When many of the country's top soccer coaches talk about Jim Launder, it quickly becomes crystal clear: He could be somewhere else.

An NCAA Division I program. The USL First Division. Major League Soccer.

All of those places are checked off on Launder's vast resume of coaching, which stretches more than 30 years.

But now, the former University of Wisconsin men's coach is back in Madison, where he first rose to national prominence by leading the Badgers to their only NCAA national championship in 1995.

And he's coaching a first-year amateur men's team, the Princeton-56ers, in addition to his duties as the director of the Princeton Soccer Club.

Launder, 53, has put together a team featuring many of the area's top young players for the Princeton-56ers, who start play in the Midwest Division of the new National Premier Soccer League against Detroit Arsenal tonight at Breese Stevens Field.

"I think this club in Madison is fortunate to have him," said Peter Wilt, a Milwaukee resident who is the general manager of the Chicago Fire of MLS. "He's a very sharp soccer coach. He knows the game very well."

So why is he back here, when he could be so much higher up the soccer ladder?\ \ A kid, a ball, a wall

Growing up in Milwaukee before the days of traveling teams and college-sponsored training camps, Launder discovered soccer in pick-up games with the many German and Hungarian transplants in his neighborhood.

"I actually learned to play pretty much in a little gym on the north side (of Milwaukee) on Villard Avenue. A Salvation Army gym. ... A German guy who ran it would bring his buddies in after basketball, and let any kids that would hang out late play soccer with them. So we had all of the criminal element kids play soccer with us," Launder said.

"Until I was about 12 years old, I thought a soccer goal was a gray mat on a gym wall."

Launder wound up playing with the now-defunct Hungarian Tigers club team and eventually crossed paths with Bob Gansler, who lived in the same neighborhood but was a few years older.

"The first time I saw Jim was when he was playing goalkeeper on a U-12 team," said Gansler, who went on to coach the U.S. men's national team and the UW-Milwaukee men and now coaches the Kansas City Wizards in MLS.

"I really started to notice him when he became an assistant at UW."\ \ Building a program

After Launder finished playing at UW-Milwaukee and served as an assistant for the Panthers for a few years, he came to Madison to join Bill Reddan's fledgling UW program in 1979 -- the Badgers' third year of existence.

In those days, the team considered itself lucky to find a place to practice.

"We didn't have anywhere to practice. We moved fields, when I was here, 11 different times," he said. "We even practiced under the security lights at Camp Randall. Hey, it was better than nothing."

And skill on the field sometimes took a backseat when it came to traveling with the team.

"Honestly, when I first got here, the first couple years, one of the best ways to make the travel squad was to have a big car," Launder said.

After Launder spent three years as Reddan's assistant, the men switched roles in 1982.

"When I first took it over we had good, hard-working guys, but not really talented guys," Launder said. "Here we had maybe three really good guys."

But the team, with a roster that included current UW women's coach Dean Duerst, still managed to surprise teams and found some success.

"Almost our entire team was from in-state," Launder said. "We were a good team; those guys were soccer rats. They would practice day and night. Nobody knew them."

In 1992, the team got its first significant number of scholarships from UW, and with that came a new level of talent. Launder said that set the stage for the 1995 national title -- the most recent NCAA championship for a Badgers team.

"The year we (won the national title) I knew we had a really good team," he said. "Now we had some seniors that were scholarship guys."

The Badgers won the Big Ten Conference title that year, then goalkeepers Todd Wilson and Jon Belskis combines to shut out all five of the Badgers' NCAA opponents. UW (20-4-1) capped the season with a 2-0 victory over Duke in the final in Richmond, Va., on goals by Lars Hansen and Chad Cole.

"The feeling at the end of it was Too bad it's over,' " Launder said. "There was almost a sadness that you're done with it."

\ Hard, fast fall

In the wake of the title, there was actual sadness as Launder's career at UW began to unravel.

Reports surfaced that UW associate athletic director Cheryl Bailey (then Marra), Launder's boss, was going to recommend his one-year contract not be renewed. The recommendation reportedly was based on poor evaluations from players.

After public backlash, UW agreed to renew his contract for one year, with the understanding that Launder improve in areas such as team discipline, motivation and coaching in practices. He was criticized for his actions in those areas in the player reviews.

But a year later, in February 1997, he was fired.

Launder still isn't sure why he was forced out after compiling a 194-81-35 record in 15 years at the helm.

"They said a lot of stuff, but I never got (a real explanation)," he said. "I was surprised at the time because, you know, you win a national title and you get fired ... it's not like a normal thing."

Bailey did not return messages seeking comment.

