Jay Heaps was in a career crisis last summer. He had been fast-tracking in the financial services world, his family’s future secure. But when he awakened suddenly one day in the pre-dawn hours, his dream to coach a soccer team got the better of him.
No one could have known the opportunity would come so soon.
When the Revolution chose Heaps as the fifth head coach in the team’s 17-year history, they did so despite Heaps never having been a head coach at any level and being only 35 years old.
But what he had to offer was convincing, and on Nov. 14, he was named to succeed Steve Nicol, whose contract was not renewed following a 10-year reign as Revolution coach.
How Heaps found his way to the position in such rapid fashion is a testament to his ambition, intelligence, and timing. Less than four months after being hired, Heaps guided the Revolution to a 6-0-1 preseason record, dispelling doubts about his qualifications and skepticism about his ability to help transform an organization that had sunk to all-time lows.
Heaps has yet to guide the team in a meaningful game, and there will certainly be bumps along the way once the Revolution’s 17th season starts Saturday in San Jose.
But the Revolution appear to have been rejuvenated. Heaps has made personnel adjustments and tactical tweaks. And, crucially, the Revolution’s chain of command has been streamlined, resulting in a relatively efficient foreign recruiting campaign and the acquisition of players with US national team experience.
Heaps also persuaded management to make infrastructure and technical improvements, the team adding sophisticated video scouting equipment and a weight room, plus committing resources to preseason preparation.
Heaps’s approach to the position is changing the Revolution’s culture. Nicol relied on old-school motivational techniques and based tactics on instincts honed in the Premier League. Nicol’s sage-like demeanor, plus an uncanny ability to uncover and develop talent, created a situation in which management basically left him alone to handle situations.
But that also led to a disconnect between Nicol and management.
There was clear evidence that change was in the air when the Revolution departed for preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz., late last month. Investor/operator Robert Kraft saw the team off, giving further reassurance that he was going to give Heaps what he needs to improve the team.
“When you don’t have it, you don’t realize what you’re missing,’’ Heaps said. “And when you finally put into place what you need and you go ahead and get what you need - with the facilities we have, now players are starting to put more time in.
“We’re spending more time as a group working on little things, and those little things really make the cohesiveness of the group a little tighter. The players are becoming finer-tuned athletes, really focusing on their bodies, and that’s really important.
“The Kraft family has been wonderful. We worked through what we need to get done here, and what we have to build from. It’s been a great dialogue, and that’s been the most important thing for me.
“As a coach, you love to have dialogue with the decision-makers and owners. To be on the same page is huge.’’
If Heaps had followed the usual career path to head coaching, he would likely have had to put in a few years as an assistant, uprooting his family to Texas or Utah, dedicating long hours to earn in a year what he might make in a month at Morgan Stanley.
Five months after that sleepless night, though, Heaps’s dream came true when he was named to lead his hometown team - the Revolution’s first US-born head coach.
After Heaps retired as a player in 2009, following a 10-year career as a defender/wing midfielder, he stepped into a position with Morgan Stanley, keeping his hand in the game as the Revolution’s color commentator.
The future seemed secure. Financial services provided a lucrative paycheck, and the television work could provide an outlet for his expertise and opinions.
Then came that nightmare.
Manchester United had just defeated the Revolution, 4-1, in a July 13 exhibition before 51,523 at Gillette Stadium.
“I was doing so well [at Morgan Stanley] that my partner wanted me to stay on,’’ said Heaps. “I took him to the game and he took me out afterward. He was like, ‘Look, you’re really great at the Morgan Stanley thing and I want to pass it on.’
“And that’s how it works in the business. You pass it on, and I said, ‘Great, thank you so much.’ He said, ‘One thing I ask is you’re all in - you start to phase out the soccer and you go all in with Morgan Stanley. You can do it, you’re smart enough, you’ve got all the angles. Go for it.’
“And I felt great that night. And I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats. Here I was, being given an opportunity, a financially stable situation, and I just . . .
