Numbers tell only half the story of UNC soccer coach's legacy
Editor's note: This week, ESPN.com is profiling a few of the NCAA's winningest coaches in their respective sports. Today's feature profiles Anson Dorrance, and looks at the North Carolina coach's success from the point of view of his players. Dorrance was not interviewed for this piece.
It stands to reason that a man who was far enough ahead of his time in women's soccer to construct a program for the ages out of intramural origins at North Carolina would have things running like clockwork after nearly three decades on the job.
At least, that's how the history books will probably make Anson Dorrance's career appear.
"You think this great program that's been around for years and has always been a top-level program, that things are run so smoothly," former Tar Heels All-American Lori Chalupny mused. "And I think one of the funny things is that we never get to the airport on time, we're always running to gates -- if we show up to a game on time it's a miracle. All these different things that you don't think could be true from this top program. But it's always an adventure."
As reassuring as it is to know that one of the most successful coaches in the history of college sports still races through terminals like the rest of us while gate agents make their final boarding calls, Chalupny's recollections of her coach's timekeeping imperfections are actually as good a place as any to begin understanding how Dorrance has crafted perfection since taking over the new varsity sport in 1979.
If you start with the numbers -- and there are numbers galore -- Dorrance quickly becomes a name in the record book, unquestionably and historically impressive but with no more personality than the initials associated with the high score on an arcade game.
There is the 629-28-18 record in 28 seasons. And the 19 national championships, including 18 of the 25 women's soccer championships sanctioned by the NCAA. Not to forget the five perfect seasons, the 13 players who have garnered national player of the year honors or the nearly 100 players who have earned All-American honors.
The Tar Heels are the biggest bully on the block, and they aren't afraid of entering each and every season with a target on their backs.
"That's something the program embraces," said Heather O'Reilly, the 2006 national player of the year and a senior leader on UNC's '06 national championship team. "They think it's so cool that other teams circle them on the schedule and base their season success not on if they won a national championship, but if they beat North Carolina. That's flattering to us, and it was flattering to me. I was fearful of it at first, but when I got there and saw the way they embraced it, it's a pretty cool thing to be that team that the whole season is based off of [for opponents]."
But listen to Chalupny, who graduated following the 2005 season and moved on to earn a starting role for the women's national team, revert to the present tense when she laughs about her old coach's timekeeping, and you begin to understand the other side of the equation. That for all the machine-like consistency reflected in the litany of numbers, there is also a human element to the success in Chapel Hill.
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"The on-field experiences and winning a national championship and all that was so great," Chalupny said. "But I think some of my best experiences were off the field -- the Thanksgiving feast that we have every year, where Anson's brother shuts down his restaurant and all the families and everybody gets together. It's those little things that make it so special. It's not just a program, it's not just about soccer; it's really a family and I feel a part of family forever."
Even though the concept of dynasties, especially outside the sports world, frequently springs from some sort of familial succession, the notion of an emotional bond between those involved is often lost in the shadows of power and accomplishment. Whether talking about a political line like the Kennedy clan or a basketball line like John Wooden's UCLA program, what makes its way into the history books is less the story of individual experiences than what a particular group of individuals contributed to an abstract collective that can be truly defined only long after any single group is gone.
For instance, in 2003 we saw another collection of records and numbers as North Carolina recorded the program's fifth perfect season and 18th national championship by outscoring opponents 32-0 in the NCAA Tournament. But Cat Whitehill (known as Cat Reddick during her UNC days) saw the same kind of family atmosphere that played as much of a role in drawing her to North Carolina as the on-field legacy, complete with the parent who wouldn't stop to ask for directions.
"You could sense that on the [recruiting] visits there was a sense of family," said Whitehill, another former All-American and the 2003 national player of the year. "We'd go to barbecues as a team and when we make U-turns 70 times in one trip, we do that as a team. It's not just Anson -- it's [assistant coach Bill Palladino] and our [team manager Tom Sanders] and all these people. You feel it and you love that feeling. Even as an alum, they still treat me like family, and I love that feeling. I wish in some ways I could still have that family feeling on some of the other teams I've been a part of."
