A little over two months ago, Slippery Rock University appointed alum Kevin Wilhelm as the head coach of its men’s soccer team. He started the 2018 season as the 13th man to lead the squad in its 89-year history.
The coach fostered his love for the sport at a very early age, living in an overseas country where his father worked as a teacher. Until moving back to the Western Pennsylvania region where he was born around kindergarten, Wilhelm lived in Sierra Leone, a small country on the coast of West Africa, where soccer was a preferred pastime.
“In the city we lived in, there were two things to do other than go to school, one was to go to the beach and the other was to play soccer. That’s pretty much what I did,” Wilhelm said.
After relocating back to the Slippery Rock area, Wilhelm found that soccer, still a sport growing in popularity even today, was not as prevalent in rural communities as football and baseball. Nonetheless, his parents made sure to do whatever was needed for him to be able to play on teams in the Butler and Pittsburgh areas.
“It’s been something I’ve done since, basically, I could walk,” Wilhelm said. “A lot of that is probably because of where I started growing up in Africa. Some of my earliest memories were playing soccer.”
Following a year at Gannon University in Erie, he returned to his hometown, transferring to Slippery Rock as a way to ensure he would have enough credits to make the jump to Appalachian State. At the time, the D-1 program in North Carolina was coached by SRU soccer alum and record-holder Art Rex, and Wilhelm, though not being recruited, possibly would have had an opportunity to join the team. However, once at SRU, the thought of trying to become a Mountaineer was out of his mind, as the education, community, and players on the team here changed his mind.
In the years after deciding to stick with The Rock, he played on a team that claimed a Western Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Soccer Conference crown in 1994. The ensuing season, he earned an individual accolade by being named an All-WPISC honoree.
“As a player here, I had a position where you don’t get a lot of stats other than minutes, playing in the midfield where I did,” Wilhelm said. “As far as tracing what I did, I was in one of those roles where it was more of a critical role, but you don’t always get noticed as much because of where you play.”
Before even receiving his undergraduate’s degree, Wilhelm found a job working for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, a league that at the time was relatively new. The role was a combination of coaching, public relations and marketing, and the networking he developed in his two years with the club helped to set him up for his future.
He returned to Slippery Rock to get his master’s degree in sports management. Later, he latched on as an assistant coach under former SRU teammate Matt Thompson, a role he served until he was hired to the helm of both the men and women’s soccer teams by Thiel College for the 2004 season.
“As far as the wins and losses, that’s always tough for me to take because how competitive I am as an individual,” Wilhelm said. “But as far as the whole learning process for my players, for myself, I really wouldn’t change any of that or take anything back.”
Being the school’s only full-time employed coach, everything was dependent on him, which pressed him time-wise.
“If you weren’t travelling, you were coaching. If you weren’t travelling with one team, chances were you were travelling with another team,” Wilhelm said of the demanding schedule.
While serving a second stint in an assistant’s capacity at Slippery Rock, one in which he stayed long enough to be part of a PSAC Championship-winning squad in 2009, he became the Director of Coaching Boys for the Northern Steel Select Soccer Club. In that position, which he served for over ten years, he held responsibilities in administration, recruiting, scheduling, and coaching individual teams.
Wilhelm notes a comparison in the youthful characteristic of both of the teams he previously assisted with here and the team he has taken leadership of for this season. He stresses that attaining the success that the previous teams enjoyed is a building process. Wilhelm feels that the progression begins with the culture he remembers from his playing days, which is being restored because of his players’ committed work ethic and trusting acceptance of both him and his coaching methods.
The player-coach relationship, he said, is “a mutual respect. They know where I’m coming from. They know what my resume is and what I’ve done and where I’ve been and what I did as player here. I think they really jumped on board after they had a couple of practice sessions with me and realized that I could give them maybe a little bit more than they could give me at this point in time.”
As an interim coach, a position that is not definite for next season, Wilhelm has kept his continued to work with three Northern Steel teams as a financial safety net for his family.
“Currently, days are long and burning the candle at both ends,” Wilhelm said. “There are a lot of times where, when we have home games, I’ll be coaching a Northern Steel game in the morning before I go and sometimes again afterwards.”
When asked if he would like to shed the interim tag and continue to coach and help his team mature, Wilhelm said, “I would have a very short consideration about that. It would be, on my end, a no-brainer.”