TAMPA — Growing up on Long Island, even at age 4, George Kiefer so loved the game of soccer that his mother had to literally tie him to a chair to keep him off the field as he watched his older brother's games.
"I would just want to run on the field," USF's men's soccer coach of 10 years said Monday as his team prepares for an NCAA tournament Elite Eight match today at No. 2 seed Creighton. "He was much bigger and older, but I just had to get out there. It's always been soccer."
Aside from perhaps his restraint on the sidelines, little has changed in Kiefer, who has the Bulls making their fifth straight NCAA appearance, solidifying its status as the most successful team on campus. Players will tell you they get their toughness from their coach, who will tell you he got his from a humble upbringing in the white-collar Long Island hamlet of Bay Shore.
"I come from a small house, just my mother's income (as a hairdresser). Worked hard," Kiefer said. "I didn't grow up with a lot. I wasn't given a lot. The tough part of Long Island. You wouldn't leave with your ball if they didn't put you in the game. You had to fight to be good. I think this team is fighting to be good."
Kiefer, 39, has proven himself a great recruiter, with a roster that has players from seven countries on three continents; his top scorer is from England and other key players come from Brazil to Norway.
"He's almost like a father to us all," said goalkeeper Chris Blais, who helped Michigan to the Final Four last year but transferred to play his final year with the Bulls. "He can be so stern. You don't want to get him mad, but he's always cracking jokes. He's probably the funniest guy on our team. He's a guy you want to go play for. … I've been here for a year, but he's a guy I'm going to care about for the rest of my life."
Kiefer played for tiny Southern Connecticut State, where he stayed as a coach, helping the Owls win a Division II national title in 1995. After following coach Ray Reid to Connecticut, he won an NCAA title there in 2000, coming to USF in 2002 to be in charge of his own program. His Bulls won a Big East championship in 2008 and reached the NCAA Elite Eight that year.
"It's great that we're at the Elite Eight, but that's not what we're looking to do," Kiefer said. "We're over that. The next step is to get to a Final Four, and we're going to go to Creighton to try to make that happen."
Ask him about the challenge of playing at Creighton (20-2-0) and Kiefer points to the confidence his team has had on the road all season. In August, the Bulls went to Wake Forest and handed the Demon Deacons their first-ever August home loss before a crowd of 4,123.
"It's their opening weekend, where it's mandatory. The students have to go to that game," Kiefer said. "The Demon Deacon rides out on a motorcycle. After we scored our second goal, a bunch of my guys were on like fake choppers (mimics revving the engine with hands). I was like, 'Okay. They've got some confidence to 'em.' "
Despite a No. 7 national seed, Kiefer still enjoys the underdog card. The Bulls (13-3-4) are one win from a trip to Alabama for the NCAA College Cup — pull that off, and they'll have trouble keeping Kiefer off the field in celebration afterward.
"I think still there's nobody that expects us to go to Creighton and win," he said. "I would be shocked if you found one publication that predicts that. I like that. I think it's good. … We like to beat streaks. It's on the road; we're undefeated on the road. … We look forward to that game."