Al Mistri was planning to return to his native Italy, probably to work in his father’s construction business in Bologna, after finishing college at Cal Poly Pomona in 1970.
But fate intervened.
Mistri was handing out towels in his part-time job at the YMCA when he struck up a conversation with a priest from La Verne Damien High. The priest suggested Mistri apply for a teaching job at Damien, where he might also be able to coach soccer.
“I had never thought about teaching and coaching,” Mistri said, “but I decided to give it a shot for a year, and if it didn’t work out, I’d go back home.”
It worked out.
With a physique as round as a soccer ball from generous helpings of his favorite tortellini and Parmesan cheese, Mistri seems perfectly cast to coach the sport. He has the look of Pavaratti and a love of opera, but soccer is his passion.
And for the past 18 years, Mistri, 52, has nurtured a Cal State Fullerton men’s program that ranks among the nation’s best.
When the Titans defeated three-time national champion UCLA in front of 3,079 in Titan Stadium recently, it was Fullerton’s third victory over the Bruins in three matches and its fourth in the last seven between the teams.
That, against a program that has lost only three other games in its last 42.
It underlined again how far the Titans have come from their rag-tag days when the team had no uniforms before Mistri took over in 1981.
Fullerton is 13-4-2 this season and 6-1-1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings. Washington is in first place in the conference with a 7-1 record, after a 2-0 victory Friday over UCLA. The Titans, ranked No. 11 by Soccer News and No. 12 by Soccer America, close the regular season in a match at UC Irvine at 2 p.m. today. The field for the NCAA playoffs will be announced on Monday.
The high point for Fullerton’s program came in 1993, when the Titans reached the NCAA’s Final Four for the first time. They lost to South Carolina, 1-0, in the semifinals, but have advanced to the NCAA playoffs twice in the next three seasons.
“Getting to the finals in 1993 was a big leap for us, especially when you consider that we did it with less than 4 1/2 full scholarships and no full-time assistants,” Mistri said.
“But as far as I was concerned, we really arrived when we got back to the quarterfinals the next season. That showed the level of consistency you want to see.”
After that success, the university rewarded Mistri with the full 9.9 scholarships the NCAA allows.
“Becoming fully funded was a huge boost for us,” Mistri said. “We’re still probably one of the best kept secrets around, but I think if you ask anyone in soccer to name the top teams on the West Coast, we’d be there now along with UCLA, Washington and Stanford.”
Mistri has faced the same challenges as other Fullerton coaches. The school doesn’t have the same name recognition nationally of those with big-time football and basketball programs despite its success in baseball, soccer and other sports.
“UCLA still wins most of our recruiting battles,” Mistri said. “But I’m not the type of guy who accepts a subservient position.”
Mistri never has been easily dissuaded.
Growing up in Italy, his father didn’t want him to play soccer for fear he might not do well academically. Mistri played anyway, and became an honor student. He won a competition to be a high school exchange student in the United States and spent a year at Garey High in Pomona. He returned two years later to study engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, and also played on the soccer team.
His Damien teams went 190-40-14 and reached the Southern Section semifinals five times in 10 years. He also helped develop several top players, including Rick Davis and Mike Fox. Both went on to play on the U.S. national team, and Davis was in the starting lineup for the New York Cosmos at 19.
But there were more challenges for Mistri at Fullerton, where the emphasis at the time was clearly on football, not futbol.
The soccer budget was virtually zero. Mistri’s salary for his first season of coaching was a part-time stipend of $4,500. He retained his teaching job at Damien and commuted from his home in Upland.
“There had been a soccer team around for several years, but basically Coach started the program,” said Rick Garcia, who played for Mistri at Damien High and Fullerton and also worked for him as a part-time assistant. “Before him, the team was coached by a bunch of guys who would do it for a year or two. As a program, it was just there, but not much more.”
Garcia recalls that Gene Murphy, the Titan football coach and interim athletic director at the time, went to the players in 1981 and asked if they knew of anyone to coach them. “We all picked Coach Mistri because several of us had played for him at Damien High,” Garcia said.
Mistri decided that raising money would have to be his most immediate goal.
“I knew I couldn’t be the coach I wanted to be at first,” Mistri said. “At that point, I figured that all the time I spent on the field X-ing and O-ing might mean nothing. But I was able to reach an agreement that if I raised a certain amount of money on my own, I could spend it on my soccer program. We had some soccer camps to raise money, and I went around with a tin can asking people to help out. I did what a lot of our coaches had to do.”
But it remained a low-budget operation for several more years.
