Five MLS draft picks. Four NCAA Tournament berths. Three Ivy League titles. Two Ivy League Players of the Year.
In his 19th season as the head coach of Penn men’s soccer, Rudy Fuller’s love for the game has morphed into a successful and impactful tenure as the program’s leader, with Fuller serving not only as a coach but also a mentor for each of his athletes.
Student of the Game
Ever since he started playing the game at a young age, Fuller knew he wanted his life to revolve around soccer.
“I grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and for whatever reason soccer was a big sport in that town,” Fuller said. “Coming through middle school and into high school, there was a really strong pull to soccer. Whenever I had free time after school, I would go with my friends to ‘the wall,’ which was literally just a brick wall that we would kick the ball off of to each other. That’s about the age I caught the bug.”
Fuller’s youth coaches played an important role in the development of his soccer skills, and, more importantly, his interest in the game. Coaches like Graham Ramsay (youth club team coach), Keith Tucker and Curtis Lande (Olympic development coaches) and George Kallas (high school coach) all substantially influenced his views on the game.
One of the biggest influences that Fuller attributes his development as a player and a coach to is Keith Tabatznik, who coached Fuller beginning at age 14 through an Olympic development program and continued to coach him at Georgetown.
“Keith is a big part of who I’ve become as a coach,” Fuller said. “I try to get our team to play a possession-oriented attacking game, and that’s certainly something that I learned under coaches like Keith.”
Tabatznik agrees that the style he implanted as Georgetown coach had a significant influence on Fuller’s coaching philosophy. He even went further, suggesting that he and Fuller share many of the same recruiting trends.
“Rudy developed his own style, but there’s no doubt his time at Georgetown helped mold that style,” Tabatznik said. “I think there are a lot of similarities to be drawn in everything from the type of game we play to the type of players we recruit.”
While Tabatznik was directly teaching Fuller a soccer philosophy, something a bit more nuanced was happening behind the scenes. The ideals that Fuller coaches not only emulate that of the Georgetown team he played for, but also that of his own playing style and abilities.
“I certainly wasn’t a guy who was scoring 20 goals a season,” Fuller said. “I wasn’t blessed with the physical gifts of being 6-foot-4 or an athletic specimen. My career as a player was based in doing the little things that helped teams win games, doing the dirty work so to speak. I take a lot of pride in the personality of our team here at Penn; I try to encourage that kind of mentality in all the guys the second they step on the field for the first time.”
Tabatznik echoed Fuller that what he lacked in physicality, he made up for with his soccer intelligence and attitude.
“Rudy will be the first to tell you he was not blessed with the athletic abilities of some other guys, but he made up for it with his incredible soccer IQ,” Tabatznik said. “He had to use his brain to be successful at the Division I level.”
One story in particular stuck out in Tabatznik’s mind that exemplified Fuller’s dedication to excellence on the field.
“I remember when Rudy was a senior in 1990, we had just finished up a game at Providence where we had come from behind twice to win the game 4-3,” Tabatznik said. “Everyone was celebrating on the bus, when all of a sudden Rudy gets up and starts chewing everyone out, saying things like ‘Why are we celebrating tying this piece of crap team?’ He apparently had forgotten the score and thought we had tied instead of won the game. It just goes to show how invested he was. He wouldn’t have been satisfied with a tie and wanted the players to hold themselves to a higher standard. Of course, we did actually win that game, so we never let him hear the end of it.”
Following his junior year at Georgetown, Fuller was rewarded for his loyalty to the game he loved. In a decision that would not be formally announced until the culmination of his senior season, Fuller was offered his first coaching job as an assistant under Tabatznik for the Hoyas.
“I told him he couldn’t tell anybody, but I’m not sure if he followed through on that,” Tabatznik said. “It was quite an interesting meeting after the season when I brought the team together and told them that Rudy would be our new assistant.”
Photo courtesy of Don Felice
As if being hired as an assistant before graduating is not rare enough, this was also at a time when soccer as an American sport was still finding its footing. Fuller acknowledged the unique opportunity that he was presented.
“I was incredibly fortunate to get the opportunity to coach under Keith after I graduated,” Fuller said. “Keith has had a tremendous amount of success at all levels, so obviously that was a tremendous influence on me as a coach.”
However peculiar the hire might have seemed to an outsider, Tabatznik insists that offering the job to Fuller was something he felt immensely confident with.
