Visionary Coach Celebrates 200 Wins
When Andy Jennings ran his first practice as coach of the Vassar men’s soccer team in 1981, he tried hard to convince his players he was a stern disciplinarian. “I was 23, and some of my players were 22, and I felt I needed to draw a line between us,” Jennings recalls.
Back then, Vassar’s soccer players faced other challenges that had nothing to do with the demeanor of their youthful coach. The college’s athletic facilities left a lot to be desired. Richard Webb ’92, who played midfield for four years, recalls having to change into his uniform in a barn near the bumpy patch of ground that served as Vassar’s home field. “I still remember the bat droppings in that barn,” Webb says, “but we all loved playing for Andy.”
Vassar athletics have changed profoundly since then, and many of the changes can be attributed to Jennings. In 1986, he took a three-year leave of absence to earn a PhD in sports psychology at the University of Maryland. His last day on campus that year was the first day on the job for incoming college president Frances Fergusson, so he went to her office. “I told her Vassar was doing a great job helping its students reach their potential academically, artistically, musically, but we did not allow the students to realize their athletic potential, and I considered untapped potential unacceptable, especially at a school like Vassar.”
Fergusson told him she appreciated his passion and would consider what he had to say. And a year after he returned to campus, she named him athletic director, a position he held until 2004. During his tenure, he worked with Fergusson and the Board of Trustees to transform the college’s athletic facilities into some of the best in the country. The Athletics and Fitness Center, a state-of-the-art training facility and gymnasium, was built in 2000, and a nationally acclaimed athletic field complex on the south end of the campus was eventually completed in 2008.
Jennings took a break from coaching during his last seven years as athletic director but returned in 2004. “Things like leadership and commitment to the team—people call them ‘intangibles,’ but they’re just as tangible as athletic ability,” the coach says. “If you put 11 leaders on the field, you’re going to win more games.”
Jennings’s record clearly supports this belief. He celebrated his 200th victory in 2014 and the team qualified for the Liberty League playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. While Vassar didn’t win the championship, as it did in 2011, or advance to the NCAA playoffs, as it did in 2011 and 2012, Jennings says the 2014 season was one of the most satisfying of his career.
Vassar was picked to finish sixth in the eight-team league in a preseason poll, and that was before the team’s best offensive player, Tom Wiechart ’15, suffered a season-ending injury. But Jennings guided the young squad to a third-place finish, in part because of the play of his two sons, Gavin ’16 and Stephen ’17. “The young players we’ve brought in over the past couple of years have great technical skills, and of course it was fun to watch my boys,” Jennings says.
Gavin and Stephen say they briefly considered going to other colleges, but they’re glad they chose Vassar. “Sure, Dad might yell at me more in practice than he does at other players, but I’ve never held it against him,” says Gavin, who led the team in scoring and led the Liberty League in assists.
Jennings says one of the joys of coaching is maintaining close relationships with his players and assistant coaches after they leave Vassar. Former assistant coach Chris Taylor, who left to become Clarkson’s head coach in the summer of 2014, says he wasn’t ready for the job until he worked with Jennings. “I thought I knew a lot about soccer until I started working with Andy,” Taylor reports.
“They say everyone’s replaceable,” he adds, “but that’s not true. Nobody could have built that program the way Andy has.”