When Paul Laurence Dunbar opened in 1990 things were quite literally rocky for Todd Bretz, the only boys' soccer coach the school has ever known.
The first five years, the school's soccer and football teams practiced in an empty field where Jon R. Akers Stadium now sits. A low-hanging telephone wire served as a marker to separate the two.
"It was like a cow pasture out there," said longtime Dunbar assistant John O'Hara.
Before practice, Bretz and then-football coach Mike Meighan would line up their squads shoulder-to-shoulder and walk them across the field to pick up debris left over from construction of the high school. These field checks helped but weren't a catch-all.
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"I don't know how many times I had guys take a slide or something and then have to say, 'All right, let's butterfly that sucker together and take him to get stitches,'" Bretz said. "You know, just from sliding onto the rocks."
Those first several Dunbar teams — including the 1992 state champions, the school's first title team — didn't have a home field and had to use other Fayette County schools' facilities to play games. O'Hara said some years the Bulldogs played as many "home" games at some sites as did the lending school.
Dunbar's soccer program has come a long way since. In addition to a stadium to call home, it has a locker room that would be the envy of some college teams. It has earned four state titles, finished twice as runner-up and accumulated 434 wins. The Bulldogs have never had a losing season.
Bretz became the state's all-time winningest soccer coach with the program's latest win on Saturday. He passed retired Covington Catholic Coach John Horton.
Dunbar's first title team defeated CovCath in the state semifinals, 3-1. "They were probably the better team," Bretz said. "We outplayed ourselves that game and were able to go through."
Horton agreed that the Bulldogs beat a better team that day. After hearing Bretz broke the record, he was happy to know it went to someone he has so much respect for.
He thinks Bretz hasn't gotten enough credit for managing the talent that's come through Dunbar, which includes three All-Americans (Tom Morgan, Brian O'Leary and Sean Kelley) and dozens named to the All-State first and second teams.
"It's like having a team of fine horses," Horton said. "They can either win the race for you or they can run you off a cliff. Obviously Todd has his horses winning the race."
'One of my all-time idols'
In a parallel universe, Bretz never coached at Dunbar. In that world, he perhaps guided Paris — the first school to offer him a head coaching and teaching job — to state and national prominence.
Bulldogs fans can thank Steve Hellman, the first president of the Dunbar soccer booster club, for getting Bretz on the school's radar. Hellman reached out to then-Transylvania coach Charles Spiegel for ideas for the hire after their first candidate removed himself from consideration late.
Spiegel suggested Bretz, who played two years under him after transferring from Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne.
Bretz was coaching club soccer and working on his master's of business administration when Paris approached him. Then came Dunbar. The difference? The latter wouldn't have a full-time teaching vacancy until the following school year.
Bretz took the short-term financial loss and stayed home. A native of Springfield, Ill., Bretz and his family moved to Lexington when he was 10. It was at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary where Terry Quigley, the current girls' coach at Lexington Catholic, first got Bretz involved in soccer. Bretz eventually starred on Lexington Catholic's state title team in 1983.
Choosing Dunbar clearly worked out for Bretz. It worked well for Hellman, too, whose son (also named Steve) became one of the program's first All-State first-teamers in 1991.
The younger Hellman, a keeper, played at Transy for a season but decided to join the Marine Corps. At a ceremony honoring Bretz on Monday, the elder Hellman talked about how Dunbar's practices prepared his son for life beyond the turf.
"When he went into boot camp, he was so far ahead of the other recruits there because of the hard practices he went through," Hellman said.
Tom Morgan, now the girls' coach at Dunbar, was an All-American and the program's other All-State player in 1991. He takes pride in being able to now coach at the same school as his favorite mentor.
"It's not easy at first because he's very demanding, but he does a good job of developing you as a player and as a young man," Morgan said. "He really is one of my all-time idols. It's actually a privilege to be able to call him my friend now."
Yin and yang
O'Hara may very well be the winningest assistant coach in state history. Aside from a four-year stint in the 2000s, he has assisted Bretz in almost every Dunbar soccer game.
Bretz offered O'Hara, his teammate at Transy, the part-time gig soon after he knew he was taking the Dunbar job. The two roomed together for several years and have been the yin to the other's yang for more than two decades.
"We've disagreed on some things," said O'Hara, who mentioned "five or six blowups" since they've coached together. "In 26 years, that's pretty good."
They each credit the continuity and family atmosphere throughout the program — two other assistant coaches, Jeff Stone and Brian Lawless, played at Dunbar — for why it's been so successful.
"If I was a former player from this place, I'd be like 'Man, I can go back and the same head coach is there, the same assistant coach, and those guys (Stone and Lawless) who played here," O'Hara said.
Bretz is as meticulous as they come, O'Hara said, having practices planned down to each second and weeks in advance. Bretz's passion to see his kids do well in every facet of their life is unrivaled, O'Hara said.
The longtime assistant can't imagine the number of relationships he'd have missed out on if he'd said "no" when Bretz asked him to help 26 years ago. There's nothing he'd regret more.
"The majority of my closest friends have something to do with this," O'Hara said.
As his daughters — Mary Elizabeth, 12, Olivia, 10, and Isabella, 8 — get older and more involved in things, it's getting "more and more difficult" to continue teaching and coaching, Bretz said. He said his wife, Christina, is fantastic at helping him see that home and work get balanced nicely. As long as that balance can be maintained, he said he'll continue coaching.
Not only must he continue juggling family and work, but also keep adapting as the sport and players evolve around him. "Everything's a lot different" from when he started, Bretz said, "but still real good."
Morgan attributes a great deal of Bretz's success to his willingness to frequently adapt over the course of a career nearing its third decade.
"A lot of guys, the older they get they don't really relate to the kids as well," Morgan said. "Todd's done a very good job of growing along with and changing with the game."
Bretz stresses that he's not actually won a game since graduating from Transy. He gives all the glory to players past and present.
"We've been really blessed because we've had a lot of great kids," Bretz said. "There's always some that you'll say, 'Ahhhh, you're driving me crazy,' but for the most part it's fun to go to practice every day. ...
"You see them improve and they're having fun. That's probably the one thing that keeps me going the most. Going to practice and still enjoying working with them."