By Frank MacDonald
Who would guess that beneath that placid, almost stoic demeanor lies the problem-solving smarts of MacGyver, the inspiration of an artist and the nerve of a high-stakes gambler. And that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to Travis Connell.
In what some believed unthinkable just a few seasons ago, Connell guided Western Washington University to a near-perfect, National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II championship last year. He did so after eschewing some conventional wisdom for collegiate women’s soccer and then revamping his own strategy following a near-miss return to the national finals.
Connell may be cool to the touch while hot coals glow beneath the surface. His musical taste may prove off-key compared to his players, but together they are symphonic. He’s a deep thinker who refuses to be out-worked, and his methods may not be mainstream, but whoever went to the front by becoming a follower?
“He’s the wind behind the sail,” offers Lynda Goodrich, who served as WWU’s Director of Athletics for 26 years before retiring in May of 2013.
Just Get It Done
It was Goodrich who, in 2000, tapped Connell to become head coach of the Western men. He had been men’s assistant under Brad Swanson while serving as coaching director for Whatcom Rangers, the county’s premier youth club. “He’s a really quality person,” she says. “That comes across immediately,” adding, “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know this was the person to lead our program.”
Under Connell, the Vikings shockingly won a first conference crown in 2002 and again in 2008. By then Connell was also juggling the women’s coaching duties. In fact, both of Western’s teams won the GNAC that autumn, which was all Goodrich could ask. “We were operating the men’s and women’s programs on a shoestring,” she confesses.
Undeterred, Connell was driven, plotting a way to forge ahead, well before the wherewithal and on-campus playing facility arrived.
“We didn’t have a lot of resources; we did a lot of stuff ourselves,” remembers Greg Brisbon, then Connell’s aide, and now Western’s head men’s coach. Connell and Brisbon constructed soccer-tennis dividers out of scrap lumber found around campus and would erect scaffolding to film games (prior to 2014; games off-campus at Orca Field and Civic Stadium since 2000). “He’s a bit of a handyman,” quips Brisbon, who remembers days when resources were thin, their mantra was, “Just get it done.”
A Boy Becomes ‘The Man’
Connell grew up the eldest of two sons of an Oak Harbor couple, owners of a lumber yard. One day a representative of the local youth soccer league was doorbelling, seeking sponsors. John Connell asked if a team might have room for his 6-year-old boy, Travis. The playful reply: “That depends; are you a sponsor?”
John Connell not only donated, at the first practice session he found himself as coach, no other parents showing interest. It made no difference that he knew nothing about the sport. From there forward, he learned just enough to stay ahead of the kids, and he kept coaching Travis and Caleb, his younger son, through high school. If Travis became a do-it-yourselfer, he had a role model. John converted a vacant space in the lumber yard into a miniature indoor soccer facility, where the Connell kids and their friends would congregate regularly after school.
The Whidbey Islanders bonded together as well as to the game itself. It was a combination of talent, desire to learn and tight cohesion that soon made them one of the top teams in the state. “The key was they loved the game and they loved each other,” remarked John Connell. “It was really a tight group.”
After their time together at Oak Harbor High, several Islanders reunited at Seattle Pacific University. The first to go, Travis was confronted by a higher caliber of play while trying to re-invent his game following a severe ankle injury, yet he persevered.
“He was the man growing up,” states Todd Stauber, a friend since childhood and men’s co-coach for a season at Western. “I looked up to him as a player. We all did.”
“Before the injury,” adds Stauber, “he was the top guy in all of Washington. After that he wasn’t the same, but he found his way because he was such a smart player.”
Surrounded by several All-Americans and future pros, Connell nevertheless discovered his niche on a SPU squad rated among the best, at any level, in Northwest history. He unselfishly operated as the conduit for the big guns, with an uncanny knack for connecting the right pass at the right time. As a junior playing in a remarkable NCAA semifinal, Connell came forward to score and help bring the Falcons back from a 2-goal deficit. They would go on to claim the national championship two days later.
Artist at Heart
Connell graduated from SPU with a degree in art. Not a Bachelor of Arts; just art. One of his first jobs was in a local gallery, and he sold some of his paintings.
“I didn’t know he was an art major until I knew him for a couple years,” says Brisbon. “He is a really good painter, and he can draw. There are some paintings of his that I’ve seen and I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow, you did this?’”
“I was not a gifted artist,” claims Travis. “It wasn’t something that came easily.” An elementary school teacher helped him understand the principles of creating art, something he took hold of. “That made a big impact on me, and I started working on it because it was a way to express myself. I fell in love with doing that.”
Other than the occasional drawing for his children, Connell has essentially set aside his brushes, palate and pencils since joining Brad Swanson’s WWU staff in 1996. Still, there are times the right side of his brain is clearly in creation mode.
“Back in those days when we didn’t have a field or locker rooms, he did really good sketches,” Brisbon shares. With Harrington Field on Western’s campus now in place, Brisbon confirms that Connell’s concepts from the early 2000s are now a reality. “I can talk someone through a vision. He has the ability to draw it.”
