When former Cal Poly Men’s Soccer head coach Steve Sampson announced his abrupt retirement on Oct. 18, 2022 due to health reasons, it appeared to be simply the latest in a long line of hiccups and challenges the team had to endure.
Instead, it ended up becoming perhaps the best chance the Mustangs have had since 2015 of making the NCAA Tournament. Why? Because it led to the hiring of a new head coach in Oige Kennedy.
Beyond just a desire to help the team improve upon their rather dismal showing last year, Kennedy brings something with him that may be a good sign to those that follow the Green and Gold. That would be his resumé.
“I’m probably a little bit fortunate in that I kind of did this backward,” Kennedy said. “I was actually a head coach for seven years at Fort Lewis College… And then had the opportunity to join the staff at Stanford, and was there for seven years [as an assistant]. Most people do assistant to head, I did the other way around.”
Prior to arriving at Stanford, Kennedy produced a 102-37-9 overall record over seven years (2009-2016) as head coach at Division-II Fort Lewis College in Colorado. Under his leadership the Skyhawks won Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular and postseason titles in 2009 and 2011, winning NCAA Tournament titles in both of those years as well.
For his success during the 2011 season, Kennedy was honored as the NSCAA Division-II National Coach of the Year.
However, it’s his aforementioned tenure at Stanford that truly put him on the map.
During his seven-season stay on the Cardinal coaching staff, Kennedy held two positions— two seasons as an assistant coach (2016-17) and five as the associate head coach (2018-22)—under current Stanford head coach Jeremy Gunn, who Kennedy also began his time at Fort Lewis as an assistant to.
The pair obviously worked well together, as the list of accolades that both Kennedy and the team amassed would be impressive even if he hadn’t already won two national titles.
He helped the Cardinal win back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles in 2016 and 2017, and reached a third NCAA Tournament College Cup in 2019, where they reached the Final Four.
He also guided them to qualify for six total NCAA Tournaments, and, with Gunn, led them to an 88-23-30 overall record and a 45-13-14 Pac-12 mark during his tenure. On top of this, he coached four Pac-12 Player of the Year honorees, three Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year picks, two Pac-12 Freshman of the Year selections and 37 All-Pac-12 team members.
Alas, with next season not starting until the fall, there hasn’t been any more winning for Kennedy to do since he arrived in San Luis Obispo. That doesn’t mean that he stopped working, though.
“Right now, [the staff and I] are just trying to get to know the guys as best we can,” Kennedy said. “A lot of the training sessions have been fun, and we’re trying to get to know them on and off the field, and just kind of get a grasp of the types of guys within the program…We feel like we’ve hit the ground running.”
The players, including midfielder and captain Nate Colley, feel that way too.
“Obviously, you don’t see a ton of stuff in the first couple of weeks, but just in terms of the values that he’s instilled in us, the work we’ve done both with and without the ball, I’ve already seen some good strides and improvements over the first couple of weeks,” Colley said.
But, for all of the improvements already being made, and for all of the potential next season’s team already seems to carry, there’s still the Steve-Sampson-shaped elephant in the room. Or at least, you think there would be.
“I think they obviously really enjoyed working with the previous staff,” Kennedy said. “Like anything in life, there’s always change and you adapt to it. And I think the guys have really adapted to what we’ve tried to do here in the first couple of weeks.”
While Colley admits that it did take a bit of time for him to adjust, both he and his teammates are ready to embrace Kennedy as their coach and get to work.
“I think the group still misses [ Sampson], he was a great coach and a wonderful man who taught us a lot,” Colley said. “But at the same time, I think guys are ready to work with Coach Kennedy and get right into it.”
With all of that, there’s only one thing left to do for the Mustangs—look ahead. Kennedy’s goals for his first season with the Green and Gold? Win, of course. But it’s the ‘how’ aspect of winning that he knows needs work the most.
“At the end of the day, if we only judge ourselves over whether we win or lose, then there’s a whole body of work in the week that goes out the window because you didn’t quite get the result,” Kennedy said. “And so the focus has to be on the process of getting better, and yeah, we want to have a more successful season than last year… But, if we really focus on the daily stuff, then I think that will take care of itself.”
While it seems like an obvious statement, it’s a philosophy that has led to great success for both of Oige Kennedy’s teams. And, if all goes according to plan, it’s a philosophy that will lead to great success for this team for years to come.