Mark Berson remembers that mid-October day in 1978 like it just happened.
The young coach, whose University of South Carolina men’s soccer program had begun play that fall, was asked by athletics director and football coach Jim Carlen to speak at the weekly Columbia Touchdown Club luncheon in advance of his 7-0 team’s first match against rival Clemson, already an established soccer powerhouse.
Berson found himself just a little bit in awe as he sat between USC basketball coach Frank McGuire and former Wake Forest basketball coach Bones McKinney.
“I’ll never forget that,” Berson said. “I was sitting up there and I’m thinking, ‘I’m 25 years old, and Bones McKinney is here and Frank McGuire is here. I’m sitting here with these legends – and I mean legends – and Coach McGuire is actually talking to me.’ I don’t think I ate anything.”
While he may not remember the meal, he easily recalls the words of McGuire, the championship coach who brought basketball relevance to USC upon his arrival in 1964. Berson discovered McGuire’s friendly manner and willingness to mentor a colleague on the menu that day.
“He was so great,” Berson said. “He said, ‘Mark, what you’re doing here is just missionary work. When I first came here, there were no basketball players. What you’ve got to be is Johnny Appleseed, just keep throwing those seeds out there and eventually they’ll grow. Now we’re getting good basketball players.’ He really was very prophetic.”
Berson’s team lost 2-1 to Clemson, which finished third in the nation, but the Gamecocks had a 13-3-1 record in their first season.
As for Berson? He has reaped the harvest of soccer growth in the state – and across the nation – as he finishes his 35th season as the program’s only head coach.
His USC teams have posted 443 victories, 31 winning seasons, 20 NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Four trips. Of the nearly 300 lettermen over those years, 11 have been named All-American, 45 have earned All-South region honors, over 50 have been drafted or signed by professional teams, and three have represented the U.S. in World Cup play.
That’s the kind of record needed to survive the regimes of seven athletics directors. Berson has navigated this minefield with an upfront manner, an affable personality, an eye for soccer talent, and most importantly, a whole lot of hard work.
“Sometimes I think ignorance is bliss: I just honestly have come in and done the best I can do every day,” he said. “I’m really thankful to all those athletic directors that they let me stay and do my job. I also think it goes without saying that you have to prove yourself every time, even more so in the more modern era.”
Of course, Berson never envisioned this kind of longevity when he was hired by Carlen in the spring of 1978 to start a program that had no players, no uniforms, no field and no schedule. A 1975 graduate of North Carolina, where he was a goalkeeper for the Tar Heels soccer team, Berson, who attended Summit High School in New Jersey, found a permanent home in the Palmetto State.
“At a young age, I was right in the fire. There was nobody to be blame except me,” Berson said. “This was going to be my legacy because I was the first coach, whether we succeeded or failed. It was completely on my shoulders, and that was the exhilaration of it. That’s why I took the job. Everybody dreams about what a great opportunity it is to start from scratch.”
By his second season, the Gamecocks reached their first NCAA tournament and finished with a 14-5 record. A first-round tournament loss came at Clemson, where Obed Ariri, better known as the Tigers’ field-goal kicker in football, scored the only goal. Although Berson’s teams kept steadily piling up winning records, the program wouldn’t return to the postseason tournament until the 1985 season.
From that point, the Gamecocks reached postseason play 17 times in the next 21 seasons, including trips to the College Cup in 1988 and 1993, with the ’93 team reaching the national championship game before losing to Virginia. The Gamecocks fell 2-0 to the Cavaliers in Davidson, N.C., and Berson looks back at that game as one of the program’s singular achievements.
“When you’re in it at that moment, you don’t really understand it until you’ve been away from it a little bit. You were that close,” he said. “But you were so busy and you’re so in the moment that you don’t have a chance to think about it until afterwards.”
TOUGH TIMES, CHANGING TIMES
The down seasons have come sparingly over the course of his career. Berson’s teams have posted losing records in 1983, 1996 and 2009, with his current squad headed toward the fewest wins in a season in his career at 4-11-2 and no chance to make the Conference USA tournament.
He looks at the seven one-goal losses and knows things could have been much different.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t seen it all,” Berson said. “I can say that I’ve never experienced a year like this.”
He said the only thing that he can do is keep teaching and have the players to keep working.
“That’s the challenge of the game,” he said. “This is a great group of guys. They’ve been working hard. Honestly, it comes down in our case to execution.”
Sandwiched between the 2009 and 2012 seasons were two NCAA tournament teams. The 2010 team won the Conference USA tournament and reached the NCAA Sweet 16. The 2011 club started the season 1-4-1 before bouncing back to win the C-USA regular-season championship. He called that 9-7-1 season one of his most enjoyable because of the way the team kept battling.
“You’re in it for the result, but you’re in it for the greater sense of teaching the game,” he said. “To be in it for the long haul, you have to love what you’re doing, whether you’re coaching a .500 team or a championship team.”
Although the core part of Berson’s job has not changed since 1978, the way he goes about it has. First of all, the growth of soccer has widened the talent pool.
