Q&A: NorCal Coaching Legend Philippe Blin
Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with former Pleasanton RAGE Director of Coaching Philippe Blin. After 20 years at the head of the club, Blin retired today, leaving behind a legacy of coaching in Northern California. Prior to his work at the RAGE, Blin served as the first-ever women’s coach for San Jose State, an assistant at Santa Clara, and headed various other high school and club programs in over three decades in the area. Normally, NorCal’s Q&A series just goes straight into the interview, but in light of Blin’s contributions to soccer in Northern California, we’re first starting with some words that others had to say about Blin.
“Dear Philippe, you marched onto the field with grace, humility and passion, and your players and colleagues have left your presence as better people and players. Going back over 30 years ago, I knew from the beginning you were a force, albeit a gentle one, but a force nevertheless. You have lived as an example to all of us. Your tremendous work ethic, an indefatigable resilience to persevere in your journey in coaching and citizenship, leadership for your players and mentoring young aspiring coaches. You always said you had time and gave it freely, even if you really didn’t. You loved and cared about every player who came to the field, whether they were going to be a national team player (which you had your share), an NCAA champion (again, you had many), an elite club contributor (too many to count) and grassroots players and parents (infinite in scope). You have been a shining example of the “ESSENCE” of what a coach should and MUST be. I want to thank you for influencing my life WAY beyond what you probably intended and for giving me a life’s worth of friendship and love. The field and its players will miss you but your LEGACY will certainly live on and positively impact the game and its people for decades to come. Lastly, and simply, THANK YOU.” – Former U.S.National Teamer Brandi Chastain
“From the age of 12-18, I not only learned the game of soccer from Philippe, but I also discovered myself as a leader and as a person. Philippe provided our team with the structure we needed, but also gave us freedom and created a positive environment so we could thrive as individuals. Aside from my parents, I cannot think of another adult who had such a huge influence on my life. I will forever be thankful that he was my coach.” – Former U.S. National Teamer Danielle Slaton
“Philippe and I have been friends for more than 30 years and I consider him to be one of my closest friends. I first met Philippe in the late 80s when he asked me to come watch one of his Leland High School players that was interested in Santa Clara University. Little did I know at the time that would turn into Philippe and I working together at Santa Clara University and becoming best friends. Philippe has a great sense of humor, is very thoughtful, and has a great passion for life and soccer. He is always the brightest light in the room and people love being around him. Brandi and I love spending time with Philippe and his wife Fouzia whenever we get the chance, and although we will be sad to see them leave northern California, we look forward to spending time with them in Morocco regularly! Philippe has had an amazing impact on the lives of some many of us in the soccer world and I am so thankful for all he has done for soccer in northern California, and even more thankful for our friendship. Love you, brother!” – Longtime Santa Clara University Women’s Head Coach Jerry Smith
“Philippe is a gem of a person. From the moment he arrived on the Northern California Soccer scene it was clear he possessed something different. His coaching style, demeanor and passion influenced many of us over the years. He has not only influenced soccer in a positive manner he has brightened every room he stepped into over the past few decades. He will be greatly missed but we can all visit him in Morocco.” – NorCal Premier Soccer President Benjamin Ziemer
Now onto the interview:
NorCal: As a firefighter in France, how did you get involved in coaching soccer?
Blin: When I was at the fire station, I was in charge of the physical education part of it. We had a soccer team and obviously I wanted to coach a team because I loved it. I was also very well connected with Paris Saint Germain, who were my team, my go to team to watch games. I tried to play for Paris Saint Germain, but I was not good enough to be a pro. I learned very quickly that I was not ready, but I was good enough to be in the firefighter team, the first team, and be involved with the coaching.
NorCal: So was this firefighter team an amateur team?
Blin: It was like the national league, it was at the development level, but some of these guys were good. They were firefighters, but they could have been pros. It was somehow all like a dream.
NorCal: So was coaching your dream?
Blin: Coaching was definitely there, but it was more a calling than a dream. I discovered when I came to this country that this was going to be my dream and my calling for some reason.