“. . . it wasn’t in here.’’
Heaps pointed to his heart.
“And I knew it the minute I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning,’’ Heaps said. “I went back the next day and told him I really respect it but you’ve got to give me more time to internalize this.
“Right at that time, a couple teams reached out to me, and I told my wife at the end of the year I was going to explore the coaching options.’’
After retiring as a player, Heaps had considered becoming an assistant to Nicol. But Heaps wanted perspective, separating himself from the game until deciding about his future.
His passion is evident
Nicol had become a fixture with the Revolution, having stabilized a team that had made five coaching changes in its first seven years and leading them to four MLS Cup finals.
But Nicol lost his touch as the Revolution stumbled to two successive losing seasons, bottoming with a 5-16-13 (28 points) record.
The Revolution did not have to look far for Heaps, though they conducted interviews with several candidates.
Heaps represents a trend in MLS, as former players advance to coaching and management positions. The league’s 19 teams have 13 former MLS players as head coaches.
There also seems to be a movement toward US-born coaches. Two seasons ago, there were only three in the league; now, there are six.
Heaps claims he has long had a coaching career in mind. There were brief stints as an assistant at Boston College and Northeastern, and an internship under Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose strong endorsement of Heaps was the clinching factor in the Revolution’s decision to hire him, according to Kraft.
Though Heaps lacked experience, he displayed the passion of someone who had grown up with the team and experienced some of the Revolution’s best and worst moments as a player.
“One of the things that stood out for me in the interview process was his desire to compete and win,’’ said Revolution general manager Michael Burns. “Of all the candidates we interviewed, he had the most passion.
“He wanted this team and this organization to do well, and that carried some weight. He wants to come in and win immediately and that stood out.
“Also, his record as a person and as a player. If you play the game a certain way, you are not all of a sudden going to take a different approach when it comes to coaching.
“We were fully aware of his [lack of] experience. But, having known him and the way he approached every single training session and game, we knew that’s what we were getting.’’
Heaps’s gregariousness and optimism off the field reflect his background as the son of a bank president from Longmeadow, with a degree from Duke. But on the playing field, Heaps was one of the most athletic, fiery, and durable competitors in MLS history.
Growing up in Longmeadow, his soccer ability was recognized early on and he was recruited to compete for club teams in Boston.
At Duke, he played forward for the soccer team and is listed among the school’s top all-time scorers with 45 goals in four seasons.
After his freshman season, Heaps tried out for the basketball team and was chosen by Krzyzewski for the varsity, playing three-plus seasons as a walk-on before leaving school to take an offer to train with Feyenoord in the Netherlands.
Heaps cut short his stay in Rotterdam to join MLS, and was chosen by the Miami Fusion with the second pick in the 1999 draft.
Miami’s Brazilian coach, Ivo Wortmann, moved Heaps to right back, valuing his combination of combativeness and offensive propensity. Heaps also played for Ray Hudson, as the Fusion presented one of the most entertaining and skillful groups in MLS history, a style Heaps hopes to implement with the Revolution.
As a tenacious one-on-one defender, Heaps mixed it up with the most athletic and crafty, as well as the roughest customers, in MLS, Mexico, and Central America. The fact that he would not back down from a challenge led to several red cards in tournament play. He was ejected from matches in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, MLS playoffs, SuperLiga, and US Open Cup, though usually late in contests with the outcome decided.
That spirited approach impressed coaches.
In Miami, Heaps once protested about not being included in the lineup.
“I never trashed the locker room,’’ Heaps said. “I wanted Ray Hudson to know I was ticked off, so I think I threw my cleats in the locker room, loud - because he wasn’t going to play me, he had made all the subs already.
“He let me have it and I deserved it, you know what I mean? I deserved to be torn apart and he tore me apart.
“And I learned a valuable lesson: As much as you do want to play, when a coach makes a decision, you better deal with it.’’
