach should dress in those days," he said--as he went about his duties, which included taping his players' ankles.

Money was scarce, so even a roll of athletic tape was not to be wasted. Once, while taping Bowman's ankles, McCrath noticed that he had somehow taped his tie to his star's skin. Rather than waste an otherwise fine effort, and the tape, McCrath took a pair of scissors and snipped off his tie.

A hesitant Bowman was sent toward the field where, McCrath's tie flapping in the breeze, he scored two goals. "We won, too," said Bowman.

Nowadays, McCrath wears blue warmups and black soccer shoes. To class. To fund-raisers. To Rotary Club functions. To restaurants. He doesn't wear ties anymore, but he does wrap his shoelaces around his ankles.

This, ladies and gentlemen, soon will be collegiate soccer's next coach to win 300 games. At last count, McCrath had 287 victories to his credit. If all goes well this season, he will join Steve Negoesco of the University of San Francisco, Bill Shellenberger of Lynchburg College in Virginia and Bob Guelker of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, coaches whose teams have already won 300.

You do not go down to the corner 7-Eleven and pick up 300 victories. McCrath has toiled for nearly 27 seasons, has won two NCAA Division II championships, has finished second four times and third once, and just now is edging toward the magic number. Earlier this season, SPU was ranked No. 1 in Division II. Not bad for someone who didn't learn the game until his freshman year in college.

"I thought soccer was something girls played during recess," McCrath said.

He has spent the last 16 years at Seattle Pacific, a private, Free-Methodist institution that asks its 2,800 students to abstain from alcohol and dancing while on campus. The school also prefers that its female students go light on the makeup.

SPU is best known in Washington for its morals, business school and McCrath's soccer team. For this, McCrath receives profuse thanks, no on-campus soccer field and 1.13 athletic scholarships for his entire 27-man team. A full ride at SPU means a trip in a car.

"I don't know what else to do except to show up at this place and kick butt for the glory of God," said McCrath.

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