NorCal: So how did you get your start coaching in Northern California?
Blin: I started coaching boys high school in Saratoga. My English, at that time, was very, very broken. It was bad. But
the athletic director asked me to bring the program back, whatever it took. So I put little Saratoga back on the map after two or three seasons, which was very challenging. It’s very challenging for me to coach boys. Then Leland High School, on the girls side, offered me a position, so I went to Leland High School in San Jose. At this time at Leland High School, I had a player who was very good so I told Jerry Smith of Santa Clara that he had to watch this player because she was so good. He said he didn’t have time so I begged him and called him to come and watch her. He finally came to watch her in the high school season. I was very proud and happy for the girl and I called him the next day. He said, “no, she is not good enough for my team.” So I started to argue with him. I said, “what do you know? You don’t know anything.” I was not very nice. You know what he did? He invited me to come to training to watch his training at Santa Clara. I went to watch and he said, “hey, what about you run the training for me?” I said, “what?” And my English was not very good and he wants me to deal with university kids. But I ran the session, I think it was a technical session and he liked it and said, “what about staying with me and helping me out?” Because Jerry started the program in 1988 and this was 1989. So I stayed at Santa Clara for six seasons and then San Jose State decided to start a women’s program with the help of Jerry. You know, Jerry is a great guy, outstanding. So I started with the women’s program at San Jose State in 1995. So I stuck with it for five years but then my athletic director was not helping too much with women’s soccer so I decided to (take the position at Pleasanton), but again, with the help of Jerry. In 2000, I decided to go to Pleasanton RAGE. In the meantime, when I was at San Jose State/Santa Clara, I coached a team called the Mercury. The Central Valley Mercury. That team with Ali Wagner, Danielle Slaton, I mean some great players. They played for me when they were younger. I coached them for eight seasons and they ended up winning, in the past it used to be the national championship and the regional tournaments. It was not NorCal, it was CYSA stuff, but we ended up winning a lot of stuff. Somehow I was very involved at the youth level when I was at San Jose State. And then with Pleasanton, it used to be the Pleasanton Youth Soccer Association. And they decided to move on with paid coaches and so on and so on. With the help of Jerry, they brought me in and in 2000 we started the process with Pleasanton RAGE. It was 20 years ago June 1st.
NorCal: Since then, Pleasanton RAGE has been one of the top club teams in Northern California and you’ve been there for 20 years. What are you the most proud of in your time there?
Blin: What I’m most proud of is that when I first came into Pleasanton RAGE, everyone was fully in compliance with the direction and the future of the club. Because you have to pick your battles. Board members can be hard to work with, but if you have a good president and support behind them, it’s a success. So the president was very good and wanted the club to move forward and was willing to accept the changes we wanted to make. So for example, we didn’t have a second team or a third team. We just had competitive teams and rec teams, so we had to change everyone’s mind.
NorCal: Coming from Europe, was it hard to transition to the way that the youth soccer system works over here?
Blin: The transition wasn’t that hard because I had to prove everything every time. I told everyone that I was going to do exactly what I did with that Mercury team when I was in Almaden. I said, “I’m going to try, I’m going to show you the way I did it and I’m going to do it for the club.” So I took a team, they were eight-years-old, and we ended up being very successful when they were freshmen and sophomores and juniors in high school. So everyone bought into the system. The system was just the basic fundamentals of soccer and emphasized the development of kids over winning, which is not an easy thing, especially in America. So when you tell the parents that you don’t really want to win, they think we don’t care about winning. But we’re not saying that we don’t care. Before you win, you have to develop.
NorCal: What are some of the other biggest challenges about coaching in this country and Northern California?
Blin: The challenge is always educating the parents about what exactly football means. What is football? How do you develop? How do you teach people? The most challenging thing is always the education of the parents. I’m lucky because I only coach girls. And on the girls side, it’s a little bit different type of parents. They want to win, but if you tell them that there’s a process and they understand it, they will buy into your process. That’s what we’ve been looking at at Pleasanton, to always talk and explain our action plan. It wasn’t that easy, but nothing is easy.