Nearly a decade after he was forced out of the program he helped build, Launder is philosophical about his dismissal.

"I got into all of these cool things that I never would have if I would have stayed here. And I think I would have stayed here, not just because it's Madison, but because this program was too much like mine," he said.

"That was my problem -- I viewed it too much like a personal responsibility. I would have never deserted it. At the time it didn't feel good, but in the long run, it might have been good for me as a coach and a person.

"Truthfully, they might have done me a favor as a person, because I've grown so much since then in a lot of different ways that it's really been good for me."

But that growth came with a price.

"It was hard on my family," Launder said. "I ended up getting divorced after that."

His children -- son, Mario, 18, and daughter, Sonia, 16 -- kept him coming back to Madison. So after two years as men's coach at Dayton, Launder was ready to return home.

"I wanted to get back with my kids," he said.

\ Opportunities not missed

An opportunity opened up in 1999 when Gansler called Launder and asked him if he would be interested in taking over as the coaching director for the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association.

"I have nothing but admiration (for Jim) and applaud his expertise," Gansler said. "His passion for the game seems to be unquenchable. He's a lifer ... I think Jim has made substantial contributions to (soccer in) the Midwest, particularly to Wisconsin."

Launder took that position, and continued to coach teams in the Midwest, but would leave again in 2002 to take a job as an assistant with the Columbus Crew of MLS.

Crew coach Greg Andrulis had to work hard to lure Launder to his staff.

"He has just a tremendous amount of soccer knowledge," Andrulis said. "It was very hard to get him to come to begin with.

"Jim Launder is one of those special people that you get to meet and spend some of your time with. He's one of those guys I consider one of my mentors, somebody I can call on and lean on. ... We hated to lose him."

Again, though, being away from Mario and Sonia proved to be too much for him, so he returned to Madison and took the position at the Princeton Soccer Club in late 2003.

Mario Launder said he never felt his father put coaching ahead of his family, but admitted it was tough not having him around.

"I didn't have a guy figure to look to," said Mario Launder, who now lives with his father and is completing his senior year at Madison Memorial -- his mother and Sonia, though, have since moved to Vermont.

"It definitely made a huge difference when he came back. I'm thrilled he's back."\ \ Teaching at any level

Gansler thinks Launder will be thrilled coaching the Princeton-56ers.

"It's the game that turns Jim on, not the level," Gansler said. "If I'm not coaching (in) MLS, I have no problem coaching 14-year-olds, and I think Jim is of the same persuasion."

That was clear at a recent Princeton-56ers practice.

On a chilly evening last week at Reindahl Park, the team had just one goalkeeper available. So Launder threw on a pair of gloves and played between the posts.

"Hey, you guys are actually starting to look good," he said to his players from across the field as they worked on some drills before last weekend's 5-1 win over Minnesota club Inferno 95 in their exhibition opener.

Yet there's more to Launder as a coach than just the game.

Fire and U.S. national team defender-midfielder Tony Sanneh has known Launder since he played for him on regional Olympic Development Program teams the late 1980s. Launder tried to recruit Sanneh to UW, but he ended up going to UW-Milwaukee.

"He was pretty understanding with his players. It wasn't always about soccer," Sanneh said. "He put so much time and energy into coaching."

There's only a hint of longing when you ask Launder if he'll ever go back to coaching players such as Sanneh.

"Sometimes, when a door closes," he said, "it's closed for good."

\ The Launder file

* Age: 53.

* Hometown: Milwaukee (Custer High School).

* Playing career: College -- UW-Milwaukee. Pro/amateur -- Hungarian Tigers, Milwaukee Kickers, Colorado Kickers, Club Deportivo Latino, Madison 56ers.

* Coaching career: NPSL Princeton-56ers, present; Princeton Soccer Club director, 2004 to present; MLS Columbus Crew assistant, 2002-03; A-League Milwaukee Rampage assistant, 2000-02; Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association, director of coaching, 1999-2002; W-League Chicago Cobras technical director and PDL Chicago Sockers assistant, 1999-2001; University of Dayton, director of soccer, 1998-99; Dayton men's coach, 1997-98; Region II Boys ODP assistant, 1988-96, head coach, 1997 to present; U.S. Soccer national staff coach, 1995 to present; University of Wisconsin men, assistant 1979-81, head coach, 1982-97; UW women (club), 1979-81; UW-Milwaukee men's assistant, 1974-78.

* Honors: Coached UW men to only NCAA championship, 1995; National Soccer Coaches Association of America coach of the year, 1995; Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year, 1991 and '95; inducted into UW-Milwaukee Hall of Fame, 2000.