Plattsburgh State men’s soccer coach Chris Waterbury’s retirement last November left a massive hole for the athletic department, and PSUC filled it by giving an alumnus a chance for a homecoming.
Chris Taylor, a 2011 graduate, will make his return to the school as the new men’s head coach this fall, but the path he took to get to this job has been unconventional.
His soccer career had stops in Plattsburgh, Vassar College and Clarkson University, but it starts a far cry from the small North Country city: his hometown of Liverpool, England.
“It’s the national sport, so everyone plays, and Liverpool is a pretty soccer-mad city,” Taylor said. “From as soon as I could go, in the back garden playing with my brother was just a normal thing every night.”
Taylor grew up in this “soccer-mad” environment with the goal of going pro, not going to college.
“In my high school, it wasn’t really valued to be smart; it was valued to be good at soccer,” Taylor said.
From the ages of 16 to 18, Taylor bounced from club to club looking for a spot but could never find the right fit.
“To be honest, I wasn’t cut out to be a professional player there,” Taylor said. “I got to be 18, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do here.’”
Taylor then took the job that changed the course of his life.
He heard from a friend living in the U.S. that New York City’s Major League Soccer team, the New York Red Bulls, was offering nine month contracts for “Player Development Officers,” a sort of community outreach coach that would travel around southern New York to help develop youth teams.
Taylor took the job as a way to earn some money while figuring out where he wanted to go in life, while staying around the game he loves.
Taylor played on a rec league team in Valhalla, New York, with numerous ex-college soccer players.
PSUC alumnus Chris Beck, a former Cardinal soccer player on the Valhalla squad, sent word back to Waterbury.
“Waterbury started to call me, and we started a dialogue, and he convinced me to come up here,” Taylor said. “I had never visited, he had never seen me play, and I came up here on a whim.”
And without a clue.
“I was on my own, and I didn’t really know what to do or where to go. I didn’t have a cell phone,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know where the field was; I didn’t know anything.”
Taylor learned quickly, scoring eight goals and notching 20 points as a midfielder.
While his skills on the field quickly displayed themselves, his skills in the classroom were slower to manifest. He was the first in his family to attend college.
“I’d never really pushed myself, and I had it in my mind that I wouldn’t try too hard because I wasn’t that smart,” Taylor said. “The stress of not doing well in school was starting to play on me while I was playing soccer. I wasn’t happy.”
Taylor dedicated himself to turning his education around, and it allowed him to thrive on the field.
He finished his career with 80 total points, as well as the program record for assists with 38. His career culminated in a SUNYAC championship win and NCAA championship berth in his senior year. The NCAA tournament defeat against Amherst seemed to spell the end of Taylor’s time in Plattsburgh, but after the loss, it became clear it was just the opposite.
“Waterbury probably said the only serious thing he ever said to me in four years,” Taylor said. “He said, ‘You think this is the end, but it’s just the beginning. You’re going to be with us from now on.’ That was the first time he’d ever mentioned it.”
And so began Taylor’s collegiate coaching career, with two seasons as an assistant coach at PSUC, a transition that posed its own challenges.
“It’s usually an extraordinarily difficult transition if you stay at the same school because now you’re coaching people that you just played with,” Waterbury said. “His transition was easy because his maturity didn’t match up with his age. He was so much more mature, and the way he saw things was well beyond his age.”
Waterbury viewed it as an opportunity to not only keep a familiar face around but also give Taylor a chance to learn before making his own way.
The Cardinals went 30-8-3 while Taylor was an assistant and captured the regular season SUNYAC crown in 2012.
Everything was going well, but after six seasons, Plattsburgh was feeling a little too familiar.
“I was very comfortable here,” Taylor said. “I needed to leave at that point to experience something new.”
“Something new” was Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.
Taylor attributes his 18 months under Vassar head coach Andy Jennings as one of the best learning experiences in his career.
“Andy is one of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked for or with, but it was what I needed,” Taylor said. “He would debate with me all the time, so it got to the point where I was studying what I was going to go tell him or what ideas I had.”
Taylor credits Jennings with teaching him a lot of the broader aspects of coaching, especially how to mentor young players.
“He’d have alumni games with 40 guys coming back from every different era, and they all hugged him like he was their dad,” Taylor said. “I was like, ‘I kind of want this, how do I get it?’”
His first head coaching opportunity came when Clarkson University’s head coach was fired in May 2014 after being charged with murder (he was later found not guilty), a scandal that left the program in shambles.
Taylor’s friends and colleagues advised against taking the job, but he didn’t listen.
“I’m pretty hard-headed,” Taylor said.
An added draw was his wife, fellow former PSUC athlete Helen Giroux. Clarkson is only an hour and 45 minutes away from Plattsburgh, allowing Taylor to return to her on weekends.
Taylor quickly turned Clarkson around, with the Golden Knights’ seven victories in the 2014 season being the team’s best since 2001.
In his four seasons at Clarkson, Taylor coached the team to a 27-35-7 record, a major improvement from the 16-43-5 record of the previous four seasons.
“There was no pressure,” Taylor said. “I had carte blanche, could do whatever I want, [could] change the program however I wanted.”
His time at Clarkson finished with a Liberty League playoff berth in 2017, the first time the Golden Knights had made the tournament since 1998.
“I loved seeing the players experience that,” Taylor said.
Taylor also credits his time at Clarkson with teaching him the administrative side of being a head coach: budgeting, advising players, cutting players, planning road trips.
His time spent coaching at three very different colleges around the state has given him a wide range of experience, something Waterbury thinks will help.
“Rather than stay at Plattsburgh the whole time, he’s gone to different places, learned and expanded his techniques,” Waterbury said.
When he first heard of Waterbury’s retirement from the man himself, the job opening wasn’t the first thing on Taylor’s mind.
“I didn’t even think about it to be honest, because I was speechless that it was even happening,” Taylor said.
Once the reality of Waterbury’s exit set in, Taylor was often asked whether this finally meant a return home.
“Everywhere I went recruiting, people were asking, ‘Oh, you’re going for the job, right?’” Taylor said.
Waterbury was one of them.
“I can’t lie to you, the first person I called when I announced my retirement [was Taylor],” Waterbury said.
Since his hiring in April, Taylor has been adjusting to taking over for a legend.
Waterbury spent 33 years in Plattsburgh, winning eight SUNYAC championships and appearing in the NCAA Division III tournament 11 times.
“The success speaks for itself, and I’ll never match that, but it means a lot to me that someone who’s been around so long, who’s coached so many people, who knows pretty much every coach in the country, wanted me to succeed him,” Taylor said.
Waterbury is confident Taylor will prosper.
“I really didn’t give him any advice. I just said, ‘It’s your turn,’” Waterbury said. “He’ll have his work cut out for him, but he’s shown that he can build a program.”
In all his years away, Taylor never lost his attachment to the Cardinals, and now his homecoming provides the chance to take over the team that built him.
“When I was at Clarkson and Vassar, when our games finished, I would do two things; I would look up scores in our league, and I would look up Plattsburgh’s score,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing like coaching at the program that you played in.”
Email Ben Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org