NorCal: So you’ve been here 34 years and coached the RAGE for 20 years. What’s changed in that time period in youth soccer?
Blin: There are definitely better coaches, there’s better coaching education. Organizations like NorCal have been more proactive. People at NorCal understand soccer and when we used to be at the other state association, nobody understood soccer and they still don’t. They don’t because they’re stuck. That’s why they don’t go forward like NorCal is going forward.
NorCal: In what way?
Blin: Well the board is all old people. I’m serious. I even tried to help them out. Instead of complaining for many years, I applied to be the ODP director. I did that, they gave me the position. We managed to do the best that we can, but we still had people, non-soccer people who tried to make decisions for soccer people. That’s why I left. I said, “the first non-soccer person to tell me what to do, I’m out.” The next day I was out. They said they wanted to listen, but they didn’t. You can ask Benjamin (Ziemer), Troy Dayak, Shawn (Blakeman). We went to a meeting, a CYSA meeting and we talked about changes and they told us, “no, no changes, no paid coaches.” They were crazy. And that’s when Ziemer decided to go. I loved it.
NorCal: In that same vein, what can we do as a region and a country to improve and get to the next level?
Blin: I think the problem that the US is facing on the men’s side is the culture, the development of the whole culture. What is an American soccer player? When you watch French football or a German game, there is a culture. You are born with it. Here, they copy models. You are looking at the German game. There’s no focus on USA football. The women have much more of an identity. The women created themselves and they have always been organized, athletic, and faster, but other countries are catching up. You have to have a real culture of soccer. If you don’t understand it, you have to create it. And how do you create a culture? For me, there are a lot of arguments in US Soccer, the arguments about what is right, what is wrong, how to develop. The federation needs to step up, the US Soccer federation, where are they? In France, the federation is telling everybody to play a 4-4-2, so everyone from the pro to the youth, everybody is going to try to implement the 4-4-2 formation. That’s an example. You have to be willing to dig, you have to be willing to implement your style. That’s what I think this country is missing the most, the American style, what exactly is it? In the past everyone said, “wow, the Americans are strong and athletic, they’re good in the air.” Okay, so work around this, but develop the players. But there’s no patience here. Everyone just wants a quick fix.
NorCal: What’s next for you?
Blin: The plan for me is to move to Morocco, where my wife is from. Right now we’re stuck because of the pandemic so we’ll put the trip on hold until maybe February, but there is no real plan anyway. Hopefully I’m going to be able to do some stuff over there with soccer, working with the younger age groups on the women’s side.
NorCal: So do you want to try to grow the women’s game in Morocco?
Blin: Yeah because it’s very important to develop that for sure and there’s some great potential, I know it.
NorCal: You mentioned the pandemic. This happened while you were in the middle of ending your tenure with the Pleasanton RAGE. What advice were you giving your players and what were you telling them given that you couldn’t train in a traditional manner at the time?
Blin: Well, we have a new Director of Coaching, Erin Sharpe. Erin came early enough for the transition to be smooth. With the transition, I have to give her credit, and I know now that we didn’t make a mistake by having her be my replacement. She stepped up to the plate in a big way. What we decided was to have the players stay connected with the club and the coaches. What we’ve been doing is sessions over Google Classroom doing technical work and fitness, everything online. The coaches are following up with the teams. It’s been like this since March 17th or 18th, so three months. But we’ve been very connected and everybody is coming back on the competitive side so from the youth all the way to the senior team, most of everyone is coming back. I think it’s awesome. Or lucky.
NorCal: What’s your best memory from your time in Northern California?
Blin: Wow, there are so many. But the one that stands out is the success I had with the Mercury, the De Anza Magic, the Pleasanton RAGE, we went to the national championship four times and won two in a row. Working with great people who understand that there is a soccer aspect but also a human development aspect. That’s one of our successes, that the people here understand not just the soccer part, but all the other parts. There are some really good people. The soccer is amazing as well. I only have friends who are soccer people, nobody else.