A forged passion: Mike Jacobs and the road to Nashville

By John Sloop and Davey Shepherd

When Nashville Soccer Club’s General Manager Mike Jacobs is ready to speak, you better have your thumb on the record button. Because once he starts, he’s not mincing words, and he’s not looking for any verbal pauses to slow him down. He’s a man determined. Even when asked to talk about himself (although he makes it clear that he wants nothing more than to talk about the team), he has no pause button. He’s like a podcast on double speed.

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That said, the story is worth the effort of keeping up.

Many of us came to soccer late in our lives. For Jacobs, soccer was not only a part of his life from jump, but it also came to him in a mega-way. Born and raised in New York, with parents who were teachers in the South Bronx (his father was the basketball coach as well), an interest in sports came naturally. With a first-generation Italian father, when he started playing soccer, he was encouraged. Wearing a pair of OJ Simpson football cleats, he did drills with any variety of balls and makeshift set ups.

For an American, Jacob probably came of age in the perfect time and place to really relish soccer: New York during the height of the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos. What would you expect to happen to a kid who loved soccer in that environment? With players like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia to watch each weekend, it wasn’t hard to fall in love. More, Jacobs applied to be a ball boy for the Cosmos; when he got the job, he was able to watch what he calls the “Beatles of soccer” up close, nearly every week. (As an aside, Jacobs notes, John Harkes was a ball boy at the same time for the Cosmos, and Peter Vermes–a very important figure in Jacobs’ story– attended a lot of the games. The soccer world is very intertwined, he repeatedly points out).

Mike Jacobs, third from right on back row, as Cosmos ballboy. Roberto Cabañas in the center. Photo courtesy of Mike Jacobs.

Jacobs was 11 or 12 years old when the NASL folded. Continuing to play and wanting to continue watching the world’s best, he turned to other outlets. Because there was very little coverage of the Premier League at the time, he would travel to a pub called The Heritage to watch Match of the Day. While watching a pre-Sir Alex Manchester United play Brighton and Hove Albion in an FA Cup final, Jacobs saw Gary Bailey save a penalty, which maintained an even final score, leading in those days to a replay, which Manchester United ultimately won. His lifelong love affair with Manchester United was set.

While Jacobs played soccer at Pace University, his father pointed out that he was either going to have to go abroad to play professionally or he could learn to coach. For a number of reasons, Jacobs felt like coaching was the best option, but primarily because he felt it came naturally to him. He recalls being a difficult player for coaches, not because he was a diva, but because he was never satisfied with being told what to do without being told why to do it. “At a very early age, like Doogie Houser,” he notes, “I was coaching. While I was in college. I coached a high school team.”

Can you imagine?

Once he completed his education, he went into teaching like his parents, but he knew he would find a way back into soccer. In 1994, while still teaching high school, he became an assistant coach at Iona. Two years later, he took the job as part time head coach at Iona where he was paid a depressing $6,000. Here is the part of the story when you come to learn, once again, that success takes hard work and sacrifice.

Although only being paid for part time work, Jacobs knew that to do it right, it was a full time job. So, with his (at the time) wife’s ok, he quit his day job, added jobs coaching two youth teams and found himself working from morning until 8 PM every day. Still, to make ends meet, Jacobs also taught summer soccer camps. The Iona job was upgraded a few years later to a full time position, paying $20,000/year (even accounting for time, that was not much of a salary). At 24 years old, he was the youngest coach in the country. Broke but with big passion.

While Iona was never going to be a national power, Jacobs improved the team’s historic win-loss record. That success led to him being recruited to be an Assistant Coach at the University of Evansville. While one of the smallest schools with a Division 1 team, it had a good reputation. The move, in 2000, Jacobs describes as going “from New York to essentially the opposite side of the world.”

Two years later, Duke University came calling, asking him to be an Assistant there. Since Duke was one of the top teams in the nation, he jumped at the chance. He loved the environment at Duke as a whole. Becoming friends with the basketball coaching staff, who “infused his passion for coaching,” he learned to set only the highest goals for any team he coached from thereon out. At Duke, the only way any non-basketball team could be presented to the student body at midcourt during a Duke game was by winning an ACC championship or getting to the final four: “The expectation there was always a national championship.” It seems hard to underestimate how much the effect of the high expectations at Duke have come to define his outlook now.