“When he was a player, he would always be interested in the reasoning behind all the decisions I made,” Tabatznik said. “Some of the time those decisions would be something going against Rudy. He showed a great maturity in seeing the tactics of the game. When you hire someone, you usually are just hoping they’ll be good. With Rudy it was a no-brainer that he’d be a success.”
Fuller has many traits as a coach that make him unique. The most notable and integral characteristic in Fuller’s unique coaching style is the close-knit relationships he develops with his players.
Current assistant coach Pete Pososki, who worked as an assistant for the women’s soccer team from 2005 to 2010, attests to the importance Fuller puts into creating bonds with his players.
“When I started working here at Penn, my office was right across from Rudy’s so I got to know him really well,” Pososki said. “The first thing that caught my eye was definitely the way he dealt with his guys as people. It’s easy to look at them as players, but he would really invest in getting to know them as people.”
Oftentimes, the lessons that Fuller teaches on the field are about more than soccer. Former Penn forward and Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year Duke Lacroix remembers how Fuller extended his soccer philosophy into life lessons.
“His big message that he constantly reinforced throughout my four years was to not be ‘short of the line,’ essentially to not sell yourself short on the field,” Lacroix said. “That message was meant directly to be about our work in practice but also applies to life in general. You have to put in the work to get the result you want in anything.”
Senior midfielder Matt Poplawski also recalls a notable example of Fuller impressing a wise message on the team.
“Coach Fuller’s message to us has always been to ‘stack the days,’ which essentially means to make the most of each day and get better every time out there,” Poplawski said. “It’s something that I definitely cast on my life outside of soccer as well.”
In addition to being a trusted figure on the field, players feel incredibly comfortable talking to Fuller about off-the-field issues as well.
“I feel comfortable coming to coach about anything,” senior forward Alec Neumann said. “Whether it’s academics, personal life, or my future, I’ve talked to Rudy about it all. He’s much more than a coach, he’s a mentor.”
The bonds forged between Fuller and his players have another, more evident byproduct — the performance on the field. The way that Fuller coaches his team makes the players desperate to earn a win not just for themselves, but for Fuller.
“Above anything else, the relationship a coach has with his players is important,” Tabatznik said. “There’s no better way for a player to want to play their best than to know the coach behind him supports him 100 percent.”
Pososki agrees with Tabatznik, identifying Fuller’s player-management skills as what allows him to take the Quakers to greater heights.
“Rudy’s X’s and O’s are great, everyone can see that whenever the team steps out on the field,” Pososki said. “What people don’t see is all the behind the scenes managing that he does. It’s next level. His care for all our guys puts him in a position of real respect. The players want to go out there and perform for him.”
Lacroix, Neumann and Poplawski all cited the same example of a game where they really felt Fuller’s influence on their play. Three years ago, the final game of the season loomed with the Ivy League title still up for grabs. In a game the Quakers had to win, Fuller made sure his players were prepared for the pressure-cooker environment they were about to walk into.
“I’m pretty sure it’s still on video somewhere, but Coach Fuller gave one of the best pregame talks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to,” Poplawski said. “We came out flying that game. I think we scored two goals in the first 15 minutes and went on to win the game and the Ivy League championship.”
“What he told us before that game still remains with me today,” Neumann added. “He reminded us to just go out there and leave our mark, win or lose.”
“We just came out from the start firing,” Lacroix said. “Everything went our way that game. Even though we only won by a couple goals, it wasn’t really that close. We all felt it. It was the culmination of all the hard work we had put in and all the lessons that Rudy had been stressing all year long.”
Perhaps the most telltale anecdote that sums up Fuller’s close-knit relationships with his players is a story that, as Lacroix puts it, he’s “never seen before” and “blew him away.”
“I know a player who was sick one night before an early-morning lift,” Lacroix said. “He was really struggling and ended up being admitted into the infirmary that night. Wouldn’t you know it, Coach Fuller was in that infirmary at 3 a.m. to check up on the guy.”
One thing is for certain — Fuller has worked for all the respect and plaudits he has garnered throughout his years at Penn. Whether working tirelessly to improve himself as a player and coach or caring for his players on and off the field, his impact extends far beyond the touchline at Rhodes Field.
“The impact that he leaves on his players is something that lasts well after their four years at Penn,” Tabatznik said.
“Rudy is special because he sees the soccer field for what it is — a place for important lessons to be taught.”