Caleb Porter’s departure for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer worked out the best it possibly could for the University of Akron.
It was only a matter of time before Porter was lured away. Porter, 37, is starting his seventh season as men’s soccer coach. Athletic Director Tom Wistrcill, who has been at UA for three years, said he has fended off advances from the pros for Porter’s services every winter. Wistrcill’s predecessor, Mack Rhoades, might have done the same, although perhaps not with such regularity.
Porter’s goal was to be an MLS coach. He considered a job with D.C. United three years ago. Taking UA to the College Cup in 2009 and 2010, winning UA’s only team national title in any sport in his second trip, and his appointment to head the Under-23 men’s national team made the announcement Wednesday inevitable, despite the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for the London Olympics on his watch.
Still, when his dream job came, Porter did the right thing. Rather than bolting for Portland, Ore., immediately, he elected to finish the Zips’ season that is one game old.
Wistrcill said Porter will begin his job with the Timbers on Dec. 15. Porter did what those who know him expected him to do — he’s leaving with class.
Porter is so focused on his team that he will not appear at a news conference in Portland this week. He will have nothing to say about his departure from UA until after the season.
When he left a team meeting Wednesday at InfoCision Stadium, Porter did shake hands, accept congratulations and make one comment in reference to finishing this season.
“That’s what’s fair for the players,” Porter said before departing with the rest of his staff.
“That’s a credit to Caleb; the loyalty he feels to his players and to this program,” Wistrcill said. “He could be leaving tomorrow, but he said, no; he wants to coach this year out. That’s a tribute to him and the type person he is.”
Reporters in Northeast Ohio and Oregon and the media types at MLS headquarters can’t be happy about Porter’s silence. He will face questions about the Timbers everywhere he goes. Those could have been silenced with a conference call or a couple of news conferences.
But Porter’s seventh-ranked Zips face second-ranked Creighton on Friday and SIU-Edwardsville on Sunday in the Ameritas Classic in Omaha, Neb. Rankings-wise, the Blue Jays are the toughest opponent on their schedule. They also take on No. 4 South Florida, No. 10 Indiana and No. 15 St. John’s next month. With the Mid-American Conference season usually a cakewalk, this is the meat of the UA season.
It might have been hard for Porter to convince his players he’s committed to them had he spent his time appearing on radio, TV and in newspapers across the country. It might be hard to convince them to think about team first if he were thinking about his career first.
Yes, he has been doing that for the past few days, if not weeks, apparently. As smarmy as that might seem as far as the timing, especially since he was under contract with UA through 2020, he found it hard to turn down an opportunity with an expansion team with a rabid fan base and with one of his former UA stars, Hermann Trophy winner Darlington Nagbe, one of 14 of his former players now in MLS.
Now his thoughts must be on nothing but the Zips. Porter conveyed that during the post-practice meeting Wednesday. Senior captain Chad Barson said Porter was emotional.
“He loves Akron, he loves this community, he loves the support we get and he’s put his heart and soul into this program and university to make it a national powerhouse,” said Barson, from Lewis Center, Ohio. “He’s definitely emotional about it, but he’s more focused than ever to make sure everything is on this season and on this weekend. His attention is on us, on his staff, to make sure we’re all focused and ready for this weekend and for this season and to win another national championship.”
If Barson’s reaction is any indication, the Zips didn’t feel betrayed by Porter’s decision.
“I think I speak for the rest of the team, we’re all happy for him,” Barson said. “In the past he’s always given his blessing to guys when it’s the right time to leave, to move on to the MLS, to bigger things. So we’ve kind of given him our blessing because we know it’s the right opportunity for him and the right time.”
Barson said not an ounce of regret entered his mind as Porter spoke.
“Not at all, it’s mostly joy and happy for him knowing he’s still going to be here this year for us,” he said. “This is no different.
“This is an opportunity that’s very rare for college coaches. We’re happy for him to be able to take this next step in his career because he has aspirations just like all of us. But it certainly is great that he’s going to stay the rest of the year. We know that his loyalty lies with Akron. He doesn’t work for the Portland Timbers. He won’t until after the season.”
Porter and LeBron James did more to put Akron on the map than any sports figures of the past decade, if not longer. James was derided for his lack of loyalty when he decided to leave the Cavaliers for South Beach at age 25 before he delivered Cleveland a championship.
Porter, too, is relatively young in his profession. He and his wife have three children, ages 3 and under. No one could expect him to continue to turn down better jobs, especially when he already has made UA a national power in men’s soccer. In a sense, his mission was accomplished in 2010.
At least this time, loyalty ruled.