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Rennie an institution for Duke soccer

Throughout the years, the changing faces and the wins and losses, there has been one constant for Duke soccer -- coach John Rennie.

For 29 years, Rennie has been at the helm of a Duke soccer program that he raised to national prominence. In 1986, he brought the university its first national championship in any sport. He led squads to the College Cup five times and won five Atlantic Coast Conference championships, including the past two titles. He's developed hundreds of young men -- some have gone on to leave their mark on the world of soccer, while many others have gone on to excel in various other fields.

At Duke, Rennie is more than a coach. He is an integral part of the institution, which is why the Blue Devils' final game this season will mark the end of an unforgettable era. After this season, Rennie will step down.

"When you get to the point where you have 30 or 35 years as a Division I head coach, you tend to take it one year at a time," said Rennie, who coached six seasons at Columbia before taking over at Duke in 1979. "Since the end of last season, I had really started thinking seriously about [leaving Duke] ... I wanted to try and do something different. Coaching for 35 years was enough."

It's been a phenomenal three decades. Like many of the students he would go on to coach, Rennie felt that Duke was a good fit from his very first visit. His gut instinct, combined with the fact that then-athletic director Tom Butters assured Rennie that the university was committed to supporting its soccer program, sealed the deal.

"Now, did I feel I would stay for 29 years? No," Rennie said, laughing. "At that point, you're just so excited to get a job where they're really, really going to be supportive and you can build a great program, and that's what you set out to do."

He has definitely accomplished that goal.

"John's developed our soccer program to be one of the best in the country," athletic director Joe Alleva said. "We take a lot of pride in our soccer program, and John's basically been responsible for all the success that it's had. He won ... the first national championship that Duke ever won. From that point on, I guess he's been the leader in terms of setting the stage for us for other championships down the road."

Rennie still attacks each season with the enthusiasm that's kept him going year after year.

"I tell the players all the time, every game takes on a life of its own," Rennie said. "I feel the same way about every season. Every season that you coach is completely different than the one before it, and it's completely different from the next one."

But, he added, coaching longevity is also about enjoying soccer for what it is -- a game.

"If you're not going to enjoy it, you're not going to perform very well," Rennie said. "Sometimes, I think as a younger coach, it takes a while to figure that out. But the more that you and your players enjoy it, the better you're going to do as a team."

Another key is the ability to continue to evolve as a coach to deal with the changing college soccer scene and the next generation of players.

"He's very unique," midfielder Zack Pope said of Rennie's coaching style. "It's not anything that I've ever experienced. He's very subtle in what he does. Sometimes, you don't understand him at first, but then you sit back, and after a while it kind of comes to you. You've got to respect him because he's been around for a long time, so he's seen a lot."

There is an overwhelming amount of respect for Rennie throughout college soccer. That rings especially true for his players -- past and present. After all, Rennie factored into their decisions to attend Duke.

"There are a couple good academic schools in the ACC, so the deciding factor was the opportunity to play under coach Rennie," goalkeeper Justin Papadakis said. "I heard a lot of great things about him coming in, and I think that's only been confirmed now after four years of playing. His knowledge of the game is very extensive. He has the ability to motivate his players and he builds his relationships with his players. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to play under him for the last four years."

Blue Devils players have shared that sentiment for nearly 30 years. However, the focus now is on just a single season -- the current one.

This year has been, as Rennie put it, "predictably inconsistent" for Duke. The team entered 2007 as the preseason favorite in the ACC but has struggled to a 7-5-0 record due to injuries and, as a result, inconsistency. Still, both the coach and his players believe the team has the ability to be extremely successful.

"We just have to know it's never going to be perfect," midfielder Mike Videira said, sharing Rennie's positive outlook. "We can't get down on ourselves because it can turn around just as quickly. I think that we're a very good team. As long as we keep our heads up, we'll be fine."

The team has 13 seniors who all want to end on a high note -- for themselves, for each other and for their coach.

"There's definitely a general consensus on the team that coach Rennie deserves another national championship," Papadakis said. "He's given us all the opportunity to play in one of the best programs in the country, and we feel like we owe him this national championship as his farewell present. So we're going to do everything we can to give him that parting gift."

There are still a few games to play before the team can get to that point, but with just six regular-season meetings left before the ACC tournament, the countdown is definitely on.

"It's becoming more of a reality as the season's getting shorter and there aren't that many games left," Rennie said. "It's starting to sink in a little bit. It certainly brings up a lot of emotions, but they're all good."

When it's all over, Rennie will follow in the footsteps of the players he has coached over the years. He will leave Duke soccer and begin the next chapter of his life.

"I'm not retiring as much as I'm moving on to doing something else, although I don't know what that will be," he said. "I am looking forward to perhaps some different challenges. I don't know what that's going to be, but I am looking forward to the future very much."

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.