NCAA champs celebrate 25 years: 'We weren't the 11 best, but we were the best 11'

Clemson's 1987 men's soccer team beat the odds to claim second national title in four years

Men's soccer vs San Diego State - 1987 National Championship Team Reunion

Photo by Mark Crammer

Men's soccer vs San Diego State - 1987 National Championship Team Reunion

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Clemson’s last national championship in men’s soccer, the 1987 NCAA title team was invited back for a reunion on the same weekend that Coach Mike Noonan’s current Tigers played host to San Diego State.

Significantly, that was Clemson’s opponent in a 2-0 victory for the Tigers that captured the second national championship for Dr. I.M. Ibrahim’s powerhouse program in just a four-year span.

As captain of that 1987 team, Paul Rutenis - who played as a central defender, or stopper in the terminology of the time - remembers well how the Tigers were the last team invited to a field of 24, and had to reel off three road wins against long odds before returning to Clemson to host the NCAA Final Four.

“In the national championship run we weren’t seeded very highly,” Rutenis confirmed. “Clemson and San Diego State were the last teams invited to the tournament, and we had to go on the road and win a lot of games.

“If memory serves me right, we were in Evansville where Bruce Murray scored an unbelievable goal to get us through to the next round. Then we went to Indiana and beat a really powerhouse team in soccer. And then the Rutgers game, which had a great penalty kick save by Tim Genovese at the end of the game.

“Then we moved back here to Clemson (and a newly remodeled Riggs Field) for the Final Four. We dominated the North Carolina game and won 4-1, and then I think we just had more legs than San Diego State in the title game, and came out victors.”

Though the Aztecs had pushed forward in search of the equalizer, and a dying-moments counterattack and breakaway goal by Richie Richmond accounted for the final score-line, it was Rutenis’ conversion of a header in the first half that stood up as the game-winner.

“It was a play that we practiced all the time,” said Rutenis. “It was a long throw-in, and Bruce Murray and I would kind of decide who would flick it and who would stay in the middle. That time Bruce went to flick the ball over, and I was just there at the right time at the right spot.

“It was an open battle back and forth. While I think we controlled most of the game in the final, they were a very good opponent, and they had some very good players like Eric Wynalda. He went on to play with the U.S. National Team and had a storybook career.”

In a semifinal showdown with a team they’d lost twice to that season, the Tigers got a big emotional lift from their dismantling of ACC-rival North Carolina.

“They beat us twice in that season,” said Rutenis. “It’s the third time you play somebody, and you have to have some luck when you get to the NCAA Championship. We were positioned well, and we were healthy and ready to go. Knowing the way they played in those first two games, and knowing the mistakes that we made that beat us, we weren’t going to make them again. Not in a game of that magnitude.”

Jamey Rootes - who’s currently the president of the NFL’s Houston Texans, and who previously served in the same capacity for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew - was a ball-winning midfielder for the Tigers that season, and brought a high work-rate and big engine to that pivotal and sometimes thankless role.

Recalling the talent on that team, he cited its complementary and collaborative dynamic, and noted as well how lessons learned in that championship run were subsequently instrumental to his professional successes.

“It was magical, and is the kind of experience that you take with you throughout your life, as far as the importance of perseverance and teamwork,” said Rootes. “We weren’t the eleven best, but we were the best eleven. And there were lots of points along that path where we could have given in.

“I remember getting on the bus and coming to the game against San Diego State, and Paul Rutenis turns to me and says, ‘We’ve got to play the game anyway. We might as well win it.’ That’s a line that I use as I’ve talked to people who are facing challenges in their lives. Life is hard, but everybody’s got to go through it, and you might as well play to win.”

Rutenis believes that Clemson’s current coaching staff is instilling that same mentality.

“Coach Noonan and the team are getting their ducks in a row, and he’s getting the alumni players back to help the new guys grow,” he said. “He’s done a good job in recruiting, and though it takes time to rebuild that kind of championship nature, I think they’re well on their way to getting it done.”

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