The Valley's Pied Piper of Soccer : Fanatic Coach Puts Kick Into CSUN

Times Staff Writer

Marwan Ass'ad is up to his eyeballs in soccer balls.

The black and white spheres lurk around every corner of his house in Canoga Park and sit atop or beneath almost every piece of furniture.

There is one on the front lawn, three are scattered in the hall, four in the den, five in the dining room and a flotilla of 10 in the shallow end of the pool.

Another two dozen or so are locked away in a backyard shed, but it's only a matter of time before Ass'ad's 21-month old son, Charlie, releases them to freedom.

"Hey, man, I can't control it," Ass'ad said. "Once he gets started he's hard to stop."

Like father, like son.

Ass'ad, the fanatical soccer coach at Cal State Northridge, was hired in 1983 after spending one year at the collegiate level as an assistant at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Of the San Fernando Valley, he once said, "The only thing I knew about the area when I first came out was that it was hot and it had Valley girls."

Now, thanks to Ass'ad, it also has a powerhouse soccer team with a roster full of Valley dudes. Northridge finished second in Division II this season.

In Arabic, Ass'ad means happier. And the way things are going lately, Marwan couldn't be more so.

"I've had a lot of great breaks in my life and I have nothing to complain about at all," said Ass'ad, who was born in Israel. "I will never take living in the United States for granted. I'm living a privileged life."

The program's success, with its reliance on local talent and community support, has fueled a minor wave of Marwanmania. He has become the Pied Piper of Valley-area soccer.

"He's such a fanatic, he can work people into a fever pitch about anything," said Mike McAndrew, who played at CSUN from 1983-86. "He was always optimistic and 100% sure we were going to have a great team and a big following."

How big is CSUN soccer?

In Ass'ad's five years, the Matadors are 81-16-11 and have won four consecutive California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships.

CSUN's crowds for home games at North Campus Stadium average about 1,000. The Western regional final against Seattle Pacific drew a record crowd of 3,841. On the same night, the UCLA basketball team drew 2,641 for its season opener against Oral Roberts at Pauley Pavilion.

Ass'ad's soccer camps, which began in the summer of 1983 and ran two weeks, drew 140 youngsters and grossed about $10,000. Last summer, the camps ran 10 weeks, were attended by 600 youngsters and grossed about $55,000. If the Matadors win the national title, Ass'ad predicts an enrollment of 1,000 this summer.

As for coaching style, Ass'ad falls somewhere between Vince Lombardi and Billy Martin. He's Marwan the Bhagwan. The Marquis D'Ass'ad of soccer.

"He is a monarch when it comes to one guy ruling," said John Tronson, an All-American forward who played at CSUN from 1984-86. "He picks out a player and says, 'I'm gonna break him, man. I'm gonna break him.' It's like you're a wild horse or something. He's going to do it until you'll do anything he says."

What can be said about a man so drenched in intensity that he once had 100 soccer balls stashed in his home?

"If you're around him long enough," said McAndrew, "you get used to a different behavior pattern."

Ass'ad, himself an accomplished player, used to wear a team uniform on the sideline and at times even tried to talk his players into letting him sneak into games. In 1985, he lived in a camper under a tree near the soccer field to avoid the daily commute from his home in Long Beach to Northridge.

"At times, Marwan has a comment or two and we're not sure which wall he bounced off of," CSUN basketball Coach Pete Cassidy said. "But he's entertaining, enjoyable and very sincere."

Ass'ad, 33, actually takes pride in his peculiarities. As far as he's concerned, all great coaches have them. The ones he respects most: John Wooden, Bobby Knight and Red Auerbach.

Notably, all are basketball coaches. When he's not studying one of his 50 soccer videotapes, Ass'ad dissects basketball. The way he sees it, there isn't much difference between the sports.

"Soccer is never more than five-on-five," Ass'ad said. "You have 11 people, but never more than five attacking. You get people isolated one-on-one or two-on-two. The fast break is the same."

The Los Angeles Lakers are the only team Ass'ad watches more than his own. He loves Kareem. He lives for Showtime. The Laker influence is apparent in more than just his strategy. Ass'ad coached the Matadors in their West regional final over Seattle Pacific wearing an Italian-style suit right out of the Pat Riley catalogue of sideline apparel.

"I want to look great if we win," he said, "and good if we lose."

There hasn't been much losing at Northridge since Ass'ad took over. His Matador teams have won 41 consecutive regular-season home games and have never lost more than five times in a season.

"I don't recall him getting any tremendous recruiting years," said Otto Rieger, coach at Cal Poly Pomona. "He just seems to develop them."

No player has benefitted more from Ass'ad than senior forward Joey Kirk, who set single-season and career records for goals and assists this season. A two-time CCAA player of the year, Kirk is a member of the U. S National Team and a candidate for the 1988 Olympics.

"I was reading a magazine the other day and I saw this little saying that made me think of Marwan," Kirk said. "It goes, 'The true measure of a coach is not how many trophies or championships he wins, but how many players he develops for the next level of play.' That's Marwan."

Ass'ad says his drive to teach, to help players learn, comes from his father, Ass'ad Ass'ad, who insisted that his nine children have the best education possible. The family lived in Nazareth where Marwan attended private Catholic schools. He began playing soccer at age 3.

"When I was growing up, vacation to me was a soccer game," Ass'ad said. "A big celebration was a soccer game. You're bored, you play soccer. You're happy, you play soccer. You get beat up, you play soccer."

Ass'ad joined a youth league and was a member of the prestigious town team, but by his junior year in high school, he was writing to universities in the United States, hoping to get a scholarship.

A friend who was coaching in North Carolina referred Ass'ad to Mitchell Junior College in Connecticut. At 19, he was granted a scholarship that paid for books, tuition and living expenses. He came to the U. S. as a premed student in January, 1974.

Ass'ad played on Mitchell teams that lost just two games in two years and he was named All-American.

He played soccer at Adelphi University in New York for the next two years, switched his major to physical science and graduated in 1978.

While visiting his brother, Mustafa, in California, Ass'ad met his future wife, Lynn, at a restaurant in San Pedro where Mustafa worked. "I took her flowers on Easter," Ass'ad said. "She goes, 'I always said I would marry the first guy who brought me flowers.' "

Two weeks later, Ass'ad proposed.

"Hey, man," he said, "I'm fast."

It took a while, however, for Ass'ad to get into coaching. After he got married, Ass'ad's father died. Ass'ad went home for nine months and when he returned to California he worked as a carpet cleaner, went to computer school and then worked for a mortgage company.

He coached his first soccer team in 1981, the freshmen at Torrance High. In the spring of '82, Ass'ad coached an under-23 club team in the South Bay that included three players from Cal State Dominguez Hills. At the players' urging, he joined the staff at Dominguez Hills as an assistant for the '82 season and the team won the conference championship.

The following year, he replaced Rick Fonseca at CSUN.

This season was his most challenging at CSUN, Ass'ad said. Without Tronson, McAndrew, Frank Cubillos and others, the Matadors needed a minor overhaul.

"The last few weeks have been the best ever for me," Ass'ad said. "When Joey achieved the highest quality at the end of the season, that was not just Joey. That was the program."

Next year, the Matadors will be facing another challenge as Ass'ad attempts to mold the team without Kirk, Thor Lee, Rodney Batt, Mike Harvey and goalie Mike Caputo.

"People are going to say, 'Can he coach?' " Ass'ad said. "I'll be ready. Nobody has seen the best yet. People forget that Marwan is going to get better."

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