Graceland University is not a place where students go to learn about Elvis.
About 1,000 kilometres north of Memphis, you’ll find it in the heart of the small Christian town of Lamoni, Iowa – population: 2,300. Amish buggies own the road and businesses remain closed on Sundays.
It hardly seems like an appealing place for young students looking to complete their degree. That is, unless they play soccer.
Home to world-class athletic facilities, Graceland captured the 2006 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) men’s soccer championship in a dramatic final that went to 20 penalty kick shooters. The head coach of that team was Ivan Joseph. Two of his star players that year were Oakville, Ont., resident Filip Prostran and Aberdeen, Scotland native Kevin Souter.
Seven years later, all three call Ryerson home.
“The only reason I’m here now is because of that championship,” said Joseph, who left Graceland in 2008 to become Ryerson’s director of athletics and later the head coach of the men’s soccer team.
“Not because of what it gave me, but more because of what it took off my list. It was, ‘OK, now what’s next?’”
That next step was to try to bring world-class facilities and a winning culture to Ryerson – two areas the school had been lacking for decades. The men’s soccer team hadn’t posted a winning season since 1971 and were considered perennial doormats in the OUA.
Joseph quickly turned the men’s program around, leading the team to a 5-4-5 record in 2009-10. In 2010, he convinced Prostran to give up playing pro soccer in Europe to join the men’s program as an associate coach. Prostran played in both Serbia and Ireland before reuinting with Joseph. One year later, he brought in Souter – fresh off two seasons with the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS – to head the women’s program.
The hirings were a testament to how Prostran and Souter have bought into Joseph’s coaching philosophy.
“Many more coaches have way more experience,” said Joseph. “But in terms of understanding the culture and what it takes to build a successful program, they’re inside my head and … without a doubt this is one of the reasons why I brought them here.”
The culture Joseph refers to is built on work ethic, leadership and caring about students. “One of the things that Ivan does well is taking people out of their comfort zone,” said Souter, who recalled being instructed once by Joseph to deliver a speech on behalf of his Graceland teammates despite a fear of public speaking. “He has a way of giving players leadership roles without them even realizing … giving (them) confidence. I try to do that.”
The team concept is another area that Prostran, like Joseph, works hard to bring to the pitch at Ryerson.
“It has to feel like a family,” said Prostran, who recalls driving down on two occasions with Joseph to Kansas City for weddings of former teammates.
“We’d built something a lot more than soccer (at Graceland). We’re trying to do that here.”
It’s clearly working. Under Joseph, Prostran and Souter, the women’s team has shown improvement while the men’s soccer program has recorded five straight winning seasons – culminating this year with an undefeated regular season (12-0-2) and an OUA East division title.
“They’re now seeing the value of what’s been instilled (over four years),” said Prostran, who Joseph refers to as charismatic, gregarious and the glue to his men’s team. “The discipline, the camaraderie and the leadership have translated to performance on the field.”
“This year there’s something different,” said Souter. “The team is full of fourth- and fifth-year students and has lots of experience. Instead of us losing a game by one, we’re winning the game by one.”
“By far they’re the hardest working team with the most grit that I’ve ever coached,” added Joseph. “I can walk away, win or lose, and know personally that I did what I accomplished and set out to do, which is build a team that’s capable of winning.”
Heading into the playoffs as the second-ranked team in the country, these Rams are trying to become the first in school history to win an OUA or CIS championship — both which would provide a huge boost to Ryerson athletics.
“I think the belief it would instil in the other teams, and athletics in general, would be big,” said Prostran. “It’d be like, ‘hey, you can do it here at Ryerson.’”
“To win that OUA banner or to get to the national tournament and win that banner, that would mean a lot,” added Joseph. “It would really cement this department and this university as having arrived.”