Legend has it that Chatham High School in New Jersey had abandoned its football program early in the last century because the mayor's son had broken his neck on the gridiron. So back in the 1960s, top young Chatham athletes like John Rennie played basketball, baseball - and soccer.
In his senior year, Rennie scored 30 goals in 15 games. An assistant P.E. teacher, Gene Chyzowych, encouraged Rennie to move on to Temple University, and Rennie scored six goals in his first college game, in 1963. At Temple, he also lettered in tennis and baseball, and spent his summers coaching various sports, like swimming and basketball.
"I developed a love for coaching," says Rennie, whose 2007 season at the helm of the Blue Devils will mark his 29th year as Duke head coach and his 36th year of college soccer coaching.
No current Division I men's soccer coach has been winning - 443 games, 21 NCAA playoff appearances, five final-four appearances - for as long as the 62-year-old Rennie.
"He's competitive as hell," says Jay Vidovich, coach of ACC rival Wake Forest. "He knows the business side as well as the soccer side. He's able to keep bringing new flavors into his team, year after year."
Rennie's first collegiate head-coaching job came in 1972 at UMass-Dartmouth, where he was also the Director of Aquatics and the head coach of the swimming and diving team. He then spent six seasons coaching Columbia, which he guided to the 1978 Ivy league title.
In his second season at Duke, in 1980, Rennie convinced Duke's athletic director, Tom Butters, to attend one of the Blue Devils' home games. He lured Butters to a clash with Clemson, which hadn't lost an ACC league game in eight years.
It was a Sunday afternoon and some 4,000 people gathered at the field that had seating for 600. Fans came an hour before kickoff and set up lawn chairs.
The Blue Devils won, 3-1, and Butters, having witnessed the enthusiastic student support, left convinced that the program deserved more backing.
Within in two years, lights were added to the field. The program that offered 1.5 scholarships in Rennie's first season eventually became fully funded. In 1982, Duke reached the NCAA final, losing 2-1 to Indiana after eight overtime periods. "We had to ask the referee to extend one of the breaks so players and coaches could go to the bathroom," remembers Rennie.
Four years later, Duke beat Akron for the national title.
"It was special because it was the first national title in any sport at that time for Duke," says Rennie.
It was also about the time that other ACC schools began boosting their support for men's soccer, and the conference was on its way to becoming the nation's best. Going into the 2007 season, ACC teams have won 11 NCAA titles, including 10 of the last 23.
Virginia lifted five of those; Maryland won the last for the ACC, in 2005. Duke, which finished runner-up in 1995, reached the final four for its fifth time in 2004. Last year, it fell in the quarterfinals.
Five of Rennie's Duke players have won national player of the year awards, including Mike Jeffries (1982), who served as an MLS assistant and head coach before returning to Duke as assistant coach last year.
"He has changed a fair amount since I played," says Jeffries. "He communicates a lot more and he hasn't had a problem relating to today's players, who are significantly different than they were in the 1980s."
Rennie says traveling abroad frequently to visit major clubs in Europe and South America and inviting foreign coaches to his soccer camps have helped him keep up with the trends of the game. And he credits his assistant coaches for keeping Duke consistently among the nation's top teams.
"I've always tried to give my assistant coaches a lot of responsibility," says Rennie, "to recruit, scout and coach."
Rennie's former assistants include Doug Hamilton, the president of the Los Angeles Galaxy before his death last year. John Kerr Jr., the 1986 Herman Trophy winner at Duke, and assistant when Duke reached the 1995 final, is the Harvard head coach.
Jeffries' teammates when he was playing for Rennie included Bob Jenkins, who is now U.S. Soccer's Director of Youth Development and Coaching Education; Tom Kain, another Herman Trophy winner who is Nike's sports marketing director; and Ken Lolla, head coach at the University of Louisville.
In the pro ranks, Duke alum Jason Kreis is the Real Salt Lake head coach after 11-plus years as a player in MLS. New England Revs defender Jay Heaps, the 1998 MAC Award winner, has played in more than 250 MLS games.
While his former players and assistants make their impact in American soccer, Rennie enters the 2007 with 399 wins at Duke - an ACC record that is likely to keeping growing for some time.
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)