By Tim Schum
Walt Bahr is one of the most iconic figures in American soccer. He is perhaps best known as the long-time captain of the U.S. National Team and a top defender in what is considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history: when the U.S. defeated England 1-0 in the 1950 FIFA World Cup.
Bahr also made a name for himself on the sidelines as a coach, leading teams and players at all levels of the game. More notably, he became coach at Temple (his alma mater), succeeding his former coach Pete Leaness (and NSCAA Hall of Fame inductee) who had died in 1970. The Temple position lasted until 1973. Among the Temple players he coached who would enter the coaching profession, Bahr cited John Boles (Temple), Lew Meehl (Drexel), Larry Sullivan (Villanova), Billy Snyder (Frankford H.S.) and Bob Peffle (LaSalle).
Following Temple, his longest coaching stint was at Penn State. In 1974 Bahr was offered the men’s soccer position and he would remain in charge of the Nittany Lion program until 1988. During his tenure, he would guide his team to 12 NCAA Division I Tournament appearances.
Ever ready to offer his opinions on a wide range of soccer matters, Bahr had an interesting angle on NCAA Tournament play as presently constituted. “Let’s have all teams at the various divisional levels be involved in the tournaments. Cut a couple of regular season games off the schedule. Make it an invitational tournament. Think about it. If there are say, 128 teams invited. One round of the schedule would eliminate 64 teams!
“Now the rest play it down to the Final Four. Everyone has a chance for the title. Nobody is left out by some committee’s arbitrary decisions. Nobody is left with a sour taste in their mouth.”
In terms of player recruitment, Bahr stated that he did it “99 percent by phone.” Through his many years in the game and his outgoing and understated personality, he had developed an extensive soccer network and Bahr utilized word-of-mouth to identify playing prospects.
“I guess I trusted my friends in the game and when I learned of a player from a certain region, I would call a someone in that area and ask a simple question: ‘Can he play?’ I guess my friends all understood what I meant! I think over my time at Penn State I only got ‘burned’ two or three times by my buddies recommending players.”
He was also easy on Penn State’s recruiting budget for soccer. “I think I only took three prospects out for a restaurant dinner. We didn’t get any of them!”
Related to his recruiting methodology, Bahr never left a stone unturned on campus. “We had a lot of foreign students at Penn State. Many would end up playing on a club team or in intramurals. I always took a look at that play as well. From time-to-time we’d come up with someone who could play.”
Bahr was no stranger to also tapping into his foreign contacts in recruiting. Friend Graham Ramsey was acquainted with eventual Penn Stater Duncan MacEwan’s father. The dad was a former Aston Villa professional and looking for the “right fit” for his son. When Ramsey mentioned that Walter Bahr was coaching at Penn State the deal was finalized.
In terms of other coaching principles he lived by, Bahr shared:
- “I rarely recruited backs. I felt that it was always easier to move a player back than to move him forward.” He cited as examples Dan Cantor (recruited as a midfielder but played at center back), Lou Karbiener (recruited as a wing but played at center back), Troy Snyder (also recruited as an outside striker and performed at midfield for Penn State). All were NSCAA All-American and eventually became part of the U.S. National Team program.
- “I constantly reinforced the playing principal—If not sure, play the way you are facing!”
- I liked to imprint our style of play by having 11 players play what I termed ‘dry run soccer.’ We’d move the ball around the field without opposition and talk to the players about options they might have relative to other players around them or away from them. I guess they call it ‘shadow play’ nowadays. We did a lot of that 10-15 minutes a day.”
- “I rarely talked to the team following a game. I would simply remind them of the next practice and let it go at that. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you might say things to the team that were damaging. Better to sit on things for a few hours, review them in your mind, and then plan for how to address matters in later practices. We didn’t do a lot of video-taping or filming of the games so I would try to review things based on my observations.”
- “I think, depending on the day, that you have to have a ‘feel’ for what is the best practice session.” He recalled being exposed to Dettmar Cramer’s coaching methodology when he was invited to a weekend clinic for then-NASL coaches in 1967. “I came back from that and began to lay out my practices according to what I learned there. Many times I never got past my first phase of the practice. I had to admit that what I had planned wasn’t going over well with the players. I went back to my coaching instincts and that seemed to work well for me.”
What is apparent is that Bahr, through his career, has examined the game of soccer and with identified its essentials in terms of both its play and its coaching methodology. What he has determined is that simplicity is to be preferred over complex and, generally less, many times is better than more.
“I think that you, as a coach, have to recognize that sometimes ‘less if more.’ Players and teams need time to regenerate. Players will sometimes benefit more from a day off and again, you as the coach, have to determine that.”
Bahr’s overall collegiate coaching record is 448-137-70. He was named NSCAA Coach of the Year in 1979, presented the NSCAA Honor Award in 1986, and was inducted into the NSCAA Hall of Fame in 1995. His nearly 40-year coaching career included 17 years at the secondary school level (at his old neighborhood Frankford High School) as well as coach of the Philadelphia Spartans and the Philadelphia Ukrainians immediately after retiring as a player. During his six-year tenure with the Ukrainians, he led the club to one American Soccer League (ASL) championship and two appearances in the semifinals.
At the end of his coaching career, the U.S. Soccer Federation wisely utilized Bahr’s combination of a warm, welcoming personality and his international soccer reputation by appointing him to head its delegations to various football competitions.
His career as Head of Delegation included accompanying the men’s national team to Russia, Hungary and Poland, as well as to Italy for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
In terms of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s play during the late 1980s and at the 1990 World Cup, Bahr summarized, “we did see a lot of progress taking place. But we were rarely able to outplay our opponents and had to rely on a well-organized defense in order to remain competitive.”
Bahr also accompanied Anson Dorrance and the U.S. Women’s National Team to China in 1988 when FIFA staged a women’s world championship. “They [FIFA] were trying to figure out if a FIFA World Cup would be a worthwhile event. The large crowds and the competitiveness of the women’s teams convinced them to move forward with the World Cup format for women. I liked what I saw in terms of how our women played. Michele Akers was great and Mia Hamm, 15 at the time, was a very promising player.”
Bahr stated that he was particularly impressed with the women’s play. “They did not rely on physical force. Rather they played my kind of soccer, ‘thinking soccer.’”
Bahr was born in 1927 and is a Philadelphia native through and through. His love affair with soccer started at the age of 10 and had its roots at the Lighthouse Boys Club (LBC) in the Kensington section of the City of Brotherly Love.
And whatever success he has enjoyed, the man acknowledges the role of his baptism to the game at the LBC. It was there that Walter Bahr developed his life-long love affair with soccer.
Walter Bahr is thought by many to have been one of our country’s finest early players and he would also contribute mightily to the progress of the sport through a long and distinguished coaching career. As we of United Soccer Coaches celebrate his life it seems fitting to revisit the highlights of his life in soccer as well as capture some of the coaching lessons he learned both on our country’s playing field and sidelines.
As a Red Apron, Bahr annually regaled Convention attendees with shared stories of soccer days past. Due to illness, he had not been able to attend the recent United Soccer Coaches Conventions.