Only six days after Penn Athletics announced that former men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller would be leaving his post in order to replace Sherryta Freeman as the University’s Senior Associate Athletic Director, the Red and Blue have already found their next leader on the pitch.
On February 21, the school announced that it would be promoting Brian Gill, who recently finished his first season as an assistant for the Quakers, as its next head coach, effective immediately.
"It is a tremendous honor to be selected as the next head men's soccer coach at the University of Pennsylvania," Gill, who is taking his first college head coach job, said in the Penn Athletics press release. "The program has a rich tradition of success, and I am excited for the opportunity to expand my role and lead this program to help further that tradition.”
Players on the team found out of Gill’s promotion in a team meeting on February 15, after the conclusion of a morning workout. The team also learned of Fuller's promotion within the athletic department in that meeting.
“We were a bit immediately surprised, but we kind of thought more about the situation and we were really happy for both of them, so we congratulated both of them,” said rising sophomore Jake Kohlbrenner, who added that there was “no indication" that Fuller would be leaving during the regular season. “I'm really excited for coach Gill to be our coach; we're gonna continue on our path and hopefully win an Ivy League championship."
Following Fuller’s 20 seasons as the Red and Blue’s head coach, his departure was understandably surprising to some, though it didn’t come without any inklings beforehand. At the conclusion of the 2016-17 school year, Fuller was named a senior advisor to the Athletic Director while simultaneously maintaining coaching duties, seeming to hint at his desire to eventually move up the department ranks.
But that opportunity to move didn’t come into play until an in-state rival intervened. After Bruce McCutcheon retired following 16 years as Lafayette’s Athletic Director, the Leopards hired Sherryta Freeman as his replacement, who had been serving as one of Penn’s four Senior Associate Athletic Directors.
With Freeman moving up in the college athletics world, Penn sought to fill her void. Fuller provided a natural solution to do so, and the rest was history.
“Over the past couple of years, [moving up in the department] is something that I was giving more and more thought to, but you never know when your opportunity is gonna present itself. I think that obviously when Sherryta was hired at Lafayette, it presented an opening here, and I sat down with [Athletic Director] Dr. Calhoun shortly after winter break just to have a conversation,” Fuller said. “I give Dr. Calhoun and the rest of the department a lot of credit because the transition was very smooth, and there was a succession plan in place.”
Prior to Fuller’s departure, though, he played a vital role in bringing Penn men’s soccer from laughing-stock status to relevance.
When Fuller arrived to Penn in 1998, the team hadn’t won the Ivy League championship since 1980, and it had only had one winning overall season in the past 13 years. But by the end of his tenure, the team had secured three Ivy League titles, and even two wins in NCAA Tournament games — not to mention an active streak of 19 consecutive National Soccer Coaches Association of America “Team Academic Awards” that stands as the country’s longest.
“Honestly, I would’ve certainly liked to have won a few more Ivy League championships over 20 years, but I take a lot of pride in the work that we did and kind of re-establishing the program within the league and on the national soccer landscape,” Fuller said. “And I have a lot of faith in Brian’s ability to build on that. I hope it takes him a lot quicker than 20 years to win three [championships]."
But recent years haven’t quite seen as much success for the Red and Blue, giving Gill a tough task in turning the program around. The Quakers haven’t finished above .500 overall or in conference play since their 2013 Ivy championship season. This season, Penn stumbled to a 4-12-1 overall record and a sixth-place finish in the Ivy League, averaging a meager 1.05 goals per game throughout the season.
While Gill’s first season in Philadelphia was underwhelming in terms of wins and losses, though, both Fuller and his players praised the first-year assistant’s impact on the program overall.
“From a team perspective, [Gill] made a lot of positive changes to our culture. And individually, I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player from the beginning to the end of the season, and he talks about that a lot,” Kohlbrenner said. “I think the biggest similarity [between Fuller and Gill] is how much they care about their team; they really take the time out of practices and lifts to wonder how we’re doing, what’s going on in our lives, and that’s what’s most important.”
Providing some further optimism, Gill’s coaching career saw some stellar results prior to his arrival on Penn’s campus.
From 2010 to 2016, Gill served as an assistant coach at Georgetown, where he contributed to a program perennially near the top of the national rankings throughout his seven-year tenure. Among the highlights of his time there were five trips to the NCAA Tournament, a run to the national championship in 2012 before the Hoyas fell to Indiana, and four Big East championships.
“I think Georgetown and Penn are somewhat similar places academically, and so the challenges that the student-athletes face are similar. And so when you’re starting to bring in athletics at places like that, obviously you need to make sure you can account for a good amount of things as coaches,” Gill said. “[At Georgetown] it was never gonna be about complacency, it was gonna be about where we can go with this. … And that’s the thing for us [at Penn] — where we’re starting right now, it’s not even worth talking about where we can stop, it’s all about how high we can go.”
With such a thorough amount of championship experience, it’s fitting that Gill’s next task will be to change the culture at a Penn program that is seeking its first Ivy League title in five years. Following leading scorer and senior midfielder Joe Swenson’s decision to return for a fifth year, Penn only graduates one starter and two players from its 2017 team, giving Gill a solid base of returning talent to work with.
And if the team’s offseason is any indication, it’s on the road there. After losing six games by a single goal last season, including two overtime losses in conference play, the Quakers know they’re on the brink of breaking into the league’s top tier.
“The nice thing about it is we have really the same team through the spring this year, and then adding in nine new faces in the fall to a team that is essentially keeping itself intact. But I know that our results have to get better, so there things we do have to change,” Gill said. “The change will be the commitment level, the change will be in the mentality, because if we can get guys who believe they can make up these small margins that we’re speaking about … the soccer is there in a lot of ways, the guys have the ability, now it’s about the belief to be able to get it done.”