“I remember one trip we made to Oakland when I was a player when we all slept on the floor to save money,” said Bob Ammann, now one of Mistri’s assistant coaches. “A priest Coach Mistri had known from Damien High let us sleep on the gym floor at the rectory.”
The players did get uniforms, but they had to wash them themselves. Later, Mistri’s wife, Nikki, decided she would wash them at home for a while, and it wasn’t until football was dropped in 1992 that the equipment staff had time to take on the job.
Despite the hardships, Fullerton reached the NCAA playoffs in 1986, the Titans’ first appearance under Mistri. Fullerton made it once before in 1975, losing in the second round.
The Titans won only two of their first 12 games in 1986, tying two, but came back to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. title. Fullerton lost to UCLA in the playoffs, but defeated the Bruins for the first time the next season.
“That started us on what became a slow ascent,” Mistri said.
When the university made the commitment to build a new stadium for football, Mistri campaigned to make certain the field was flat and wide enough so it could also be used for soccer. The stadium became a big boost to the soccer program, though it didn’t save football.
“It’s a great facility for soccer,” Mistri said. “I wonder sometimes if our players realize how good they have it here now, with the stadium and all.”
Mistri’s first full-time assistant coach was hired four years ago, when Bob Ammann was elevated from part-time status, and Ali Khosroshahin was hired last year part time.
Mistri also is head coach of the women’s team that was added in 1993, though it still is not fully funded. Mistri normally works with both teams in consecutive afternoon practice sessions and tries to set up the schedules so he can be with both teams for games. That double duty can sometimes be trying.
Last year, Mistri flew to Provo, Utah, for women’s games at Brigham Young on Thursday and Saturday, going back and forth to men’s games in San Diego on Friday and Sunday. On another occasion, he made round-trip drives between Fullerton and Fresno twice in three days for games.
“It can be more hectic at some times than others, but I got into this with my eyes open,” Mistri said. “And I think it’s probably better for the same person to be in charge of both programs.”
Mistri continues to do a lot of on-the-field coaching, and says he enjoys the relationship with the players.
“I really like his commitment to the program,” said Dolores Browning, a senior who finished her career as the school’s career goal-scoring leader. “He really cares about it and wants to make it better every day.”
Mistri expects the same from his players.
“He talks a lot about how committed the players are to soccer in Italy, and how we need to have the same kind of commitment the players in Europe have if we want to be successful,” senior Alessio Smith said.
Mistri has a jovial manner away from the field, but he is demanding and can be sharply critical when it comes to soccer. “He’s tough, and if you mess up, he doesn’t hesitate to let you know,” Smith said. “He expects the best out of you and won’t accept anything less.”
In 1994, when the Titans were in contention for national honors, Mistri benched Mike Kornock for one playoff game and Martin Palos for another for disciplinary reasons. He also dropped talented midfielder Joey Franchino for violating team rules before the 1996 season. Franchino transferred to Washington and played last season for the Galaxy.
“There is an implicit code of behavior that I expect our players to follow,” Mistri said. “I don’t believe my role is just to provide professional soccer teams with good players, or just to win ballgames.”
But Mistri has done both.
He says his biggest coaching thrill probably was seeing former players Davis and Fox play in the 1984 Olympics against Italy.
Only five colleges--UCLA, Virginia, Fresno State, Indiana and Southern Connecticut--have produced more players for Major League Soccer than Fullerton.
Mike Ammann--assistant coach Bob Ammann’s younger brother--was the regular goalkeeper this season for Kansas City. Joey DiGiamarino is with Colorado and Brian Dunseth with New England. Brad Wilson started the season in the MLS but finished it with the Orange County Zodiac, an A League affiliate of the Galaxy. Five other former Titans played for the Zodiac last season.
DiGiamarino and Dunseth signed pro contracts with the MLS development program after their sophomore years, another reflection of the quality of player Mistri has recruited and developed lately.
Mistri, whose record at Fullerton is 199-138-30 with the men’s team and 50-57-9 with the women’s, sees no reason why the program won’t continue to improve. “I don’t feel complacent, I know that,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of challenges. In some ways, I feel like we’re just getting started. We need to be more consistent than we have been. I think we should be in the NCAA playoffs every year.”
He says he also is committed to trying to make the women’s team as competitive nationally as the men’s.
And Mistri still regards himself as a missionary for the sport.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “A baseball coach doesn’t have to go out to the American public and explain what baseball is about. We’ve had to do that in soccer. It may take another generation for soccer to be as popular as I hope it will be here, but I know it’s better than it was.”
And Mistri says he has no regrets about not joining his father’s business in Italy.
“Doing this has been the ride of a lifetime,” he said.