Mike Noonan looks back on his time playing soccer at Memorial Coliseum fondly, especially the way he and his teammates forged close bonds with the community, but there was one hitch – the AstroTurf.
“It was the bane of our existence,” said Noonan, not a surprising comment considering he's one of many athletes who had their careers ended by playing on the hard surfaces, carpet seams and all, of the era.
Noonan played 37 games for the Flames, Fort Wayne's indoor soccer team from 1986 to 1989, and suffered a knee injury at the Coliseum that ended his playing career.
“The ball was on the far side of the floor and I came off the bench and raced to the other side to try and defend it,” said Noonan, 60. “The player cut to the inside and I tried to go with him. It was the old AstroTurf and my foot stuck, and the knee turned, and that was it.”
Tearing three ligaments accelerated his move into coaching and, this season, he guided Clemson to the national championship, culminating with a 2-0 victory over Washington on Dec. 12 in Cary, North Carolina. It was the Tigers' first soccer championship since 1987, and Clemson is now the only school with three national championships in both football and soccer.
“It's a nice feeling, that's for sure,” said Noonan, a native of Westport, Connecticut, who has been the Tigers' coach since 2010. “I hadn't won (a national championship) in my career and obviously it'd been 34 years since it had been done at Clemson with the men's soccer program. So it's kind of a new experience and one that we're embracing and enjoying. We're going to celebrate in January with the full campus back in town, and we're also looking to the future and hoping to not have to wait 34 years for the next one.”
The Flames' roster had several players who went on to become coaches in northeast Indiana, such as Bobby Poursanidis, Alan Bodenstein and Bronn Pfeiffer. Noonan even recalls buzz at the time about DaMarcus and Jamar Beasley, who were only around 5 and 8 at the time, and went on to become pro players.
“There were a bunch of us who were kind of involved with starting to do some coaching and it was an awesome time,” Noonan said. “Fort Wayne was great and it was just a really fun team to be a part of. The town embraced us, and it was us and the Komets at the time.
“In the offseason, we were doing some camps and playing some golf. And in the season, we were sharing the Coliseum with the hockey team and enjoying Fort Wayne.”
While playing for the Flames as a midfielder/defender, Noonan also tended bar at O'Sullivan's Italian Pub and assisted the late Pat Teagarden in coaching Homestead. Noonan had coached some youth soccer before, had played professionally in Sweden, and had played in the American Indoor Soccer Association previously for the Louisville Thunder, whose general manager, Pete Mahlock, brought Noonan with him to Fort Wayne.
“I was more of a grinder or, in soccer terms, I was the piano carrier and not the piano player,” Noonan said. “I would play as a defender and block shots, and make people's lives difficult, and let other people create. It's a beautiful game.”
The knee injury was the “linchpin that probably sent me into coaching,” Noonan said, and he called Ron McEachen, who had coached him at Middlebury and was heading Vermont's program. Noonan got a post there in 1988 as an assistant coach, for $2,500 a year, supplemented by working at a restaurant.
Noonan was hired in 1989 as Wheaton College's head coach. After improving the team from 4-11-0 his first season to 12-5-1 his second, he was hired in 1991 by New Hampshire, for which he reached the NCAA Tournament and went 48-23-9. He was hired by Brown in 1995 and was 160-77-31 in 15 seasons with the Bears, with 10 NCAA Tournament berths and eight Ivy League championships.
For Clemson, he's gone 140-71-35, made the NCAA Tournament eight of the last nine years, and lost 4-0 to Stanford in the 2015 championship game.
Of course, Noonan would never have chosen to get injured when he did, but it did put him on the path to such a successful coaching career. And he was part of a special time for Fort Wayne soccer, when it seemed everything was interconnected – from the fledgling high school powerhouses, such as Canterbury, to the players headed for Indiana University to the Flames.
“I honestly think it was a grassroots movement, right? And I think part of a grassroots movement is the players' accessibility to the community. I think that's what we had and what we captured,” said Noonan, whose Flames had former IU star Angelo DiBernardo as a coach and his brother, Paul, as a player.
The Flames, who drew as many as 8,028 fans to games, underwent multiple ownership changes, including one in which they became the only not-for-profit pro sports team in the nation. When the team folded in 1989, it was replaced for a season by the Indiana Kick.
“It was just the connectivity piece that was something that was really unique to Fort Wayne,” Noonan said of the Flames. “If the ownership groups could have held it together, it could have been a really neat thing. But it was just a new endeavor that not many people were dipping their toes in.”