Up on Howard's Knob, a peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northwest North Carolina, is the world's biggest windmill, an electric-power generator co-built by NASA and the Department of Energy—the distance between the tips of opposing vanes is greater than the wing-span of a 747. It dominates the area for miles around. And down in the "holler" in the town of Boone, a couple of hours' drive from Billy Graham's house and a stone's throw from the 20th century, Hank Steinbrecher, 33, the energetic soccer coach of Appalachian State University, regards the immense contraption from a campus window. "We're a lot like Don Quixote," he says, "but our windmill is the NCAA soccer championship. I think we might do better than the Don."
With his gate-toothed smile and enormous mustache, Steinbrecher looks more like Sancho Panza than Quixote. But if his dream comes true, it will be against impressive odds. The big question on the college soccer scene this year has been: "Appa who?"
The answer is Appalachian State, which last week clung to the No. 8 national ranking in the NCAA first division. Although ASU has made brief showings in the Top 20 since soccer became a varsity sport at the 10,000-student school in 1971 and has won top honors in the Southern Conference in seven of the last eight years, the Mountaineers were unranked at the beginning of this season. Nevertheless, they knocked off Clemson, the South's dynastic soccer power and the 1979 NCAA runner-up, 3-2 in October. Since then they've fashioned seven shutouts, out-scored the opposition 102-13, and have a record of 13-2-0.
And they did it all with a bunch of good ol' boys with good ol' names like Thompson Usiyan. He's a transcendentally gifted striker and a leading candidate for the Herman Trophy—soccer's Heisman. The Mountaineers' roster also includes Emmanuel Igbeka, like Usiyan a Nigerian, an Englishman, a Chilean and a lad from Guyana nicknamed "Kool-Aid," in addition to a few hotshots from Florida's Miami-Dade soccer program. In fact, only three players on the 18-man team are from North Carolina.
At the center of it all is Steinbrecher, a redneck from Red Hook, a Brooklyn German-American. After playing soccer in New York's lusty schwarz und blau German-American League, he honed his coaching methods at tiny Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. Now in his third year at ASU, he deals with the various talents, egos, styles and problems of his international team with hustle, humor, philosophy and compassion.
"Hey, I grew up in Brooklyn, man," Steinbrecher says, "and if you couldn't deal with a lot of ethnic minorities, understand their thinking and their ways, somebody else ate your lunch. A lot of people think I'm good at managing all those different nationalities, but sometimes I have a Nigerian in one room pouting and a South American in another yelling for a piece of the guy. I run back and forth between them like a Henry Kissinger in sneakers.
"When I first came here three years ago, there were foreigners already playing, and I didn't realize we had a language problem. I gave my first team talk on a Monday and told them that we'd have a team meal before the Saturday game. A Nigerian player showed up for dinner on Tuesday. Back to square one. I told him, 'Sun come up four time. 'Sun go down four time. Then eat lion.' " Steinbrecher tells the story in perfect Weissmuller/Tarzan. He also does excellent Spanish, British, North Carolina and, naturally, German accents. Sometimes he gets hunger pangs for New York ("I want a deli with real rice pudding"), maybe because some of his biggest problems at ASU have to do with the chow line, which must at times seem like the bottom line at ASU. "I read the other day that the University of San Francisco—they're ranked No. 1 now—has a travel budget of $17,000," he says. "Our whole program doesn't get that much!"
Steinbrecher's players are fanatically loyal to him for a variety of reasons. Says George Duprey, a junior defender from Miami, "Coach has taught us a lot about brotherhood and how to get by on a little money. Like, if we go to one of those $2.99 steak places, one guy buys the salad bar, where you can go back as much as you want, and then we pass the bowl around to everybody for refills."
"The magic word around here is 'meal book,' " says Steinbrecher. "It's a book of tickets for the campus cafeterias. My first year, a Nigerian player told me, 'I score many goals. You give me white boots, tight pants and many meal books.' He got the boots." In fact, there is always grumbling by players for meal books. "We can't afford a training table," says Steinbrecher. "You should see our guys when they watch the football team chow down. Their eyes get funny."
Steinbrecher may kid about food, but he provides solid on-field fare for his squad. They play a grown-up 4-4-2 formation, working the ball out to the wingers from a line of powerful internationals who play the middle positions.
"Since Usiyan is so well marked most of the time, putting him out on the wing confuses opponents and it takes a defender away from the goal," says Steinbrecher. "It creates space for other threats." Indeed, another Nigerian, Kingsley Esabamen, a free-roving defender, has exploded with 12 goals this season.
But the heart of the team is "Tommy" Usiyan. He has scored more than 100 goals in his college career, despite playing only three games last year before being sidelined with a knee injury. A hot pro prospect, Usiyan has the bearing of an African prince and the easy smile of an undergraduate. He remains shyly modest about his abilities and the attention he attracts.
"The only thing I don't like about ASU is the cold," he says quietly, shivering on a crisp, 50° fall day. "The coach makes us very warm, though. It is very difficult to gain the respect of Nigerian players. We are very headstrong. But Hank has done it. We respect him very deeply."
Just how does a guy from Brooklyn recruit hungry Nigerians to the Blue Ridge Mountains? "They recruit us," says Steinbrecher. He presents a letter, neatly handwritten, from a young hopeful in Africa. It reads in part: "Sir, I humbly beg to apply to your fine and famous school. I am a Nigerian of dark complexion, about 6'8" tall and 24 years of age. My ambition is to be in your school and bring glory to your team. Fervently...."
"I get 10 or 12 of those a month," Steinbrecher says. "It's almost a form letter they all use. In this case I have to send a form letter back. Since the guy's 24 and the NCAA says each year over 20 takes a year off eligibility, he can't play here. But God, if he's really six-eight, can you see him in goal?"
Steinbrecher's current Nigerians suggest players to him, of course, but he moves cautiously. "Africans are very difficult people," Steinbrecher says. "They can all play soccer, but most of them hate to train and can be very egotistical. I listen to their recommendations and then make the $30 phone call to Africa."
On Friday, Steinbrecher's Appys got aboard a bus and headed south, visiting first the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. They stomped the Moccasins 9-2, but seemed preoccupied. On their minds was the next day's game in Huntsville against Alabama A&M, the nation's second-ranked team. Southern Conference schools like Chattanooga and V.M.I. are hardly tests for the Mountaineers. Steinbrecher has upgraded his schedule each year and now routinely faces such powerhouses as Clemson, South Carolina and the A&M Bulldogs, who had handed ASU its only previous defeat this season. Last Sunday the Bulldogs bit again.
On the pitch next to a cow pasture, the A&M squad did its usual pregame warmup, which includes a Zulu war dance—the 11 starters are all either African or Jamaican. The teams then played scoreless and tightly marked soccer until the last minute of the first half, when the Bulldogs snuck through for a goal. After the resumption they added two more, and that was that.
"Remember the movie Zulu?" said Steinbrecher with a sad smile. "Where the tribe left the British alive at the end? Well, today they kept on coming."
If ASU beats strong N.C. State this weekend, it will clinch a bid for the Southern NCAA regional playoffs anyway and once again will get a crack at Alabama A&M. Not bad for a program that has only 4½ scholarships—the NCAA allows a maximum of 11 for soccer—and none too soon for a team that must replace seven graduating starters. "It's tougher than ever," Steinbrecher says. "What can I offer a kid from Nigeria or New York or St. Louis that a big school can't? I'll have to think of something." Well, he can always fall back on his Red Hook hustle and his redneck charm. In the meantime, he'll keep an eye on the windmill on Howard's Knob.