Some talk their way into the spotlight, like Tom Lasorda or Sparky Anderson. Others battle their way in, like Bob Knight or Billy Martin. Still others take a quieter road to notoriety, achieving fame through excellence alone, like Tom Landry or John Wooden.
Some of these leaders are loved, some are hated. None is ignored. All have been known to inspire, to leave in their wake a following that often formed the hard-core support of their team.
American soccer has not had such a man. At least not on a national level. Not someone with the ability to galvanize fans into giving their hearts and souls to a team.
But there is such a man at the grass-roots level, a coach who has done all of the above--talked about his sport until one's ears ring, battled to get his team into the public consciousness, and achieved an excellence previously unknown in this area.
Marwan Ass'ad might not be known to the average sports fan beyond the borders of the Valley, indeed, beyond the borders of Northridge. But to area soccer aficionados, the Cal State Northridge coach is Knute Rockne and Adolph Rupp rolled into one, a Pied Piper who can lead the Valley's legions of youth soccer players into the future.
As the Ass'ad fanfare has grown, so have the groups of foreign-born Americans at North Campus Stadium. They would no sooner miss a Matador soccer game than would Jack Nicholson miss a Laker game. They have not come to see their offspring play; they don't have any attending CSUN. They have come to vicariously relive their childhood.
Brian Reeves, 46, of Woodland Hills started playing soccer in his native England at age 7. He is still playing, for the Woodland Hills Football Club, a men's team. He also coaches in the American Youth Soccer Organization and is a former regional commissioner of that group.
And he's a die-hard Matador fan. Make that an Ass'ad fan.
"Marwan is a tremendous shot in the arm for AYSO and club soccer in this area," Reeves said. "He has this ability to inspire. It's a marvelous gift. I've had him out to coaching clinics and he just mesmerizes people. We certainly appreciate what he has done for the community."
Reeves usually can be found at Northridge soccer games, discussing the finer points of Ass'ad's latest moves with Nik Nikolic of Woodland Hills, another veteran AYSO coach. Nikolic, 44, learned his soccer in his native Yugoslavia, "from the crib on."
His son, Mika, attends Ass'ad's soccer camps religiously.
"He doesn't miss a day," Nikolic said of his 10-year-old son. "He doesn't want to go on vacation to Hawaii or Yugoslavia. He doesn't want to go anywhere other than the camp.
"Marwan teaches complete technique, exactly where to be positioned at all times. The national team of Yugoslavia doesn't know basic technique as well as Marwan teaches it. Neither does England nor France. Marwan's players are so well-drilled. I enjoy watching the finesse of the Northridge players. A player will pass the ball behind him or through his legs. These players are drilled to perfection."
Having coached for so long himself, Reeves can appreciate the results Ass'ad has achieved more than most.
"Mastering techniques is a crucial element," he said. "Some kids have to be taught to take a step backward in order to kick properly. If Marwan finds something missing in a player's game, he will retrain him. Practice makes perfect. It also makes permanent. Bad habits can become permanent. But to prevent that, Marwan can be a real fanatical taskmaster."
There's another reason Ass'ad's game is so appealing.
"He has brought a team to the Valley that attacks," Reeves said. "This is a team that doesn't only play defense, that doesn't play for ties. It is quick to counterattack and it gives no quarter on the field.
"He's doing his bit to get the game out into the American mainstream. I would say that the crowd from the community far outnumbers CSUN students at home Northridge games."
Ron Orum, 47, of West Hills is a native American who has learned the game and coached it at the youth and high school level.
"Marwan really gives you plenty to pick up as a coach," Orum said. "He has great rapport with his players. But he's also given us something else--Valley pride, pride in the players from this area."
Said Nikolic: "I am always asking, why did he do this or that? He has it down to an art, the way he prepares his team, the way he makes his substitutions. Only somebody who really knows the game can see some of the things he does."
And, claim all three men, many of Ass'ad's moves often mean the difference between victory and defeat.
"He can win a game with one position switch," Reeves said. "Everybody can play any position, which is the trademark of a good team.
"I remember when Northridge went up to play Cal Poly San Luis Obispo earlier this season. It was a wet, muddy field. Marwan put a smaller, more agile lineup in and those players just ran by SLO, whose bigger lineup had more trouble getting around in the mud.
"But I think Marwan's greatest triumph may be working with Joey Kirk until he has become a player of national caliber."
Kirk, a CSUN forward, played on the U. S. National team last summer and has a chance to play in the 1988 Olympics.
Nikolic is now a key figure in a move to form a Matador soccer booster club, but he suggests that his motives are partially selfish.
"We want to help Marwan any way we can," Nikolic said. "I am just afraid that someone else from another college will see what he has done, offer him a lot more and he will leave. Then what will I do on my Sundays?"