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Originally published November 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 20, 2007 at 2:45 PM

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McCrath out as coach at SPU

Cliff McCrath has visions of getting a call that will lead him back to the job that made him a legend — soccer coach at Seattle Pacific...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Cliff McCrath file

By the numbers

2 Miles crawled on his knees, from SPU campus to the Space Needle, to celebrate first NCAA title in 1978

3 Halls of Fame (Wheaton College, his alma mater; NAIA; U.S. Soccer)

5 NCAA Division II national championships (1978, '83, '85, '86, '93)

10 National championship matches at SPU

30 SPU trips to NCAA playoffs

37 Consecutive winning seasons at SPU, all but his first

40-plus Players under McCrath who have been drafted by pro teams

49 Seasons coaching college soccer

100-plus Players under McCrath who went on to coach high-school or college soccer

512 Victories at SPU

597 Overall victories

McCrath miscellaneous

Hometown Detroit

Nickname Uncle Nubby. McCrath lost three fingers on his left hand in a childhood accident.

College Wheaton (Ill.) College. McCrath was an outstanding hockey player who decided to try soccer as a sophomore and became an All-American in that sport.

Coaching career Wheaton College, 1958 (4-5-2); Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., 1960-66 (52-26-4); Spring Arbor (Mich.) College, 1967-69 (29-12-2); Seattle Pacific, 1970-2007 (512-190-87). Overall record, 597-233-95.

Cliff McCrath has visions of getting a call that will lead him back to the job that made him a legend — soccer coach at Seattle Pacific University.

"Obviously, it would have been a nice fairy tale to wrap it up in style," he said.

The reality, however, is much messier. It was announced by the university Monday that McCrath is retiring as SPU's soccer coach after 38 years, 512 victories and five NCAA titles.

But the 71-year-old McCrath made it clear that the decision to leave was not his, but rather came at the behest of athletic director Tom Box and university president Philip Eaton.

"It was their idea," McCrath said in a phone conversation Monday. "I told the president and athletic director I was not going to lie when I'm asked the question. I said, 'You have to accept the responsibility for the fact this was your initiative.' "

McCrath, who has 597 victories in a coaching career that spans 49 seasons, said he was told by the administrators "it was time."

Reached for comment, Eaton's office said the president would let his comments in the university's news release stand.

In the release, Eaton called McCrath "simply a legend in the sport, in Seattle, and around the world. ... I am extremely grateful that Cliff has been such a strong advocate and ambassador in the world of soccer for Seattle Pacific University."

Box did not return a call seeking comment.

The Falcons recently finished a 7-6-7 season that, while marking their 37th consecutive winning season (a Division II record), was their fewest victories under McCrath since 1971. That was McCrath's second year on the Queen Anne campus after being hired away from Spring Arbor College in Michigan to be dean of students and soccer coach.

In SPU's release, McCrath said, "The powers that be and I sat down and stared a number of things in the eye, not the least of which was a 7-6-7 season!"

The record, he said "got my attention, and theirs! With seven seniors departing and the prospect of ramping up with a whole new team, we concurred it might be a good time for 'The Nubber' to head for that storied sunset!"

McCrath's successor will be Mark Collings, one of his current assistant coaches and co-captain of SPU's 1998 Final Four team. McCrath said he will remain at the university until Feb. 29 as "retiring head coach" and be part of the program until the end of next June.

"That gives time for a certain dignity and orderly transfer of power," said McCrath.

There were some reports that administrators felt there was a "disconnect" between McCrath and his team. There were also intimations of dissatisfaction by a small group of players and perhaps their parents.

"There were two or three of them I didn't feel I really succeeded with this year," McCrath acknowledged. "I think there could have been some unhappiness. ... I can speculate, but I don't have any facts that they secretly met in a hallway somewhere."

McCrath was reportedly asked to step down in a meeting with Box and Eaton on Nov. 2, the day before the Falcons' final 2007 game against rival Seattle University.

Said McCrath: "I'm taking the high road. I'm not interested in throwing mud at the university. A couple of people felt it was time. After a weekend of lattes, I said, 'OK, I'll submit a letter of retirement. But it must be understood I'm not agreeing with your reasons.' "

McCrath, who is 10 career victories away from the NCAA soccer leader, Joe Bean of Wheaton (Ill.) College, said he offered a compromise that was rejected.

"I said, 'Let's go one more season, get the record and I'll walk away. That way, it can be done the way it should be done.' "

McCrath, an ordained minister, said he received a letter "stating all the things that weren't going on. The letter spells out there aren't any ghosts in my closet. Everything is clean as a whistle. There was no hand in the kitty. I have only seven fingers, so there's not enough of my hand to make it worthwhile."

McCrath, who lost three fingers on his left hand in a childhood accident, adopted the nickname "Uncle Nubby." He was known for having a well-developed sense of humor as well as for lifting SPU to national prominence.

"I come back to the first time I met Cliff, and just how passionate he is about what he does, and the compassion he has for people," said Collings, who assumes immediate responsibility for daily operations of the program.

"He has an amazing spirit for people, and that's what made him so successful."

"I can't think of anybody more synonymous with soccer in the Northwest, or with Seattle Pacific, through all that time," said Frank MacDonald, who served as assistant athletic director for sports information at SPU for 23 years.

In SPU's release, McCrath said, "I'll spend more time with our camp program, and continue challenging little kids as long as the titanium in my knees doesn't rust. But it's time to hand over the golden — make that the 'maroon and white' — wand.' "

But in the phone call, McCrath said, "Even now, I say that maybe it's a dream where I'll wake up and they'll say, 'Let's try something different. Let's go back and redo it.' I'm nothing if not a forgiver. ... Because there's no heinous crime, I have to ask myself, 'Why now?' "

Asked how he wanted his coaching career to be remembered, McCrath said he hoped he made a difference in the lives of the scores of players he coached.

"If they remember when they're lacing up their boots or putting their kids to bed that their life was influenced a little by the seven-fingered 'Uncle Nubber,' that's a comforting thought," he said.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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