When Seattle Pacific soccer alumni of a certain age inevitably gather, there's no shortage of stories.
From tales of seemingly endless cross-country road trips to innumerable narratives regarding their leader, Uncle Nubby, there is plenty of fodder. And while hundreds of alums experienced final fours and dozens contributed to the Falcons' five championships, there's a certain reverence for those who did it first.
By winning the 1978 NCAA Division II championship, SPU set in motion a Puget Sound tidal surge that would extend for more than 15 years and, some would argue, unceasingly to this date.
Upon returning home from Miami in early December of ‘78, Falcons coach Cliff McCrath, a.k.a. Nubby, took fast action on two counts. The first remains the most sensational and storied publicity stunt in our soccer community's long and distinguished history. The second was to affirm the source of bounty McCrath molded into champions.
It was plain to see that Seattle Pacific was the beneficiary of leadership and coaching throughout Washington youth soccer, so he immediately drafted a letter to the statewide association.
"Eight of the starters came from the area," McCrath notes. "Effectively, this national championship belonged to them; it was dedicated to them because these were their players."
Uncle Nubby Did What?
Once that letter was stamped and sent and barely four days after SPU upset Alabama A&M in three overtimes for the title, McCrath hit the cold, hard pavement of Seattle. Making good on a public promise, he literally crawled 2.7 miles from campus to the Space Needle's base.
It was a feat covered at length by every Puget Sound media outlet, broadcast and print. It was the top story on sports pages. Suddenly the profiles of McCrath and SPU were elevated far above just the local soccer landscape.
"Even to this day," says McCrath, who turned 81 on Feb. 3, "people introduce me by telling of me pushing a peanut over Queen Anne Hill. The crawl became legendary."
While those were heady days for SPU and McCrath, it was not fleeting. If anything, the Falcons were just getting started. Their stature grew immensely over the next decade. Yet the windfall would be realized by neighboring programs, as well. Effectively, the rising tide lifted all ships.
In 1978, Peter Hattrup was a freshman at Seattle Prep. McCrath and the Falcons' championship feat certainly got his attention.
"You barely heard anything about soccer except for the Sounders at the time," states Hattrup. "When that first team won the championship, and Cliff being Cliff by bringing as much possible attention to it, it really put (SPU) front and center."
Character is Contagious
With a trophy in hand, Seattle Pacific separated itself from crosstown rivals Washington and Seattle University (both Div. I at the time) and began getting more and more of the state's top recruits. SPU was about to embark on an era of travel without peer. More than just winning, the Falcons were playing for higher stakes in an era where the distinction of collegiate divisions was much more muddled.
What attracted Hattrup to SPU was the character, both of McCrath and his players. He joined a men's league side that featured a handful of SPU champions.
"I got a firsthand experience of being around it, the taste of it, the winning attitude, and the guys who were sacrificing," says Hattrup. None of the Falcons' success would've been "possible without a group of guys-mostly local-that really had the same vision, of going and doing something special."
Hattrup was among those to reinforce the SPU mystique. In 1983, his sophomore season, he was the top scorer on the school's second championship team. In 1985 came another title, and in '86 the Falcons became the first Div. II team to repeat as champion. In each of those NCAA finals, the wins came at the expense of opponents relying on an international nucleus while McCrath went with predominantly Northwest natives.
Washington's Stock Rises
"Cliff believed in not only American kids but the local kids," notes Hattrup. "We were not only playing for the school but we were playing for Seattle. We wanted to show that Seattle soccer was good."
Clearly this was when Washington's soccer pedigree was fast becoming known nationwide. In the early Eighties the Sounders were promoting homegrowns-such as Mark Peterson, Jeff Stock, Brian Schmetzer and Chance Fry-into the first team. But it was more than that.
Seattle's Croatia Eagles, featuring several SPU alumni, triumphed in the 1982 U.S. men's amateur cup. In '83 came the state's first youth national crown, Federal Way's Goalpost for the U16 boys. In 1985 much of the same group were runners-up in the Open Cup and in 1988 breezed to the championship of the country's top league, the Western Soccer Alliance.
Seattle teams won the women's national open cup three consecutive years. Pacific Lutheran was the pride of the Northwest women's collegiate programs, taking three NAIA championships in four years.
Believing is Transformational
Once SPU had scaled the summit, others began scrambling up the mountain. All told, in the succeeding 15 years after Seattle Pacific's '78 NCAA title, Puget Sound area youth and senior teams won 18 national championships. In the preceding century: none. The difference: belief.
"All the other teams that won championships at SPU can trace a line back to that first team," claims Hattrup, adding that the '91 Women's World Cup champions featured Michelle Akers, Shannon Higgins and two other locals. Akers attended McCrath's summer camp on Whidbey Island.
"It's easy for people to look and say that soccer's great here now," offers Hattrup, "but that soccer culture was started in the mid-Seventies and the early culmination was that '78 winning a championship."
It's a beautiful thing, belief. The fruit of ability, hope and knowledge, belief is that crucial final station before realization.
"You started having that thought that (championships are) not just for guys out of St. Louis or foreign kids," Hattrup explains. "Maybe we can win too. Why not? Until somebody does win, it's hard to get to that plane. All of a sudden somebody did win and it helped all of us say, ‘Hey, maybe we are that good.'"
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.