Berson mined the soccer hotbeds of Atlanta and St. Louis for players early in his career, but now he can find players in this state thanks to the higher levels of participation in the high school ranks and especially at the club level.
“There is a steady and undeniable march forward for soccer in the state of South Carolina,” Berson said. “The players are better skilled than ever before and more skilled under pressure. Now there are so many kids. They’re playing at a higher level, they’re playing year-round, and they have better coaching.”
And while recruiting has become more intensive, it also has become easier in the age of the Internet. Prospective players can learn all about college programs through a school’s web site, and coaches can find information and video on almost any player, whether they are just down the road or on another continent.
But Berson still likes watching recruits play in person, too. He believes that he can judge their speed better with the naked eye. And he relies on a considerable number of sources.
Scouting opponents has become simpler as well, with coaches able to call up games and watch them on computer screens. Interacting with players and parents has changed the most. Current players tend to question things more than they did 30 years ago.
“You’ve got to be on your game. You can’t tell them it’s this if it’s not,” Berson said. “Sometimes the communication may not be what the player wants to hear, but the lines must be open. Players have to know they’re going to get a straight answer.”
The same goes for their parents, who are more involved. Berson said his parents saw a handful of his UNC games. Now, he has parents of USC players who don’t miss any games, and he must be ready to answer their questions as well.
“It’s not out of line,” he said. “You have to be able to adapt to society.”
BIG GAMES, BIG NAMES
Berson’s reach in soccer circles stretches across the country, not just as a college coach but as a national instructional staff coach with U.S. soccer since 1989. There aren’t many places that he can travel where he doesn’t run into former USC players, coaching colleagues or longtime acquaintances in the game.
The Gamecocks took a road trip to Charlotte earlier in the season for a mid-week night game, and after a double-overtime loss, he hoped to get the team back to Columbia as quickly as possible. But he felt the pull of former players lined up with their kids after the game to chat with him.
Berson has established close relationships with some of the most iconic figures in U.S. soccer history. His roommate and teammate at North Carolina was Anson Dorrance, who has won 21 national championships coaching the Tar Heels’ women’s program for all 34 of its seasons.
Dorrance still marvels at Berson’s organizational skills dating in those undergrad days.
“His side of the room was always impeccable, clean, neat, organized. All of his pencils were lined up,” Dorrance said. “What I used to do to entertain myself was to go over to his side of the room and mess up his pencils. Then he would come into the room, where I’d be lying on the bed, and he would shake his head and say, ‘Anson, you are so immature.’ ”
Dorrance, an All-ACC player, also admired Berson for his approach on the field. When Berson was blocked from becoming a starting defender because of better players in front of him, the UNC coaches asked him to play goalkeeper, where he had never played.
“I really respected that about him. A lot of guys, when they meet with some kind of challenge or disappointment or adversity, they roll up and quit,” Dorrance said. “He did not let that negatively affect him. He jumped into goal with a lot of enthusiasm and passion.”
Dorrance said that mentality has helped make Berson a top-level coach.
“One day you feel like you’re on top of Mount Everest because of a victory, and a couple of days later after a souring defeat, you feel like you’re on the bottom of the Marianas Trench,” Dorrance said. “You need a certain kind of resilience in your personality to coach effectively.”
Dorrance also loves Berson’s sense of humor, remembering an event a few years ago where both were introduced. Berson stood before the crowd and stated the former roommates had combined to win 21 national championships.
“It was absolutely hilarious,” Dorrance said. “Obviously, it was wonderfully self-deprecating. It shows his great sense of humor but also his total lack of ego. It captured his persona.”
Berson also has maintained close ties with another of the game’s great characters, former USC forward Clint Mathis (1994-97), arguably the most dynamic goal scorer in U.S. professional soccer and national team history. Mathis, who holds the USC single-season record with 25 goals in his 1995 All-American season, remains in contact with his former coach in his current job of running camps and clinics for the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS.
A Sports Illustrated cover boy for the 2002 U.S. World Cup team and renowned at the time for his Mohawk haircut, Mathis played 12 professional seasons in the U.S. and Germany before retiring in 2010. He cited Berson’s way of getting young college players to understand how to raise their games physically and mentally.
“He’s definitely not one of those coaches who’s self-centered. He doesn’t brag about himself. He feels like a part of our lives,” Mathis said.
“He’s proud because one of his family guys succeeded, and he was a part of that helping along the way”
ALL ABOUT THE GAMECOCKS
Berson’s commitment to USC doesn’t waver. He instills it in his players, and this group of Gamecocks in no exception. Senior defender Kevin Stam, who has played on a pair of NCAA tournament teams, came to play for Berson from Raleigh, N.C., because he had heard good things about the coach and the program.
A top-flight student and player, Stam has no regrets.
“He’s the standard in soccer in the South. A lot of people look up to him,” Stam said. “That had a lot to do with my decision to come here, just knowing how successful he had been over the years and what kind of person he was. Coming here verified everything I heard.”
