FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As the first order of business in their quest to appoint a new head coach for the New England Revolution, club president Brian Bilello and General Manager Michael Burns put together an extensive list of candidates.
Jay Heaps was near the top of that list from the very start after the former Revolution defender made an indelible impression on both Bilello and Burns – as a player and as a person – during a remarkable nine-year stint in New England from 2001-09. But as the interview process began, questions lingered about Heaps’ ability to step into a head coaching position with a decided lack of prior experience on the bench.
“When Michael and I were putting our list together, we knew that Jay was going to be one of the candidates for the head coaching job here in New England,” said Bilello. “We were confident that Jay had the makeup to be a great coach, but we were unsure if he was ready to step in right away and take that role on.”
Those concerns dissipated almost instantly when during his initial interview Heaps outlined the future he envisions for the Revolution.
“In our discussions with Jay, it became clear to us that he was ready to step in immediately and take the role,” said Bilello. “As we further had conversations with Jay and understood his vision and his plan for this team, it became clear to us that not only was he ready, but that Jay was our top choice for the position.”
The Revs cemented that sentiment on Wednesday morning when Heaps was introduced as the sixth head coach in club history during a press conference at Gillette Stadium. Heaps takes the reins from Steve Nicol, who led the Revolution to four MLS Cup title games during a 10-year stint which made him the longest-tenured head coach in MLS history.
While Nicol was undeniably one of the most experienced coaches in the league, Heaps is at the other end of the spectrum, having spent the past two years working in the investment banking industry and serving as the Revolution’s color analyst following his retirement from playing.
That inexperience is a fact Heaps isn’t hiding from, but rather tackling head on.
“I don’t have head coaching MLS experience; it’s quite simple,” admitted Heaps. “I’m not going to shy away from that. But what I do bring to the table and what I know I have are the intangibles, those things that make a head coach great.”
Heaps identified leadership, integrity and communication as the three most important qualities required of a coach at the professional level, and they are unquestionably traits the 35-year-old has in spades. Throughout his playing career, Heaps was defined by an unwavering work ethic and a relentless will to win, while he adds an analytical mind and meticulous preparation in his new role as head coach.
Still, Heaps understands experience has benefits and plans to account for his lack of experience by surrounding himself with a knowledgeable group of assistants.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that I don’t think experience isn’t vital, as well,” said Heaps. “Great leaders step in and say, ‘This is my strength, this is my weakness. Now I’ll surround myself with great people to now complement those weaknesses or strengthen my strengths.’ That’s what I’m going to do here. I don’t want to hide behind saying experience isn’t valuable. It is.”
Similar appointments have proven successful in recent years, most notably with Jason Kreis taking over the head coaching job at Real Salt Lake midway through the 2007 season before guiding RSL to an MLS Cup title in 2009. Ben Olsen recently completed his first full season as the head coach at D.C. United and improved the club’s point total from 22 points to 39 points.
Despite those success stories, there is still an inherent element of risk to naming a head coach with no prior coaching experience.
“I think that with risk comes reward,” quipped Heaps when asked specifically if his hire presented a risk on the Revolution’s part. “What I may lack in MLS experience, I think some of the intangibles I have completely make up for that. I don’t think it’s a risk because I know what I’m going to bring to the table.
“I think if I’m sitting where you are, yeah, I could absolutely say it’s a risk,” Heaps admitted. “But I know what I bring every day. I know what kind of people I’m going to get around me to help me succeed. That, to me, is so important.”
Bilello added that the hiring of Heaps presented the most potential upside, making the decision an easy one.
“In talking with the candidates – and especially in talking with Jay – it became clear to us that he has what it takes to be a great coach,” said Bilello. “That was one of the key decision factors for us in bringing Jay onboard. From an organizational perspective, going with someone that we were confident 100 percent could be a decent coach versus someone who we thought had the makeup to be a great coach – we wanted to go and be great.”