When Evansville needed a head coach, they came back to Jacobs who took the job. While he very much improved the team’s record (they were now getting into the top 20 routinely), Jacobs found the smaller budget, and the lack of expectation at the university as a whole to be major challenges: “To go from number 1 in the country, to trying hard to just qualify for the tournament was difficult.” He reflects, “Remember I was at the Cosmos, then I was at Duke when college soccer was at its apex; I was always wanting to be at the top, with the best players.”

His eventual path to MLS actually began his first year as coach at Evansville: “When I first took the job, I took my first recruiting trip to Kansas where a friend of mine was running a youth soccer camp—Peter Vermes.” When Vermes later became coach and general manager, they both started flirting with the idea of Jacobs coming over as an assistant coach.

Jacobs was massively impressed with Vermes’ role with the club in that he has, in Jacobs’ words, “as large and diverse a role in the club as anyone in the world.” Because he is both manager and coach, Vermes has to think long term. It’s not just, “Can I win now, but how do I make decisions that don’t compromise the future?”

With the highs of the Cosmos and Duke in his arsenal, and the model of Vermes in mind, Jacobs left Evansville to work with the USL as an administrator as a way of getting a better understanding of professional soccer. During his first six months with the USL, he found himself in Kansas City on business and went to visit his friend Vermes. In a pizza joint in suburban Kansas City, Vermes asked him what he thought would be a good job description for an assistant general manager. Jacobs wrote a full description on a piece of paper and handed it to him. Vermes looked, read it, and said, “That makes sense. Do you want that job?” It wasn’t the kind of offer he was going to turn down: a front row seat at what he thought was the best run organization in MLS. There are worst ways of learning.

Working with Vermes, who is notorious for being successful without taking the approach of spending huge amounts of money, shaped his worldview about how he might manage a team. So, when he had the chance to come to Nashville, he jumped at it, getting the sense that the club wanted the same thing he did: excellence through high expectations.

Photo courtesy Nashville SC

Jacobs stresses, as Ian Ayre has before, that the model in Nashville is about building a successful club that reflects the city itself. Moreover, they are building a club, as he learned from Vermes, for sustained rather than short term success. “It is very hard to work here,” Jacobs notes, “because it is very demanding, We have very high expectations.”

While known for a Moneyball approach to soccer, Jacobs stresses that “the idea of Moneyball is not about not spending money. It’s about finding things undervalued by others that you value. To see things that you don’t value that people do value. . . .Moneyball is not about being cheap.” Jacobs points out that Nashville bought Hany Mukhtar for $3million dollars. While Jacobs thinks this will be a bargain, he also points out that Vermes likely has never spent that much money combined (this however, just changed, in a big way). The approach, then, is not to be cheap, but to be smart.

While such a price tag would normally be outside of his comfort zone, Jacobs feels confident because he has himself surrounded by what he sees as top shelf staff: Ally Mackay (Assistant General Manager), Chance Myers (Chief Scout), and Oliver Miller-Farrell (Director of Strategy and Analytics who, importantly for you soccer stat nerds, he formerly worked with Opta). Jacobs feels confident, then, because his thinking is checked by others: “Take those three guys and Gary Smith, who’s won an MLS cup, and Ian Ayre, a buncha guys who are all passionate about the game, who are always intelligent and thoughtful about the process, and look at things differently.” The group routinely tosses around ideas, trying to make sure they get the best possible idea to come out of it. They challenge and respond to each other.

Jacobs is adamant that no one in the group thinks they are “the smartest guy in the room.” While it is also true that former expansion sides who have failed didn’t think they were making bad decisions when they put together what turned out to be pretty dismal first year teams, Jacobs doesn’t see that happening here. This group knows they will make mistakes, and he thinks being aware of that helps in a way: “Teams that fail think they did everything right. We don’t. We strategically plan and are planning for things that go wrong.” Hence, the situation NSC now finds itself in: with senior roster spots open, saved GAM and TAM, and open international spots, they have the flexibility to react to shortcomings. NSC, and Jacobs, are ready to make changes as they are needed.

So, what are Jacobs’ expectation for the measure of success for the first season? To put it in the shortest possible terms, he wants to put the definition of success on the pitch this way: “If no one can tell who’s the expansion team and who is not, that’s massive success. If we push toward champions and domestic cups, that’s another level” of success. A first year team not looking like a first year team. That is success for starters. A first year team fits in and has not mortgaged its entire future.

While none of us know how the season will turn out, and while there is a concern amongst the fan base about the number of season ticket sales, there is something about the confidence and care with which Jacobs puts forth his philosophy—and his historic DNA desire to win—that should at the very least give us confidence that the short and long term future of NSC are being looked after.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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