Fellow defender Eric Martinez, a redshirt junior from Fort Mill, first encountered Berson as a coach in the youth soccer Olympic Development Program and liked his calm, down-to-earth, welcoming demeanor. And junior forward Bradlee Baladez, the Dallas native who has been the team’s top scorer for three seasons, said the lessons from Berson don’t stop when the players leave the field.
“He likes to push us as players and students. He has really helped me as a young man to become more of a gentleman,” Baladez said. “I’ve learned so much from him on the pitch and especially off it. He has shown me to be a good leader and how to believe in myself.”
Berson’s two first-year assistants are both former Gamecocks in Spencer Lewis (2005-08) and Joey Worthen (1998-2001). The pair have a gained a greater appreciation for their boss now that they have watched him from the vantage point of running the program. As assistants, they see all of the thought that goes into his decisions.
“You definitely gain a lot of respect for what he does and how long he’s been able to do it and the passion he does it with,” Lewis said. “To be at the same place that long and keep doing it, his energy level is remarkable.”
A former USC player who has become a rival coach, Furman’s Doug Allison says he owes his success to Berson. The USC program’s all-time leading scorer with 63 goals and 32 assists from 1984-87, Allison also served as assistant under Berson from 1991-94 before taking over the Paladins in 1995.
Allison said Berson took a chance on the young player from England sight-unseen after getting a letter inquiring about the possibility of a scholarship. Allison knew nothing about South Carolina, except that he thought it was near Disney World, and Berson knew nothing about Allison except for his level of club play and the words of some friends of friends.
Berson didn’t have a scholarship to offer at first, but when one came open, he reached out to Allison. He arrived in Columbia an ocean away from his parents, but that hardship was helped by Berson’s nurturing manner.
“It was a great choice,” Allison said. “He was such a father figure to me. He’s an amazing man. I’ll never forget what my dad, who’s a big, tough Scotsman, said to me, ‘That guy looked after you, and I’ll never forget that.’ ”
That his real father thought so highly of Berson meant everything to Allison, whose on-field ability helped the Gamecocks reach the NCAA tournament three times and earned him All-American status in 1987.
“There’s no question he was a tremendous mentor for me,” he said. “As I get older and go through the coaching ranks, I’ve started realizing how important what he taught me really is.”
Berson got Allison to UNC for graduate school to earn a master’s degree before getting him to return to coach as an assistant for four seasons. The two shared an office and many car rides and meals, and along the way, Allison learned just how good Berson is at every facet of coaching soccer.
“He’s definitely a teacher of the game. He’s definitely a teacher of people,” Allison said. “I wouldn’t have gone back there if I didn’t have a lot of respect for him.”
They still get together these days, but it’s less about talking soccer than talking about everything but soccer. Allison values the annual drives to Columbia for dinner so they can renew that friendship.
“For me, I need that every year,” he said. “Just to sit around him is something that’s valuable for me. He’s such a gentleman. He’s such a class act.”
DOWN THE HOME STRETCH
Berson isn’t sure how much longer he’s going to coach the Gamecocks, but he’s not ready to stop yet. At 59, he still has the energy and the desire. He rarely heads to his Shandon home for lunch because he’d rather sit at his desk – eating a turkey-and-cheese or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich – and keep on working.
He enjoys his spacious new office in the Rice Center, and he’s not apt to complain about anything, even though his $100,000 salary after 35 seasons doesn’t approach what the football assistant coaches make.
He recalls all the happy days, from the time former player Jim Sonefeld (1984-87) gave him a framed copy of Hootie & the Blowfish album “Cracked Rear View” to the time that he and assistant athletics director Art Baker rode to Greenville in 1995 to ask Jack Stone for $1 million to renovate the soccer stadium.
Berson still appreciates former athletics director Mike McGee for agreeing to let the program join Conference USA since most SEC programs don’t field men’s soccer. That move gave the Gamecocks a needed home to earn automatic NCAA berths and helped anchor the schedule each season.
Most of all, he gives thanks to his family for their support of his career over the years. His wife Shauna has stuck by him despite the incredible time commitment that his job requires. His children, daughter Erin, a USC graduate who is an actor and production assistant in New York City, and son Luke, who played for the Gamecocks for three seasons and will graduate with a business degree in December, also have allowed him to pursue his soccer dreams.
“I get sort of emotional thinking about the sacrifices that my family has made in order for me to coach. They give me the strength to do what I do,” Berson said. “Shauna understands the vacant looks at the dinner table when my mind is 1,000 miles away.”
Berson can smile while discussing the difficulty of a 4-11-2 season just as much as he smiles when recalling the days of Mathis, Wolff, Brian Winstead, Clark Brisson, Marty Baltzegar, Greg Reece, Henry Ring and Brad Guzan were patrolling the field.
“I’ve always enjoyed this, and it’s what I want to do. It’s in my fabric,” he said. “I didn’t have a timetable when I started. I don’t have a timetable now. I see myself coaching for a long time.”
He loves being a Gamecock.
“It’s not a good job, it’s a great job. This is a wonderful school, and I love what I do. I don’t feel like it’s been work for one single day.”