Wolfgang Gartner was a man torn between two worlds. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts in English literature, the idea of playing professional soccer outshined his desire to become a teacher. His decision led him to nine seasons of professional soccer and later to a coaching job teaching men’s soccer.
Gartner came to San Luis Obispo as a high school exchange student from Germany. He loved sports and played football as a place kicker while attending San Luis Obispo High School and later for the University of the Pacific, where he also played soccer.
Gartner did not receive a lot of field time for his football career. “I’m not sure you could have called it playing,” Gartner chuckled while adjusting his pullover fleece.
However, the University of the Pacific alumnus did not study to become a coach. He once studied to be a teacher.
“I had always intended to teach,” Gartner recalled. “I like to read and study languages. I knew I always wanted to play professional soccer, but teaching was always in the back of my mind.”
Stuttgart, Germany is a small town close to Gartner’s heart. It’s where he grew up, pursued a year-long position as an English teacher, played soccer and made a home for his wife and himself. Gartner’s three sisters and mother also currently reside there. After living away from his family for nearly 20 years, Gartner still feels close to his roots.
“I never have seen myself as being away,” he said. “I stayed there until I was 17 and became an exchange student for San Luis Obispo student. I came here always expecting to go home.”
After graduating from college in 1973, Gartner, a tall man with a muscular build and wavy hair, traveled back to his hometown to play soccer and teach.
“I played in Stuttgart until they fired the coach at the time,” he said. “He recruited me and was fired unfairly, I think. So I decided to play for the UOP soccer team instead. That was my return to soccer.”
While attending UOP, Gartner caught the eye of a few professional coaches and decided to go pro. During his professional career, Gartner played for teams in Germany, Asia and for teams a bit closer to home like Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Gartner explains the differences of playing soccer in the U.S. versus overseas. “It was more scrutinized (overseas.) The real following isn’t there because the American media isn’t behind it. So that makes it a strange soccer environment by all accounts,” he said.
At the end of his ninth professional season, Gartner decided to return to the United States and joined Cal Poly’s soccer program in 1979. Gartner worked as a part-time coach for four years, until he became a full-time head coach in 1983.
During his 25-year tenure as Cal Poly’s head soccer coach, Gartner and his teams have enjoyed 11 consecutive winning seasons from 1985 through 1995, posted a 3-5-2 mark for fourth place last fall and his 1995 team earned a spot in the NCAA Division I playoffs.
In his lengthy career, Gartner has amassed a career record of 210-200-51.
Gartner and his wife, Suzanne, have known each other for 20 years. They have been married for “more than five and less than 10,” Gartner said coyly. They have no biological children, but adopted his niece, Carolina, now 25, after losing his sister to breast cancer 10 years ago.
Gartner enjoys the outdoors and, like most people, he wants the “simple things” in life. “I like to eat well, drink well and live.” When Gartner isn’t coaching or spending time with his family, he indulges in his favorite pastime.
“I love games. I like any kind of board games. On the road I play Scrabble with my players and I’m pretty competitive – I like to win,” he chuckled.
Some players are not the biggest fans of Gartner’s game playing style. Journalism sophomore and mid-fielder Nikhil Erlebach explains why he abstains from playing board games with Gartner.
“He cheats too much. He makes up words when he plays Scrabble,” Elerbach said.
When questioned about retirement plans, Gartner explained, “You’d don’t really retire from coaching, because I don’t consider this a job. This is what I love. I may do this until my 30th year. That’s a good, round number.”
Computer science junior Abdul Sesay agrees that some coaches are overly concerned with players’ skills on the field. He said Gartner “always tells his players about their first priority; go to class, study hard and get good grades, and we try to practice that.”
Indeed, Gartner has left quite an impression on his players. Without trying to direct their actions, “It’s not like I have a ‘Wolfgang’s words of wisdom pamphlet,” he quips, Gartner does attempt to foster respect for their position on the team and for their abilities.
“Regardless of what adverse things that happen, they should know that we really are fortunate and life will never really be as carefree or as good as it is during your college time,” Gartner said.
Adversity and life lessons aside, Gartner’s competitive nature shined when he was asked how he felt about sharing a moniker with a famous chef.
“He may be more famous-but I cook better. Me and my mother could cook him into the ground.”