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When Falcons Took Flight

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Geographically isolated, Seattle Pacific's powerhouse program of the 1980s and '90s went to great lengths to strengthen its schedule. Road trips of 8 games and more than 3 weeks were the norm each September. And they just kept winning.

Cliff McCrath lifts the 1985 NCAA championship trophy in Miami after defeating Florida International.
Courtesy Seattle Pacific University

It’s been well over 30 years yet Peter Hattrup remembers rolling into a September 1983 practice.

Hattrup was a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University, and the Falcons were in Atlanta, wrapping up another extended early-season road trip. Having come directly from the airport to Georgia State’s training field, the players and coaches emptied out of their fleet of five shiny, black Lincoln Town Cars.

Trudging off the field following their own practice session, the Georgia State players were slack-jawed, to say the least.

"One guy said, ‘Damn, you guys travel in style. I thought it was the mafia pulling up,’" recalls Hattrup. "He asked how long we drove; I said we flew. Then he asked where we were staying; I said Peachtree Plaza. He said, ‘S***. You guys fly here and stay at the Plaza!?"

Indeed, for more than two decades SPU was easily the most traveled college soccer program on the planet. In an era when even the biggest D-1 powers were largely confined to the gas tank capacity of a school-issued van, the Falcons regularly crisscrossed the continent at 30,000 feet and drove the interstates in style.

This was no anomaly, no gimmick. Upon his hiring, coach Cliff McCrath was asked to create a national-class program in an area isolated geographically from soccer bastions. Furthermore, McCrath’s program was without a true home field for the first 29 seasons. To become the best requires rigorous tests. So, Seattle Pacific hit the road.

Up, Up and Away

An early season ritual, at first the road trip consisted of a handful of West Coast games. Soon enough, the Falcons took flight and eight dates became the norm, with destinations far, far away. Although 2,700 miles away, Miami was a frequent terminus.

Even in this contemporary age where air travel has become an afterthought, only two in-state programs are slated to step foot inside the Eastern time zone this autumn. Combined, the Washington and Eastern Washington women will play four times. By comparison, during between 1981-94, five times SPU played four or more ET games on a single trip, not to mention other locales.

On that particular ’83 road trip, Hattrup and SPU had begun a two-week stretch in New Orleans. Then it was onto Miami, Jacksonville and Atlanta. In October, they would return to the friendly skies for a weekend tournament outside Chicago. That’s six games played at least two time zones away from Seattle. They would win all five, convincingly.

Later in December, the Falcons made it six wins in seven, returning to Florida to claim their second NCAA Division II championship, at Tampa.

Go Forth and Prosper

Those were extremely prosperous times for Seattle Pacific. During McCrath’s 38-year run on Queen Anne, he took his teams to 23 states and five national titles (runners-up in five more). That’s more trophies and travel than the West Coast’s presumed D1 giant, UCLA.

Nowadays, it may surprise some that Seattle Pacific was the top program of any size in the Northwest, and that it helped launch the careers of Hattrup, Marcus Hahnemann, Jason Dunn and several other notable USL Sounders. Yet the allure of playing for the charismatic McCrath, traveling America and playing for championships proved irresistible to most.

More than a coach, McCrath was masterful in building schedules and finding the funding to pay for it all. A kid at heart, he was a bit of a pied piper, leading his legion to walk The Mall in Washington, ascend the World Trade Center, squint in the brilliance of the Las Vegas Strip, ride Disneyland’s Matterhorn and bodysurf the white sand beaches of Miami.

Hattrup admits the lure of adventure was seductive.

An Allure Like No Other

"Those days there wasn’t a ton of scholarships, and you were promised an experience you wouldn’t get at any other college," notes Hattrup, who had only flown once prior to pulling on an SPU shirt.

Whereas a handful of players might benefit from a full-ride, practically everyone reaped the reward of the travel experience. Families also followed along, opting to coordinate their vacations with wherever SPU was headed next.

"I think every kid should have exposure to his country, so we try to stop in as many points across the nation as possible in a four-year period. It’s a chance to see different cultures and meet different people," McCrath said at the time. "Some of these kids might not otherwise travel beyond a neighboring state…I try hard to get the best possible deals on transportation and lodging, but I also feel the need to give our players a taste of class."

Of course, the SPU athletic coffers could not provide resources sufficient for such extensive travel. Rather it was McCrath who would successfully raise funds. Later he was instrumental in the pitch for private funding for constructing Interbay Stadium.

At home, playing for SPU was often a nomadic existence. Training was at night, often 20 miles from campus. In the final season prior to Interbay opening, the Falcons hosted games at four different fields in Seattle and on the Eastside.

