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Chris Gbandi walked into his new office and sat behind the desk, with its full, panoramic view of Morrone Stadium. Then he quickly popped up.
“I still don’t feel comfortable sitting there while he’s here,” Gbandi said.
In walks Ray Reid, who filled the head coach’s chair with his larger-than-life personality since 1997. For this afternoon chat, neither sat behind the desk, both beside it, but make no mistake, this is a seamless transfer of power at the Rizza Performance Center, Reid handing the UConn men’s soccer program over to one of his own, the former Husky player he calls “my Michael Jordan,” and he does so with a smile and his boisterous laugh.
“He has the ‘it’ factor,” Reid said. “This guy is completely wired differently, and that’s why he is the right guy for this job. And I couldn’t be happier.”
Reid, 61, announced Dec. 2 he was retiring to spend more time caring for his elderly parents. By Dec. 13, he and AD David Benedict had come to the same conclusion. With Gbandi touring the campus, Reid was told to be on the pitch at 2:45 p.m., when Benedict and Gbandi arrived and there, at midfield, Reid offered his hand and delivered UConn’s offer to succeed him.
“Everything he got as a player and as a coach, he’s earned,” Reid said. “Nobody’s given him anything.”
Gbandi, 42, was one of the first recruits Reid targeted when he came to UConn. At Division II Southern Connecticut, Reid had recruited older players; he was just beginning to develop an eye for projecting 17-year-olds, as Gbandi, who was born in Liberia, grew up in Houston, was at the time.
“It was almost too easy for him,” Reid said. “And I’m saying to myself, as God is my judge, ‘How good is this guy?’ He looked like a man playing among boys. Finally, I said, ‘We gotta have him.’”
Reid told Gbandi he could be part of a national championship team at UConn. “That was something I never even thought about, and that just resonated with me,” Gbandi said.
That’s how it started, Gbandi coming to UConn to play for Reid in 1999, and becoming the glue on the field, controlling the game from the back. As a sophomore, Gbandi wanted to move up to midfield, their one disagreement.
“He was right, he could’ve played that position,” Reid said, “but I thought we’d be better with him at the other position. I wish I had two Chris Gbandis, but I didn’t. Hey, when I recruited him, I told him he’d play center forward. I told him he was going to be the point guard for Jim Calhoun.”
There Reid’s laughter shook the walls. But he wasn’t joking when he told Gbandi he could win the Herman Trophy if he played where Reid wanted. He led UConn’s impregnable defense to the national championship game. Meantime, after missing a number of penalty kicks, Gbandi got out on the practice field to work on it and, when he was called upon in the championship game, he delivered against Creighton.
“And I knew, up 1-nil, with him, we were going to win,” Reid said. “Outside of my marriage and my daughters, that December in Charlotte was the happiest day of my life.”
The 2000 national championship was theirs, and the Herman Trophy, usually reserved for scorers, belonged to Gbandi. “I ended up playing the right position,” he said. “They were smart about it.”
Gbandi was the No. 1 pick in the MLS draft, and played professionally until 2010, when troublesome knees forced him to retire. He rejoined Reid as a volunteer assistant.
“He came in and got his hands dirty, did all the BS I never thought he’d want to do,” Reid said.
“What I took from UConn was No. 1, the mentality,” Gbandi said. “The hard work. People behind the scenes didn’t understand how we were getting up at 6 in the morning, throwing up in trash cans, and the togetherness of the group. It really was ‘their team against our family.’
“Given the opportunity to come back here, what he did for me was to say, ‘I know you did some stuff here as a player and played many years as a pro, but if you really want to know what it is to be a coach, a teacher, run a program, you’re going to have to start here.’ He wanted to make sure nobody could say ‘you just got this position because of this, this and this. You start at the bottom and work your way up.’”
Gbandi went on to be an assistant at Holy Cross and Dartmouth, then became the head coach at Northeastern in 2016. After several losing seasons, Reid talked to him about other positions, but Gbandi was convinced his program was about to turn it around. Last season, Northeastern went 11-6-2.
“He just impressed me with how he carried himself as a coach,” Reid said. “People raved about his team this year. As an outsider looking in, Northeastern’s no day at the beach, it’s not an easy place to turn, they’ve got one field they probably share with five teams, and he turned it and I just knew he had it.”
UConn men’s soccer will look different. Where Reid enters a room like a tropical storm moving in from Long Island, Gbandi slips in quietly, speaks softly. They share common goals and passion for UConn soccer, disagreeing these days mostly about basketball; Gbandi’s a LeBron guy, Reid has Jordan as his G.O.A.T.
“His personality is a little bit bigger than mine,” Gbandi said, “so I might be a little bit different, I might be a little bit more soft spoken, but in terms of the family aspect, how we run a program, in terms of the respect and how we want to do things, those things are so important to me.”
Reid, 318-139-65 during his UConn years, is looking for his next chapter. Having followed Bob Dikranian at Southern and Joe Morrone at UConn, he knows how large a shadow a retired coaching legend can cast. He plans be there only when Gbandi reaches out. Power has been passed.
“He’s going to do it different than I did, which he should,” Reid said. “He’s going to do it his way, which he should. But he’s going to get it done. He is a winner. After 39 years as a head coach, I can count the amount of winners on two hands. Real winners. And this guy’s a winner.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com