Connell approaches coaching with the same approach he did as an artist, by giving himself the opportunity to grow and learn and get better. “We want to get 2 percent better every practice,” he explains. “You don’t have to hit a home run every practice or game, but if we can just get that 2 percent better, we are going to be much better at the end of the season. Some of that comes from art and my third-grade teacher.”
The Sound of Music
Often times Connell can be found watching European soccer at home, yet the room will be filled with classical music.
“It’s like a piece of art to him,” shares Georgianne Connell, Travis’s wife and a biology instructor at Western. The couple met at Seattle Pacific where she was an All-American gymnast. “It’s really beautiful in how he perceives it.”
Connell is no music snob. He prefers popular instrumental movie soundtracks, such as Chariots of Fire or The Mission. Sometimes, he admits he has no idea what is playing, “but I do it all the time. It relaxes me; it energizes me. Like ballet, when you see great soccer it’s a creative endeavor, and that gets me excited.”
Herein lies the connection for Connell, where soccer is art and coaching is artistry in action.
“I believe that in playing and coaching we are creating,” he explains. “We’re creating a team, we’re creating relationships, game plans, styles. We’re practicing and getting better at something. There are tons of similarities.
“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy it,” says Connell. “It’s new every time, a new canvas every season. The players are different, so there are different colors. Lots of little riddles to figure out. It’s constantly engaging in that way.”
The Game Brain
His father sees a direct connection between the infant son who once sat silently, surveying his surroundings in the crib, and the Travis Connell today patrolling the sidelines. John Connell noted how Travis, sitting still for days, seemed to assess all the variables. “And then one day he just stood up,” remembers the father. “He had figured it out in his head, how he was going to do this, and when he tried there was no falling. He just stood up.”
About six years later, through a window, dad spied his son in the backyard, just him and a ball. “He fell in love with the ball early on, figuring out how the ball reacts when you kick it a certain way. He was just so intrigued with combining with it. That’s how he coaches,” observes John Connell. “He loves the game, and he’s always seeking to understand it better in terms of his players and the demands of a particular season.”
While young Connell was becoming one of the state’s top midfielders, he was also drawn to overall development of his team. He would talk the game with his dad and, on occasion, helping plan practices. During an injury-shortened season at SPU, he absorbed knowledge from legendary coach Cliff McCrath and his staff. “We were able to talk shop, basically,” says Connell, “and I ate that stuff up.”
Seattle Pacific’s championship season was not without its hiccups, including some brief suspensions to key players. Still, those trials contributed to the galvanization of a squad that, when it counted most, refused to lose. Connell concedes it was a rollercoaster at times, but adds, “All of that is who we become. All those things are part of how we coach. You can’t help but learn from those things.”
“You could always see he could become a coach when we were playing with him,” notes Nate Daligcon, an SPU teammate and now associate men’s head coach at Seattle University. “He’s able to see the game and how to play things; he used his mind, thought process and decision making to be in the best spots on the field, without running around the whole time.”
Those who have played and coached beside Connell repeatedly refer to his high-functioning game brain, his soccer IQ. “His soccer IQ has always been off the charts,” exclaims Stauber. “When we were 12 years old, his soccer IQ was just way higher than everybody else. It’s still the same way. He’s figured out a formula (for winning), and now nobody can touch them.”
Finding the Formula
Ah, yes. The formula. By 2008, the Vikings had reached unprecedented heights, winning a conference championship and advancing to the tournament’s second round. Goodrich couldn’t ask for anything more. Connell was coaching two teams: the WWU men also won a GNAC title that year, and the women had been eliminated in overtime by the eventual NCAA champion, their nemesis, Seattle Pacific.
Current WWU assistant coach Claire Morgan, then a sophomore, could sense the momentum. Connell recruited the Bellingham High School star despite an ACL tear during her senior season. In fact, when two goalies went down with injuries during her first quarter on campus, he asked Morgan, an accomplished basketball player, to train as backup goalkeeper. The next year, fully recovered from the ACL, she led the Vikings in both goals and assists.
“He’s very patient with players,” offers Morgan. “You might have a kid who commits and then get injured. Some coaches wouldn’t honor that commitment after the kid gets injured. Travis, to my knowledge, always honors that commitment.”
Just as Western was reaching equal footing with SPU, Connell conjured a different vision for his teams, focusing his recruitment strategy on a different type of player. “They had certain qualities,” says Brisbon. “It’s a very athletic, tall, slender player in certain positions. Other teams don’t follow that model. There was some backlash; people thought he didn’t know what he was doing.”
It was not without risk. By 2010, Morgan’s senior year, Western had slid to fourth in the GNAC. In 2011, they missed the NCAA tournament for a third straight year. However, the incoming recruits, Morgan notes, were about to shift the Vikings into the NCAA stratosphere.
The Road Less Traveled
“He did it his way,” claims Brisbon. “He didn’t recruit like the other schools. He found a system with a certain type of player that he liked and thought could win. At the end of the day, it worked. That’s a big reason he’s so successful.”
Of course, since 2012 the numbers speak for themselves: A program that never won more than 17 games is averaging 20 wins over the past five seasons, with five straight GNAC crowns. And after winning just one NCAA tournament game in Connell’s first nine seasons, Western women now have 15 in five, including three final fours.
