Billy McNicol played against Pele, coached the U.S. Women’s National Team at the World Cup and gave Landon Donovan his first whiff of stardom as a teenager. His influence in the soccer community spans the globe.
But in Montana, his most lasting legacy is a simple suggestion he made in the late 1990s. McNicol, then the coaching director for the Montana Youth Soccer Association, had a vision while visiting Kalispell orthodontist and fellow coach Mike Stebbins. If he looked hard enough, he swore he could see painted lines in Stebbins’ hayfields.
“Those would make some nice soccer fields,” McNicol recalls telling Stebbins.
So in came the heavy machinery and grass-seeding company, and out went the pasture and uneven terrain. Farmland transformed into groomed soccer fields, providing the playing surface for what is likely the most prestigious soccer camp this state has ever seen.
Each summer, since 1998, Stebbins has hosted the Flathead Soccer Camp at this hayfield-turned-soccer field, featuring pedigreed coaches from across the world and from all levels: high school, club, college, English Premier League and World Cup.
All of which may seem unlikely when considering the man behind the camp. A fifth-generation Montanan from a lineage of farmers, Stebbins runs an orthodontic practice in Kalispell. His soccer experience before coaching his son’s teams was limited to a brief foray into men’s league soccer. He didn’t play as a kid; he had other obligations.
“All we did was farm,” Stebbins said. “I can stack hay and move irrigation pipes with the best of them.”
After Stebbins started coaching his son’s teams, his passion for both the game and for coaching blossomed into something akin to an obsession, albeit a healthy one.
In the late 1990s, Stebbins approached experienced coach Tim Guenzler with the prospect of creating a traveling all-star team of Montana’s top players. This team, the Flathead Force, traveled to tournaments across the country for three years, often tearing through elite competition and shocking schools from much more populous locales.
Montana, which hardly registers a blip on college soccer coaches’ radars, began to attract attention. The Force took first place at tournaments in Phoenix and Las Vegas and Louisiana. Stebbins even took the team to Edinburgh, Scotland for a nearly two-week cultural immersion and soccer excursion.
“There were kids here who could play at the next level, but they were never seen,” Stebbins said. “We wanted them to be seen.”
During Stebbins’ years of coaching the all-star squad, his Flathead Soccer Camp in Kalispell gained popularity. McNicol used his vast soccer network to bring in top coaches, selling them on the beauty of Montana and the opportunity for a unique experience. McNicol is a former coach of the L.A. Galaxy, various national teams and numerous youth leagues and camps.
Coaches are treated to raft trips, golf and other Montana summer delights while they’re in the Flathead. For some, it’s the first time they’ve been on a horse or down a river. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been to Montana.
“The variety and expertise of coaches we’ve brought in over the years, nobody’s even close to it,” McNicol said. “They make up the American coaching scene.”
He added: “They all say, ‘These are great kids and you’re right Billy, they just need the opportunity to be seen.’”
The Flathead Soccer Camp costs only $155 for a week and $280 for the full two-week session. Guenzler said it usually costs at least $600 for a camp of this caliber in a metropolitan area, and Montana kids would have to spend at least that much just to get there.
“He’s been willing to look outside the box and take charge and get things done and be innovative,” Guenzler said of Stebbins.
This year’s two-week camp runs from July 19-30. More than 200 girls and boys are expected, mostly from Montana but also from out of state and Canada. In the past, Stebbins has had kids from Alabama, California, Texas and elsewhere.
Stebbins doesn’t like to tell anybody, but if the camp doesn’t make enough to pay all expenses, he quietly makes up the difference. He’s like that, McNicol and Guenzler say. He’s unendingly generous.
Even his soccer fields, which are meticulously watered and mowed, are “open to anybody, anytime, as long as you put your stuff away,” Stebbins says. His soccer shed has hundreds of balls, cones and training tidbits. The goals are always ready for use.
“He opens the doors to kids and he opens his arms to the community,” McNicol said. “Mike Stebbins is one of the most genuine guys I’ve been around in over 40 years of soccer. He genuinely wants to help the kids.
“I’ve been to so many boards and panels where everybody says they want to help the kids and they care so much and blah, blah, blah, but they don’t mean it like Mike.”
Guenzler calls Stebbins “one of the most generous, selfless people I’ve ever met in my life – with him, it’s always been about the kids.”
“He’s a fine, fine man,” he added. “I’m honored to have him as my friend. I think Billy and all the boys say the same thing about him. He’s first class.”
Stebbins views soccer’s lessons as metaphors for life.
“Responsibility, being on time, working as a team,” he said. “Soccer’s a little different than other sports. You have to do your coaching during the week; once you put the kids on the field, there aren’t timeouts and the game is always going. They need to know how to work as a team.”
After 36 years of running his practice, Stebbins is looking forward to his orthodontist son-in-law taking over some of the workload: “Then I can go to England and watch more soccer.” But the camp will march on.
Sitting on his porch east of Kalispell last week, Stebbins watched as his neighbor’s son mowed the soccer fields. Soon, kids’ voices and coaches’ whistles will replace the lawnmower’s humming, and Stebbins will be pleased. But in the space between, he can revel in the silence. He’s earned it.
“It’s just so peaceful out here.”
This story originally appeared in the Flathead Beacon.