As a boy, Elgorriaga played soccer, and, like many Basques who grew up playing Basque handball, he was an excellent goalkeeper. But his game of choice was pala, a variation of handball played in an outdoor fronton with a small wooden bat. He was one of the top junior players in France and continued to excel in competitions in California.
As a student at Fresno State he played center midfielder for a club soccer team, and during his years at Colgate, he was an assistant coach for the Red Raiders soccer team. When he returned to Fresno with his wife, Carmen, he worked as a volunteer referee at community soccer games on Sunday afternoons. It wasn't until a decade later, in 1972, that he serendipitously got back into coaching.
"This friend of mine, Bill Barbis, had a son who was a year older than Chato, and Bill asked if I wanted to help him coach the boys' team," Elgorriaga says. "I told him yes. For that season." Their team of under-10-year-olds, the Malloch Mustangs, went undefeated, untied and unscored upon in a California Youth Soccer Association league. The Mustangs subsequently lost 1-0 in the state semifinals.
"That season" turned into two, then three and four. Barbis and Elgorriaga's teams enjoyed repeated success. Their under-14 team won the U.S. Youth Soccer Association's Far West regional championship in 1975, beating out sides from 13 other states. Then, in '79, Fresno State coach Bob Bereskin asked Elgorriaga to become his assistant.
"I have always been bugged by the sport," Elgorriaga says. "I didn't know what arrangements could be made, because I didn't want to quit teaching. Teaching is my first love. And that's where I think I function best. Once we arrived at an accommodation, there was no problem."
Bereskin, a geology professor, had founded the varsity soccer program at Fresno State in 1970. In '80, an oil company lured him away from Fresno State, and Elgorriaga was named coach. His first team went 14-4 to break the school record of 11 wins.
Since then the Bulldogs have grown ever stronger, scheduling tougher teams and developing a remarkable base of fan support. In 1984 they began a run of four straight NCAA tournament appearances. Elgorriaga's '87 team was notable on two counts: It was the top-ranked team in the country going into the season, which was the first time a Fresno State team in any sport had reached No. 1, and, in a game against archrival San Francisco, the Bulldogs drew 12,000 spectators, one of the biggest crowds ever to attend a college soccer game in the U.S.
With only four starters returning from that 1987 squad, which went 16-5-1 before losing to UCLA in the first round of the playoffs, Fresno State was 8-5-2 with six games to play this season, and its prospects for a fifth consecutive NCAA bid were bright.
"Essentially, he has elevated the program to a national level," says Stephen Negoesco, who has coached San Francisco to four NCAA championships. "He's honest, above board. I can't say anything bad about the guy. Win, lose or draw, he insists on feeding our team afterwards. It's always, 'Let's get together and talk.' "
Elgorriaga and the Fresno State program have a number of advantages. Foremost, for the last five years, the Bulldogs have had John Bluem as a full-time assistant. A 1975 graduate of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., Bluem, 35, played fullback for three Warriors teams that made it to the NCAA playoffs. Then he was a member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the now-defunct NASL for two years, before switching to coaching. From 1979 through '82, he coached St. Charles Prep in Columbus, Ohio, and was the Ohio High School Soccer Coaches Association Coach of the Year in '82. Bluem does much of the recruiting and conditioning, leaving Elgorriaga to spend his limited time with the team coaching.