After winning the title last fall, Dorrance talked about the sadness he felt when the 2005 team lost to Florida State in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. The sadness was not just that the program would be denied a title, but even more that such a talented group of seniors, which included Chalupny and Lindsay Tarpley, wouldn't get to end their careers playing in front of a national audience at the College Cup -- the only chance most fans get to see women's soccer teams from other conferences.
"He truly cares about his players and wants them to excel," Tarpley explained. "And that's the thing about Anson; he wants you to excel on the soccer field, but also in the classroom and as a person. I think I grew so much intellectually with him, because he's always challenging you in different ways."
For Tarpley, who admitted Dorrance actually had to convince her during the recruiting process that she was good enough to play for North Carolina, soccer may have drawn her to the school, but it defined her time there and her relationship with the world-famous coach far less than she expected.
"You go into his office to talk, and there are hundreds of books lining his shelf," Tarpley said. "And you sit down and start talking, and he's like, 'Oh, have you read this or read that.' It's not always about soccer. Soccer is definitely a huge part of my experience at Carolina, but there are also other aspects of it that made it so unique.
"I did not expect that going in. When I went there, I went there because I knew that's how I could get to the next level. It was challenging, and I wanted to be a part of that tradition and that family."
Dorrance coached both the men's and women's soccer teams at North Carolina for a decade, posting a .708 winning percentage on the men's side before giving up that position to focus on both the women's team and the nascent women's national program, which he built into an international power during his eight-year tenure beginning in 1986. As successful as he was in the men's game, it was an almost unparalleled ability to connect with the mind-set of female athletes in a team setting, and to find the best ways to push them, that made Dorrance the right fit for his chosen path.
"I think he's the best motivator I've ever heard talk," O'Reilly said. "You can sit in his locker room and truly believe that you can take on the world. Especially for girls -- I'm sure he would be a wonderful male coach today -- but for girls, the self-confidence he invokes is the difference, I think."
Dorrance's players need that confidence to survive the demands of his famously competitive training. Everything North Carolina does in practice and conditioning, not to mention the games themselves, is charted and quantified. The players know they are always competing, whether against an opponent in front of thousands of fans at the College Cup or against the stopwatch and the results sheet on an empty field under the hot August sun and sweltering North Carolina humidity.
"It was different because everything was competitive," said Kristine Lilly, who completed her Carolina career in 1992. "It was based on how you did all the time."
The idea of fierce competition and intense training is no longer a unique or revolutionary approach to coaching women's soccer, in large part, although certainly not entirely, because of Dorrance's success when it was the exception rather than the rule. And it's his ability to mix a competitive on-field environment with a family atmosphere off the field that set the standard for women's athletics. He treated female athletes differently than male athletes, but he did it with exactly the same set of expectations and demands.
"I don't know if it's the same in the men's game, but I definitely want to feel wanted," Chalupny explained. "And more than just being good on the soccer field, you want to feel like you fit in, like you're wanted there."
Of course, Dorrance's ability to relate to his athletes is also the source of the lone cloud that he seemingly cannot escape. Last year, a federal appeals court reversed an earlier judgment dismissing a sexual harassment lawsuit originally brought by two former players, Melissa Jennings and Debbie Keller (Dorrance settled with Keller in 2004). And in April, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jennings was entitled to have her suit heard by a jury. That trial has yet to begin, and the school continues to support Dorrance.
There is no way to ignore the alleged harassment in discussing Dorrance's legacy, or to condemn either the coach or Jennings until the case is resolved in the legal system. What also cannot be ignored, even if it has to be separated from that story, is the positive impact the coach has had on so many players and the success he has created.
"I see it as a great thing that he's figured out," Whitehill said. "I see it as a very difficult thing to figure out, especially with women, because you can only go so far one way and so far in another way. And obviously, he's experienced a little bit of stuff, side effects, from trying that family atmosphere. But I think if you were to ask any player that has been through the program, that's something they would never trade anything for."
The numbers make it clear that Dorrance has earned a place in the history books as a coaching immortal, but the words and memories of the players who have played for him reveal the quirks, assets, imperfections and ultimately the vision of the man behind the myth.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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