Until the late Nineties, when NCAA selection criteria shifted, the difference then between SPU and prominent Division I programs was minimal. In fact, the Falcons generally played 7-10 games versus D1s: Harvard and Yale, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s, SMU and UNLV, Air Force and New Mexico, San Diego and San Diego State. Then, of course, were expeditions to face D2 powers such as Southern Connecticut, Florida International and Tampa. Although playing the vast majority of those matches on the road, Seattle Pacific’s record versus D1s was 79-74-36.

In 1989, when the opening road trip was nearly four weeks, McCrath scheduled eight D1s and just four D2s. At the time, SPU was the only one Div. II men’s soccer program in the Northwest. "I’m sure people think we’re nuts to travel so far and so long, but there aren’t enough (NCAA) teams in our area," McCrath declared at the time. "We needed to travel. The end result is that we take on all comers."

Overwhelming at First

Scott Cairns enrolled in 1983 after establishing himself as one of the state’s top playmaking midfielders at Redmond. He was admittedly overwhelmed at first by the travel.

"It was the first time I’d been away. I was probably naïve, not entirely knowing what I was getting into," recalls Cairns. "I always remember coming back from that trip to play Seattle U, thrashing them (5-0) in the afternoon, and then just going to bed. Mentally, I was just wiped. But getting used to that travel helped me later."

By the time SPU brought home the championship trophy that December, Cairns had logged some 14,000 air miles. His career total would climb to 46,000 with stops in 13 states. Cairns holds the distinction of starting four NCAA championship games during his career and winning three. Two of those triumphs came in Florida.

Ah, the Accoutrements

The Falcons’ frequent flying rarely interfered with class time. They always returned by the third week of September, before fall quarter commenced.

Coaches at all levels attest to the fact that traveling can pull a team closer together. Sigi Schmid, who often requested travel tips from McCrath while at UCLA, forged a family atmosphere for Sounders FC early on. Seattle toured Argentina and Spain in its first two preseasons.

"It’s totally team bonding, going away" explains Cairns. "You find out who you can count on. We had a core group of guys who were grinders, fighters who didn’t like to lose. When it comes down to it, the difference can be who will battle, and we had that difference."

In some ways, McCrath would carefully craft the itinerary, in terms of training fields and team meals. However, there was plenty of free time to explore, and at least a couple players had keys to a Town Car, which was as synonymous to SPU soccer as the Batmobile is to Batman.

While other teams were carried in generic, 16-passenger vans, McCrath worked a deal with Budget for the Lincolns, which, for a comparable price, provided added comfort, excellent sound systems (a must for college-aged guys) and ample trunk space for the gear. The Town Cars always made a distinct impression, as evidenced in Atlanta.

The cylindrical, 73-story Peachtree Plaza was not a one-off; Seattle Pacific rarely skimped on lodging with McCrath negotiating deals. One regular retreat was Fort Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar. Two championships were won and celebrated there.

The Golden Rules

While there’s an infamous tale of a mattress being launched from one of the Bahia Mar’s upper floors, and occasionally a freshman might find himself playfully stuffed in a trunk, for the most part SPU players strayed from trouble. There were only a few rules, and McCrath expected his players to abide.

  • Be respectful and courteous to hotel, restaurant and airline staff;
  • Keep noise levels down after 10 p.m.
  • At checkout, pile soiled towels in tubs, and
  • "Leave each place better than you found it." That included collecting cups, orange peels and athletic tape from each practice field and bench area.

"Cliff wanted to instill values," says Bob Grams, the Falcons’ athletic trainer for over 30 seasons. Travel is often fraught with issues: cancelled flights, rental cars or rooms unavailable. "One of his qualities was to, rather than get angry with the front desk person, he would manage to get that person on his side. You get a lot further doing it that way."

Unrivaled

Ultimately, the trips only enhanced the experience of playing for Seattle Pacific. Travel expanded everyone’s horizon and knowledge of the nation in general. In the pre-regionalization days, few could rival Seattle Pacific’s strength of schedule.

The first four title teams lost an average of four regular season games. But when the playoffs arrived–the Falcons qualified in 25 of 27 seasons during their peak travel era–the travel and challenge of facing strong sides was nothing new.

When Hattrup, Cairns & Co. upset Tampa and Florida International on the road, no less, to claim NCAA crowns on Florida’s Bermuda grass, they were just going about their business.

"Travel for us was normal. It was fun," says Hattrup of the days before TSA checks and crammed cabins. "We traveled in a fashion where it wasn’t a hardship. Come the playoffs, we weren’t awed by it; it was no ordeal. We just said, ‘Let’s go.’"

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.