A buzz quickly spread throughout Morgantown on July 3. As United States soccer fans watched Germany dismantle Argentina, 4-0, in a quarterfinal FIFA World Cup match in Cape Town, South Africa, the ESPN camera crew panned to the crowd and caught movie star Leonardo DiCaprio intently watching the action and sporting a West Virginia University ball cap.
Though this was far from the first time DiCaprio was captured representing the Old Gold and Blue, this particular occurrence was witnessed by a world audience on one of the biggest international sport stages.
Any apparent form of support for the Mountaineers is a source of pride for all WVU fans, but with all due respect for Mr. Titanic, a life-long Mountain State advocate was quietly observing the action behind the scenes, where he has resided for nearly three decades.
Hank Steinbrecher has spent the majority of his adult life working toward the growth and development of soccer in the United States. A native of Rockaway Beach, N.Y., and a student of the game, Steinbrecher, who received his Master’s of Education from WVU in 1972, smoothly transitioned from a skillful athlete, to a knowledgeable coach, to a power player in the “world’s game” – soccer.
Steinbrecher may be best known for his 10-year tenure (1990-2000) as the secretary general for the U.S. Soccer Federation. After joining the Federation on Nov. 5, 1990, U.S. Soccer experienced unprecedented growth, including the formation of Major League Soccer in 1993 and the league’s debut in 1996. Only four years into his career with the Federation, Steinbrecher served as the point man of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in nine cities across the United States; that championship is still regarded as one of the most successful World Cups.
“He is the man that essentially brought the 1994 World cup to the United States,” said WVU men’s soccer coach Marlon LeBlanc. “That tournament is the most successful World Cup that FIFA has ever put on, in terms of ticket sales and revenue. It was such an accomplishment to bring soccer to the U.S. back in the ‘90s. He secured sponsorships and essentially kicked-off our league (the MLS) – that alone is one of the most-defining moments for soccer in this country.
“Everyone always thinks about what is done on the field, but what he did off the field for soccer in this country is unparalleled. He can skirt over that, but the soccer people really appreciate and know what he did.”
For his part, Steinbrecher credits his off-field achievements to the life lessons he learned playing the game in West Virginia.
“My trip and my studies in West Virginia turned my life around,” Steinbrecher said recently. “It was the catalyst that had the most effect on my life.”
A prominent figure on the national champion Davis & Elkins College soccer teams during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Steinbrecher recalls struggling a bit as a soccer player. Despite his own team’s success, and the achievements of other state teams, such as Alderson-Broaddus, West Virginia Wesleyan and WVU, the sport was a tough sell throughout the area.
“We felt like we were missionaries,” Steinbrecher laughed at the memory. “Go to Beverly (West Virginia) and put on a soccer clinic in 1968 and you’ll see how difficult it was to sell soccer early on.”
Steinbrecher played for Greg Myers while at D&E. A two-year Mountaineer letterman and coach (1965-66), Myers had a no-nonsense reputation for demanding the best of his student-athletes.
“He and I didn’t see eye-to-eye when I was a student,” Steinbrecher said. “I was much more a hippie, a radical-thinker at the time, and Greg was a very conservative Marine drill sergeant.
“After I graduated, I went up his house and said, ‘Coach, I just want to thank you for what you’ve done for me. I know you may not understand that I realize what you’ve done for me, but I do. I just want to thank you – you’ve opened my life’.”
Myers’ response lingers with Steinbrecher to this day.
“I don’t want your thanks,” the coach retorted. “I just want you to do for other people what you think I’ve done for you.”
Steinbrecher maintains that he has spent the remainder of his adult life trying to live up Myers’ advice and says that such life lessons were what West Virginia student-athletes could expect back then.
“That’s what you got when you went to places like WVU, Davis & Elkins and the other West Virginia schools,” he said. “You weren’t a number. You were a soccer player – you were there. There was so much mentorship at that time. Coaches were leaders, not just administrators. That’s what West Virginia gave me – terrific lessons in life.”
Though busy now as president of Touchline Consultants, Inc., Steinbrecher bursts into laughter when asked if he follows the current Mountaineers, implying that his life is never too hectic to fall out of touch with his alma mater. In fact, he admires the strides LeBlanc has taken with the WVU program over the last four years.
“I have a lot of faith in the guy,” Steinbrecher said of LeBlanc. “I think he’s done a great job in making the team more West Virginia. He is looking for local talent and fostering the community. I think he will, and has done, a great job.”
Respect is a two-way street as LeBlanc admits to not only remembering Steinbrecher’s glory days at Davis & Elkins, but also admiring the civic work he and his teammates did throughout the state’s communities.
“Guys like Hank are what a lot of people refer to as old school, and as I get older, I become a lot more old school, too,” LeBlanc said. “As a young coach, I certainly try to emulate a lot of the things that those guys did. I think the more we can engage our community, the better we will be.”
LeBlanc believes that the Mountaineers can develop soccer pride in West Virginia.
“West Virginia isn’t known for being a powerhouse soccer state or for producing great soccer players, but I think what an unbelievable revolution it would be,” the coach said. “Those old teams really put West Virginia on the map for soccer, and I think for a long time that’s been lost. I think our team can go back out and revitalize that.”
With the June appointment of Oliver Luck as the new Mountaineer director of athletics, chances are good that Steinbrecher and LeBlanc will be able to catch up in Morgantown soon. Connected through their work with and around the MLS, Luck and Steinbrecher developed a friendly relationship over the years, one that could bring the latter back to the Mountain State.
“I’d love to (get back to Morgantown),” said Steinbrecher. “I think now that Ollie is there, the chances are significantly better.”
While the odds are greater of catching DiCaprio in a WVU hat rather then in the stands at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium, a potential joint Luck-Steinbrecher sideline appearance is enough to excite LeBlanc.
“Doors have been opened,” LeBlanc said. “Obviously, I have an athletic director who loves the sport and is on the same wave length as I am and wants to win a national championship for West Virginia men’s soccer. It’s not going to be easy, but he understands the obstacles and what it’s going to take for us to get to the next level.”
As for Steinbrecher, his return trips to West Virginia don’t begin and end in Morgantown. As a member of the Davis & Elkins College Board of Trustees, he travels back to the area at least four times a year, and has not given up hope of one day moving back with his wife of 38 years, Ruth Ann, a Charleston native.
“It’s a wonderful place,” he said with a hint of wonder. “I’d love to go there one day.”
Until then, Steinbrecher will continue to support two of his great loves – U.S. soccer and the state of West Virginia – and the Mountain State will remain privileged to have such a distinguished, accomplished advocate.
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