Dave Robben doesn’t talk about his age. You can bend his ear as long as you like—just don’t ask how old he is. Besides, he’s not going to tell you anyway. Just know that age brings wisdom, and in a soccer landscape dotted with deities, Robben is among the wisest.
The longtime Oakville boys’ and girls’ soccer coach recently passed the 1,000 combined win mark for his career. He has won 535 games with the girls and another 469 with the boys. It’s an enormous number matched only by current Trinity coach Vince Drake. He’s one of five coaches who have won state titles with the boys and girls. He coached Oakville’s girls to the 1991 state title. He won with the boys in 2000 and was the runner-up in 2001 and 2011.
That Robben is among the most successful coaches in the game is no surprise. A tireless worker and student of the game, he was schooled by some of the best to ever pick up a whistle in these parts. He spent a year at Saint Louis University under the tutelage of Bob Goelker. He then played for Harry Keough while at Harris Teachers College, now known as Harris Stowe. His own father, Jim, was a great influence in his coaching career. His dad was a baseball player and manager. Robben watched as Jim, a member of the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, managed teams and people. He saw how organized his father was and took that as a lasting lesson.
When he started at Oakville, he was lent a helping hand by Jim Bokern. Bokern, another outstanding coach, started the girls program at Oakville in 1978 but left the school. The job was offered to Robben, who jumped at the chance. Five years later the boys’ job opened up and he assumed those responsibilities too.
Robben went into that first season with the girls program with some experience. He’d coached at Cleveland High School in the city and with the Kutis senior men’s club team. He’d just never coached girls before. The team made it real easy on him before he ever opened his mouth at his first practice. “The young women at the time said, We want to be trained as you train the boys. Whatever system you run with the boys, that’s the system we want to run, too,” Robben says. “This wasn’t about ribbons and pigtails. This was about soccer.”
The girls were so adamant that, during the school announcements, they didn’t want to be called the ‘girls’ soccer team’ because the boys’ team, which played in the fall, was referred to as ‘the soccer team.’ So they wanted to be the ‘spring soccer team.’ He continues to refer to the team as such to this day.
Robben spends his days helping high school students find their voices through writing. He teaches junior English, as well as film analysis. It’s this part of his job that Robben really sees just how similar coaching and teaching can be. “You can’t teach someone to write in their voice. But you can coach them to help them find it,” he says. “What we do on the field is an extension of what we do in the classroom.”
What Robben has been able to do in his time at Oakville is help countless students and players on the path to success. Soccer practices are brutal. Boy or girl, when you suit up for the Tigers, you are expected to be mentally tough, physically tough and as physically fit as possible. You also have to be willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team. When that message gets through, good things happen. “We have high expectations,” Robben says.
It’s the only way Robben knows how to go about his business. After this long, he’s probably onto something. He is, after all, very wise. Just don’t ask how wise.