Tom Saxton has been involved with MSU women’s soccer for nearly three decades, creating his own unique special team dynamic.
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The world of sports offers several types of coaches.
Some take a head coaching job for the money, others to promote themselves or wait until their dream job is available.
None of these motivate Michigan State women’s soccer Coach Tom Saxton, who’s been at his dream job for 27 of the program’s 32 years of existence.
“It’s an absolute dream, greatest place in the world,” Saxton said. “I just feel very, very fortunate. It’s a beautiful campus, our facilities are fantastic and just the relationships I’ve built up over the years. I’m so well treated here.”
Saxton has been around the Spartan soccer programs for ages. He played under former men’s soccer coach Joe Baum starting in 1979, then returned as an assistant coach under Baum in 1986.
Saxton now holds a career record of 260-222-51, has coached 41 All-Big Ten honorees, plus four NCAA tournament and 12 Big Ten tournament appearances. His players have also been performers in the classroom, coaching 286 Academic All-Big Ten honorees programs incorporation into the Big Ten in 1994.
For Saxton, collecting these accolades doesn’t mean much. He cares the most about coaching young players and watching them grow as adults, while teaching them soccer.
It’s a been a ride he never anticipated.
Finding the beautiful game
Saxton grew up in Flint, first playing soccer in fourth grade, back in 1969.
“I kind of developed an identity with it,” Saxton said. “It seemed like it was something I was good at, and in junior high it kind of became who I was.”
Saxton was drawn to the game because of the freedom it allows over other sports. And since there wasn’t a stoppage of play, it suited his runner mentality.
He always tuned into PBS’s “Soccer Made in Germany”, an hour-long weekly highlight show of soccer ranging from West German teams to international teams in the Union of European Football Associations.
“I sucked in everything I could,” Saxton said.
What Saxton retrieved out of the weekly show was an appreciation for the artistic part of soccer. He spent a lot of time with just practicing and playing a ball, devoid of real coaching.
“I really enjoyed the mastery of the ball and being able to do different things with that,” Saxton said. “I think there’s a reason it’s called a beautiful game. That part really intrigued me.”
Saxton’s attraction to artistic side of soccer led him to attend some MSU soccer camps, led to him becoming a Spartan player from 1979-82.
After Saxton graduated in 1983, with a bachelor’s degree in social science, he thought would to be a social science teacher and coach high school soccer. That obviously didn’t happen, but having a teaching degree helped in the long run.
Before coaching under Baum, Saxton took the men’s head coaching job at Delta Community College, after former MSU cross country All-American Crawford “Forddy” Kennedy retired.
“So I started coaching men’s college soccer at the ripe old age of 23-years-old,” Saxton said. “I was really lucky to get that break basically.”
He was also coach for Flint Central high school’s girls soccer team while at DCC.
A door opened at MSU when Athletic Director Doug Weaver instituted women’s soccer as a varsity sport. Saxton knew he wanted to come back to his alma mater.
“I’m lucky as can be, because there’s a 150 people in Joe’s kind of alumni base that could’ve easily done this job too,” Saxton said. “I was just coaching both genders, so I was kind of a natural fit.”
Saxton said one of the tougher things during his time as an assistant under Baum was the “logistics” of coaching both teams, which could be difficult.
“We had to play a lot of doubleheaders, so you literally...could go through a gut wrenching overtime loss and then you would have to switch over and be like ‘OK, fresh start here’,” Saxton said. “It was hard and incredible.”
After five seasons under Baum’s tutelage and dealing with the logistics, Saxton became the head coach of the women’s program on June 1, 1991.
Focusing on the process
Saxton and his staff have a direct coaching approach, which addresses specific issues on the field and ensures a “focus on the process”.
“When I’m doing it that way, I feel very comfortable being harder or being direct with players,” Saxton said.
This coaching style is well received by his players. While some can over-coach, Saxton is able to give constructive criticism without forcing his team to do his every bidding.
“He gives us our constructive criticism that we need and let’s us do the work and talk to each other and push each other,” senior forward Jamie Cheslik said. “He mostly gives us the reins and let’s us kind of push practice and make things hard for ourselves.”
Some criticism focuses on the little things, such as not rushing play, to making sure the entire team works as a unit. Other times, it helps players transition into different positions.
This move happened to senior Kristelle Yewah, who went from being a pure offensive forward to an outside midfielder, which comes with more defensive responsibilities.
“Him being able to teach me, to transform me into an outside mid, was something you can see with him being able to make players versatile in different ways,” Yewah said.
Saxton doesn’t only teach his players how to be versatile on the field, but he also teaches them to be versatile off the field, which he considers to be more valuable.
Building lifelong relationships
Becoming a part of a collegiate program is like being adopted into a giant family. Saxton has been the head of the MSU women’s soccer family for 27 years, and he is proud of the strong alumni connection.
“I really do think we have a good base of alums over the years,” Saxton said. “That’s one of the coolest things.”
The wide range of alumni Saxton has coached over the years can be seen on his coaching staff, as associate head coach Tammy Farnum played under Saxton from 1989-92 and assistant head coach Stacy DeLonge played from 2000-03.
“We all bleed green, so that’s good because we know each other well, we complement each other well,” Saxton said. “They’re two of my top alumni right here in my office.”
Farnum and DeLonge are communication outlets for the players, helping them understand where Saxton is coming from. They know how he thinks, since they’ve been under his tutelage for so long, Yewah and Cheslik said.
“Tammy and Stacy can also relate to us in different ways, and understand where Tom is coming from certain things, and relay that to us,” Yewah said. “I feel like you don’t see that a lot with head coaches and their assistants.”
Cheslik said Saxton can sometimes seem “stand-offish” and not approachable, but said once people get to know Saxton, “he’s not like that at all”.
“He’s super open to talk to, always willing to help and just honestly wants the best for everybody,” Cheslik said. “He’s always there to look out for you guys, and if you need help, he’ll be there for you no matter what.”
Saxton’s philosophy focuses on the relationships and the people aspect of sports, more than the competitive aspect the public often sees. This philosophy was instilled into Saxton by his predecessor, Baum.
“In 15 to 20 years from now for example, Jamie and Kristelle might not remember a particular tough loss, but they’ll still cherish their relationships they developed with each other during their time here,” Saxton said.
Saxton loves seeing former members of his program at events such as golf outings, alumni days and soccer camps where previous players send their kids.
“It’s just been a pleasure to watch the program grow, the base of the program grow and to watch young people grow into adults, into great parents and great Spartans,” Saxton said. “It’s a really, really cool thing.”