In the middle of that run, Connell gambled again. In 2014, the Vikings finished with their fewest losses (one), but it was a season-ending tournament loss. Afterward, the coach opted to tweak the style once more.
“We were much more direct in 2014, and in 2015 we were much more possession oriented,” explains Morgan. “That was a big change. We only lost one game in 2014. We could’ve stayed in that same mentality and playing direct, but then he decided to go a different route.”
Connell cannot be confused for a conformist, says Morgan. “Now (the change in strategy) seems obvious,” she declares. “Travis is willing to try new things and change things. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and even fail in order to be successful.”
“He’s such an intelligent guy. It’s a testament to him as a soccer mind,” says Stauber. “He figures out a way.”
Cool and Calculated
To strangers, Travis Connell may be seen as dispassionate, perhaps even aloof. As for the latter, does it seem standoffish to welcome a visiting team’s coaching staff with a plate of crackers and cheese upon arrival in Bellingham? Well, it happened.
Passion manifests itself in many ways. Animated gyrations on the sidelines might be one symptom. Yet passion is also exhibited in more productive ways. For Connell, it’s a dogged work ethic.
“His work ethic is incredible,” says Morgan. “He is working all the time. We finish summer camps, and right away he’s working on the next thing. We just won a national championship and he’s thinking this is the time to grow and push the program to the next level.”
Of course, not all the time is expended on running drills, reaching out to recruits or leading the Vikings into the competitive fray. Before all that comes the clarity of thought.
Georgianne, his wife, observes: “He’s so methodical. He’s very calculating and statistics-driven. And he just works on it all the time.”
A Different Game
Connell confesses: He’s a calculator, constantly crunching numbers. When he began coaching women, he came to understand it as a much different game to that of men’s collegiate soccer, therefore it called for a different approach.
Women are typically smaller, so he emphasizes out-shooting opponents. Why? Law of averages: Physically smaller, goalkeepers leave more gaps of space in the goal, and since their hands are smaller, more shots will find their way to the back of the net.
In the 2016 championship game on Dec. 3, Western out-shot Grand Valley State, 16-8. Many of those attempts came from outside the penalty area, including all three goals.
Not long ago, bringing an NCAA soccer trophy home to Bellingham might have been fantasy. “No one thought Western Washington would win a women’s soccer championship. I didn’t think it would happen,” confides Brisbon. “It’s so difficult to do, and I don’t think people understand how super-difficult it is.”
Connell is an effective communicator. He not only can convey his ideas to the players, but he consults them from the very start. There’s a buy-in, a pact that has every person in Western’s program pulling in the same direction.
It wasn’t necessarily always that way. Connell is mellowing with experience. Where he once was intent on bending the will of his players, he now explores ways to build consensus. “When you win championships, it’s the players going out and making plays,” he asserts. “They have to feel like they have control.”
A very detailed planner, Connell creates practices plans weeks, sometimes months, in advance. He maintains that if players feel prepared, they will rise to the challenge. But he’s become more instinctive of late.
“Sometimes I’d stick to the script too much,” Connell confesses. “What I’ve learned over the years is to let go of that a little bit and play the hot hand. You have to learn to trust your gut and the longshot sometimes and trust the people around you.”
Generally speaking, his steady temperament is to be commended. Travis Connell is the same, level-headed leader, win, lose or draw. “He was born with this temperament,” explains Georgianne. “His dad coached him that way. It’s a different way of coaching. John was all about building players of character, so it’s embedded in Travis’s DNA, his upbringing.”
A lifetime of soccer has molded and continues to contour Connell’s being. He understands the power of life experience, and his prime motivation is to build people of character. To that end, he wants everyone learning and growing throughout their Western years.
“They should be doing something new in their senior year, instead of just doing the same things over and over again,” says Morgan. “He understands the importance of the wins and losses but the overall experience of the student athlete is way more important than the wins and losses.”
When Western was eliminated at the national semifinal stage twice in three seasons, it was crushing on an emotional level. Moreover, it was a learning experience, one that de-mystified that final stage and demythologized national powers such as Grand Valley State, a five-time champion.
Connell’s players believe in him. He trusts them implicitly. Each season begins with the players stating their objectives, and the coaches promising to do all in their power to make that a reality. “When you win championships,” says Connell, “it’s players going out and making plays. They have to feel like they have control.” Whether they realize and achieve their true potential is about belief in themselves.
“It was monumental,” that experience of coming close in the past. “A lot of it is belief. No amount of the coach saying, ‘You can accomplish this’ really compares to doing it and experiencing it.”
That may explain why, when pandemonium erupted at the championship game’s final whistle, for a moment Connell just observed the jubilant chaos breaking out all around him.
“It was the most exciting part for me, seeing that joy,” he reveals. Raw emotion, sacrifice and ultimate achievement. “It really can change people’s lives. I love that and hope we can do it more.”
Frank MacDonald is a writer and PR consultant who lives in West Seattle. He previously served as sports information director at Seattle Pacific University and communications director for Sounders FC.
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