Oct. 9, 2008
by Jac Coyne, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
If not for a chance encounter when he was 16, Mario Waibel would be a soccer coach.
Waibel was going to be a coach – he was sure of that from a very young age – and the so-called “beautiful game” had the inside track. Waibel played soccer from the beginning, much like his younger brother, Craig, who has won four Major League Soccer titles with San Jose and Houston and is a current starter for the Dynamo. Mario actually went to Washington State in hopes of playing soccer for the Cougars.
But a funny thing happened on Waibel’s way to a nil-nil tie. Waibel (pronounced WHY-bull) had the rare opportunity to watch a lacrosse game in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s, and fell in love with the sport. When he was able to pick up the tools of the trade at WSU, the deal was cinched.
“It was something that was fun, something new, and from the minute I picked up my first stick, that was it,” said Waibel, who, at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, made for an interesting sight as a two-way middie for the Cougars. “That was what I wanted to do. You play lacrosse for pride and play it for the respect of the guys you step on the field with. That was exactly the environment I wanted.”
And now, 14 years after he first felt the aluminum in his hands, Waibel has taken over as head coach of UC Santa Barbara – the signature California program in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA).
The lacrosse epiphany is a nice angle, but Waibel’s back-story won’t sell every die-hard Gaucho fan of his bona fides. After what was accomplished in the last five years under the steady hand of Mike Allan, who recently took the assistant position at NCAA Division I Towson University, UCSB is among a handful of schools that can legitimately hold to the mantra of championship or bust.
Allan’s teams won a pair of national titles and three Western Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL) titles – the gold standard among MCLA conferences – and qualified as a traditional must-see opponent with the likes of Michigan, BYU and Colorado State.
Because of this, Waibel’s hire may appear at first glance to be an odd choice for a storied team. He has no collegiate coaching experience and doesn’t have the playing pedigree that you’ll often see in a first-time MCLA coach. But Waibel’s deficiencies are offset by a great deal of success at the club level.
After moving to Southern California after college, Waibel played for several post-collegiate clubs in the area and eventually bumped into Scott Hochstadt. A three-time All-American at Maryland and a former MLL player and coach, Hochstadt is the founder of Starz – a developmental program for elite players in the West and a platform for those players to gain exposure to varsity programs in the East.
Hochstadt installed Waibel as the head coach for one of his teams in the L.A. area, allowing Waibel to continue his quest to be a coach while keeping his day job for a video game company.
“That was really the entry for me to coaching lacrosse, and I just loved it,” said Waibel. “It was also a chance to give back. I know that sounds hokey, but really it was a chance to give back to the game that I love and, hopefully, to be able to give some of that passion that I was able to find for the game back to the kids and maybe spark them to go on to the next level. To me, that’s a good feeling as a coach to see a kid succeed.”
In addition to his work with Starz, where he won a whole lot more than he lost, Waibel took a shot as a prep coach at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School last spring. There, he turned an 0-14 team the year before into a squad that finished third in the state, earning Waibel US Lacrosse West Coast Region Coach of the Year honors.
All of this made it easy for Lane Jaffe to put his stamp of approval on Waibel’s quest to become the Gauchos new coach by sending his recommendation. Jaffe, a goalie for Rutgers from 1994 to `98, knows what it takes to succeed at the club level, earning WCLL coach of the year honors in 2006 when he was head coach at UCLA.
“He’s passionate, he’s thorough, and he cares,” said Jaffe, who worked with Waibel in the Starz program. “I definitely think he’ll succeed at that level. He’s not looking to make friends; he’s looking to build on a program and win himself a championship.”
UCSB is typically closer to winning a title than not, and that is why Waibel talks about Allan in reverential tones. It’s also why he won’t have to institute any radical changes when he prepares his team for the 2009 season.
“If you come in and kick over chairs and do a whole bunch of stuff like that, you’re setting yourself up for failure, along with the program,” said Waibel. “It’s just too much change in one fell swoop, and right now the program doesn’t need a whole lot of change. They’re winning.”
Despite Waibel’s laissez faire approach this spring, there will be a learning curve. Teams in the MCLA are different than any other collegiate programs because the Xs and Os are often the least of the coach’s worries. There is no support staff to take care of the details like travel, scheduling, recruiting and, most importantly, fundraising. It all falls back on the head coach. And, as Jaffe says, “It’s a weird bird when your players are your boss.”
Waibel’s ace in the hole – and likely a large reason he was selected for the job – is his connections in the West. He probably won’t be able to lure players from his former club teams, most of whom are hunting lacrosse scholarships, but he is keyed in with just about every coach in the prep ranks in the Pacific Time zone. Throw in the fact that UCSB is a paradise for 18-to-22-year olds, and there shouldn’t be much of a dip in talent.
Alas, any coach or fan knows that pure talent doesn’t win championships. There must be a drive, and Waibel sounds like he is ready to hit the ignition.
“I asked the team what they wanted, and they said a national championship. I told them, `There’s a definitive difference between being good and great. Great teams put in their hard work to become great. Good teams are satisfied with being good,'” he said. “I don’t ever want to coach a good team.”
It looks like soccer missed out on a great coach. Fortunately for lacrosse, and Santa Barbara, Mario Waibel found his true calling.