With Wittman in charge, Blast title may be as easy as 1-2-3

Coach's `fun' approach has team thinking sweep against Wave in Game 3

Pro Soccer

April 30, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Blast coach Tim Wittman stood at the microphone during a news conference this week and was asked how he has gotten his team to peak at exactly the right time for the Major Indoor Soccer League's championship series against the Milwaukee Wave.

Wittman's reply was a laugh.

"I didn't do that much," he said. "I don't do a whole lot. Everyone talks to the coach, but when I was playing, I didn't think the coach did a whole lot, and the same is true now."

A Baltimore native who grew up playing soccer at Herring Run Park and at Calvert Hall, Wittman turned pro at 17 and played for two of the finest indoor soccer coaches in the game - former Blast coach Kenny Cooper and former San Diego coach Ron Newman.

With Cooper, he had a mastermind of motivation, and with Newman an exquisite judge of talent.

Wittman watched, learned and incorporated bits and pieces into his own style. By the time he got his chance to be a head coach this season - something he said he had just about given up on before being hired as an assistant Blast coach last year - he had a philosophy ready to implement.

His players call it freedom. Wittman calls it something else.

"I would just like everything to be fun," he said. "Work, play, relationships. Why not? Why take your misery out on other people? I'm not talking about a lack of responsibility. These players bust their [tails] for me every day and still have fun. I'm not talking about skipping out on responsibility, but while you're here, why not make the best of it?

"That's the bottom line. If we win or lose, the only thing that will linger and make you feel bad is if you don't do your best. I think working hard to do your best is fun."

Tomorrow night at 1st Mariner Arena, the Blast, which leads the best-of-five finals 2-0, has the opportunity to win the MISL title in Game 3.

This season, he has made all the right moves. He has encouraged players to make small bets - for ice cream, for breakfast, for $5 - between themselves during practices to increase their competitiveness and inject a little fun. He moved veteran midfielder Danny Kelly to the back to shore up a defense weakened by retirements and trades.

Following his belief that players come first, he allowed injured players to take their time healing, refusing to rush anyone back, even when it might have eased a momentary need.

"He creates a very nice atmosphere that keeps everyone loose," said Blast forward Lee Tschantret.

"He knew at what stages to push us and ride us and when to let us be," said Blast captain Tarik Walker. "When I played with Tim on the Spirit, I never thought he'd be a coach, but I always thought he knew the game. Back then, you never knew if he could communicate what he knew to a big group of players."

Now, said team owner Ed Hale: "The cat is out of the bag."

Wittman has always been unorthodox. Years after he left Chesterfield Avenue in Belair-Edison, residents there still remembered him as a fine soccer player, but a "wild man" all the same. His dream was to play indoor soccer for his hometown team, but his mouth got him in trouble.

In 1991, Hale invited several players to a meeting to discuss the team's play at the request of Cooper. Wittman, the team captain, lost his temper and told off his owner.

"You've just witnessed his last official action as a Blast player," Hale told Cooper at the time and promptly traded the popular Baltimore star to San Diego.

During a phone call this week from his home near Dallas, Cooper recalled the incident.

"I told Ed, `One day he'll be back and he'll be your head coach.' And Ed said, `Yeah, and I'll be governor of Maryland,' " Cooper said, laughing. "I told him then, `Don't rule it out.' "

But Hale couldn't have imagined it. Not only had Wittman told him off, but he also came back to town with the Sockers and rubbed everyone's noses in the Arena carpet.

"He was badmouthing the crowd, and his head was shaved," said Hale. "He looked like a convict. He was playing the bad boy and reveling in it. He wanted to show us what's what, and he did."

Now, 13 years later, Wittman, 40, said he has no regrets about anything he has done. But he does say the most difficult part about becoming a coach has been his inability to play politics and overcome the myths that were born from his actions.

"A lot of people still don't know me," he said. "They hear things. They know I'm a city kid. I have tattoos. They know the way I played. And the way I voiced myself, they didn't know there was any education behind me. They don't know that I've spent 20 years studying psychology and philosophy on my own. They don't know I've had four businesses, that I've traveled."

Speaking by phone from the Cayman Islands, where he was vacationing this week, Hale said: "I always thought Tim was a little goofy. Now, I know he's one sharp cookie. Timmy is a well-read person and thoughtful about his team. It is all so out of character."

Forward Denison Cabral, who said he didn't like Wittman because of his cockiness when they first met as players, gives the highest praise.

"He's the kind of coach you dream about playing for," Cabral said. "He's done everything - been an all-star player, an MVP, won championships, been an assistant coach. You have to respect him. And he lets players play their game. He encourages you to try things. He talks to you - anywhere, anytime. He watches tapes and makes suggestions to improve your game, picking out little things to help you get better. And then, he not only tells you, but gets down on the carpet and shows you.

"He has a style no one else has. He laughs and jokes and yet comes to work hard every day."

MISL Finals

Blast vs. Wave

(Best of five; *-if necessary)

Blast leads series 2-0

Game 1: Blast 12, Milwaukee 3

Game 2: Blast 8, Milwaukee 4

Tomorrow: at Blast, 7:35

*Sunday: at Blast, 6:05

*May 8: at Milwaukee, 8:35

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