Blend of styles
Heaps’s one-on-one defending was exceptional at outside back, and he was also able to fill in at central defender because of his leaping ability and positioning. Heaps had enough “ups’’ to compete in Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, though what earned him a place on the Duke team were his leadership qualities and ability to direct the offense as a point guard.
Heaps was mostly a practice player for Duke, but he impressed teammates such as NBA forward Carlos Boozer, who called him “the fastest guy I’ve ever seen.’’
There was an indication that Heaps was thinking ahead to a coaching career when he returned to Duke during the 2004 MLS offseason. He was impressed with the work ethic Krzyzewski displayed after winning his 700th game as a coach. Duke had defeated Toledo, 82-54, two days before what would be a 33-point victory over Illinois-Chicago.
“The game starts at 9, it gets over, and we’re sitting in front of the TV at midnight,’’ Heaps recalled. “They brought in a cake - the 700-win cake is on the table. His wife comes in. I’m thinking, ‘He’s doing the media, his wife’s here, they’re going to go home and celebrate.’
“Instead, Coach K comes back in and turns the TV on and starts watching the tape. He and his wife have a piece of cake, share it with us, Mrs. K has 10 minutes there, and she turns around and goes home.
“And Coach K says, ‘All right, we’re going to finish this session,’ and we’re there until 4 a.m. He wasn’t happy with the way the team was playing and he wanted to see why.
“So for him, going out to celebrate, he wouldn’t have been able to. He would have been thinking about his team, he would have been thinking about what went wrong.
“When you see greatness working, you’re not always exactly sure why it’s great. For me, Coach K’s genius is he thinks about it all the time and is constantly visualizing how to make his team better, and I’m telling you, it pays dividends and you can see why.’’
Heaps will be obsessive in his preparation, but he will also be influenced by Nicol, who is known as a player’s coach.
“Coach K is always trying to fix the problem,’’ Heaps said. “And Stevie’s approach is the opposite: less is more, let the players kind of figure it out.
“I feel I’ve had the extremes in terms of coaches and how they do things, and to me, you find your balance between the two.
“There are times when I would think Stevie would come down hard on this situation - whether a player came in late for training or whatever it may have been - and how Stevie handled it, it made our team better. I would have handled it differently, and probably wrongly.
“You learn those things - that at the pro level and college level there’s a blend between the two.
“That was where I think Stevie’s unique genius was. Everyone loves playing for him, and that is a strong, strong kind of quality to have. Because when you’ve got guys who are ready to fight for you, you can go up against any challenge.
“And I think that was one thing I’ll always take away from Stevie: No matter what, he handled it his way. His theory was it will always sort itself out. And it worked for us.’’
‘Soccer chose me’
Heaps conducted this interview sitting at a conference table in the Revolution’s new video room, another symbol of the team’s new philosophy.
“Obviously, he’s young and a brand new coach, and I’m sure there are 75 guys who are saying, ‘Why did he get the job, I put 20 years in?’ ’’ said Kraft Sports Productions supervising producer Brad Feldman. “But men like Jay Heaps don’t come along that often, and ownership really believed he had that X factor.
“It is definitely a trend. I think people see these guys, the league is so young and we’re really just getting our first generation of players who have gone through a whole cycle. They played 10-15 years and want to move into it, and a select few have the skill set, ability, leadership and motivational qualities.
“He’s passionate, he wears his heart on his sleeve and the fans saw that. He’s a Duke grad with an analytical mind - he would do well on Wall Street - and that’s why he was able to step into this role at a relatively early age.’’
Heaps’s soul-searching led him to believe he had little choice in the matter.
“Soccer chose me - the sport chose me,’’ Heaps said. “I always say that. It chooses every athlete playing it.
“I had opportunities out of college, to go into business, and soccer said, ‘We’re taking you.’
“The Morgan Stanley thing was, I just wanted to see what’s out there, get a glimpse of it. It’s a great way of life, but for me, the heart had to be in what I was doing.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.