It was thoroughly enjoyable to reconnect with my collegiate coach Ricky Zambrano, head coach of the Mens program at Thomas University. I learned a ton from him during my time at TU. He improved me on and off the field. I’m forever grateful for his influence. When Ricky first came to Thomas University I was recovering from a knee injury having previously red-shirted my sophomore season. It was some tough love from Ricky that made me realize that in order to achieve some things in life, you need to put in some serious work towards that goal. No one was going to hand it to you. I took it upon myself to stay in the US during the summers and work on my conditioning levels. When he saw me after the summer break of my sophomore season, I was reduced to the physique of a footballer instead of the overweight specimen he had left behind before the summer break.
Coach; thank you for being part of the “Coaches Series”. For those unfamiliar with your story can you tell me your path on the way to becoming head coach of the Thomas University Men’s program?
I played college soccer at St. Thomas University (Miami, FL), then became an Assistant Coach for two seasons and was promoted to head coach after my second season. I spent four seasons as head coach at STU and resigned to join staff at Louisiana State University as an assistant coach. After three season at LSU, I became the Men’s & Women’s coach at Thomas University. In 2011, we promoted an assistant coach to head women’s coach and I have been solely the men’s coach since that time. In 2013, the school promoted me to Associate Athletic Director.
Coach, I had the pleasure of playing for you at TU early on in your career. What would you say was the biggest challenge of your coaching career early on at TU?
A lack of stability with funding. A big part of successful coaching in college athletics is predicated on funding, specifically scholarships. Everything else you can figure out ways to raise funds or whatever the situation calls for. Scholarship money is a different story. We had to work extremely hard to find guys that fell within our budget and at same time fit the Values we were looking for.
But, we created a strategy and attacked it and never used it as an excuse.
When did you know you wanted to become a coach?
The first day of pre-season training as an assistant coach in August of 1997. I never aspired to be one, even when I accepted my assistant (graduate) coach position. It was about getting my degree. Obviously, while I was playing, it was about playing at the pro-level.
What steps did you take to become a college level coach?
First and foremost I learned the need to WORK hard at everything you do. I also was blessed enough to do my coaching licenses thru the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) and NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America)
Who has been the biggest influence on your coaching career?
My parents, from a young age, instilled in me a value of hard work and earning everything that comes your way. I believe that stands till this day. They also thought me the importance of character and service. I believe these are all qualities I have tried to instill in our Student Athletes.
My dad coached a bit of amateur soccer while I was growing up in NYC. I always enjoyed watching him roam the sidelines and the respect he always earned (through example) from the players.
Outside of him, from a true coaching perspective, their have been two others. My best friend George Fotopoulous, with whom I worked at LSU and I also had the joy of watching him develop as a coach while I was still playing, and Nick Saban, whom I had the opportunity to watch, as he grew his football program at LSU, while I coached there. I feel honored to have been at the same institution with a true Coaching Legend.
In relation to setting up a program, how do you go about setting a team culture and inserting discipline on a group of players who may not be used to that approach?
It took YEARS to get this where it needs to be! We still have not reached a point where we want but we have a VERY GOOD Team Culture. One that I know is sustainable and truly stays behind as players depart due to graduation. The culture is there, we simply strive, as best as we can to get better and better.
The driving force of any Team Culture is Discipline! Your players must buy into it and be willing to live it. As a staff we must believe and live the value of it as well. This means — EVERYONE (staff included) lives under the same rules for the program.
The second driving force is Leadership. Many players, including yourself, have helped lay the foundation of the Culture that we now live. That takes sacrifice of personal agenda’s for the better good of the program, now and four years from now!
Who are some of the best players you have coached over the years in terms not only of skill but attitude and approach to the game.
You are setting me up with this one! You want to hear your name! I have had the true privilege to play a role in the lives of so many. It has been a joy to work on a daily basis to help provide a path, for a player to follow and see the fruits of their work beyond their time playing for me.
Hearing the achievements of our graduates is sometimes better than winning a Conference Championship.
I will not list any, because there are too many. However, I will use your example. When I told you, upon my arrival, what you needed to do to play at the expected level. The work you did to achieve that is an example of the personal sacrifice necessary to be successful. That is A LOT of grilled chicken and vegetables you ate!
That’s very kind of you to say. I definitely wasn’t fishing for my name but I wanted to look back on my collegiate career and be proud of it and I am thanks to the role you played in it.
— TU Athletics (@TU_Night_Hawks) November 3, 2015
If you could narrow it down, what has been the best achievement of your coaching career thus far and why?
As I said earlier, seeing or hearing of the successes of our Alumni ranks up there.
Having one of our recent graduates (Rowan Liburd) sign with Reading FC, does as well.
Yes. Four total Conference Championship (2 at TU and 2 at STU) and two trips to National Tournament is an honor as well.
But if I have to narrow id down, it might be two other things.
The first is being named the 2015 NAIA Champions of Character Team, for best fitting the ideals of the 5 NAIA Values (Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, Servant Leadership and Sportsmanship).
The second is the highest number of Dean Scholarship (Highest Academic Achievement at TU, only one awarded per year) recipients from our team. We have had four members of our program receive this Scholarship dating back to 2009.
If you could pick the brains of three people from football who would they be and what would you ask?
1) “The Special One” – Jose Mourinho.
2) Bruce Arena.
3) Lionel Messi
All have had success in their ways. I would simply want to know what stood out for them in that journey.
Do you have any advice for coaches who may be going into their first job/program? Anything that looking back that you wish someone would have told you?
This advice is for EVERYBODY! Never think you know it all and NEVER stop trying to learn!
Looking back? Not really. I knew that to be a pro player, it took sacrifice and things falling your way. I did not sacrifuce enough for things to fall my way.
I probably should have believed a bit better, that God has a plan. When I believed that with stronger conviction, it allowed me to work with a different approach.
Coach, how do you balance coaching time and commitments with getting enough time at home? Do you have more now than earlier in your career?
Great coaching staffs. You are only as good as those whom surround you.
With two kids at home, I must pick and choose when I must sacrifice the family time. Do I really need to do this or can I leave it in the capable hands of my trusty staff.
Must work hard to balance.
Looking back, what memory do you have from your coaching career that still makes you laugh to this day?
I had these two players that REALLY COULD EAT A LOT! We have had a HUGE Buffet Dinner and two hours later ordered PIZZA delivery to their room after curfew! They did not even share when they were caught! Maybe I was hungry as well!
Coach, I have no recollection of what you’re talking about. You must be mistaken. I blame the Serbs!
Thomas University Mens soccer program now have a fantastic social media program as well live home games broadcast from their website during the season.