Northwestern rebuilds with Fuchs
Wildcats hope to emulate women's lacrosse success in field hockey program
When Kelly Amonte Hiller arrived at Northwestern, she was coaching a Wildcats club lacrosse team that was a year from regaining varsity status.
Eight years later, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips used Amonte Hiller's national championship women's lacrosse program as the model when he hired Tracey Fuchs to revive the Wildcats' field hockey program.
Fuchs will try to emulate Amonte Hiller's success when she makes her head-coaching debut Friday as Northwestern hosts Boston University in the Wildcat Classic.
In 2001, former athletic director Rick Taylor tried to restore Northwestern's lacrosse program, which had fallen from varsity to club status. He charged Amonte Hiller, a four-time All American, two-time Lacrosse Player of the Year and Boston University assistant coach, with the task of bringing lacrosse success back to Evanston.
After eight years of leading the Wildcats' women's lacrosse program, Amonte Hiller has won five consecutive national championships and serves as the standard for new coaching hires at Northwestern.
"One of the model programs in the country is right here in Evanston, and that's the lacrosse program led by Kelly Amonte Hiller," Phillips said.
Throughout the hiring process, Phillips was intent on replicating the success of Amonte Hiller with his new field hockey coach. This led him to his top choice -- Fuchs, an assistant coach at Michigan.
After 12 seasons of helping to build the field hockey program at the University of Michigan into a national powerhouse, Fuchs, 42, was set to take the reins and fill the head-coaching vacancy in Ann Arbor. Now, the longtime Michigan assistant will patiently wait to beat her former team at rival Northwestern.
Fuchs' road to Northwestern began at age 13 on the drive home from a family ski trip to Vermont on Feb. 22, 1980. As her family pulled off the highway and found a restaurant for dinner, the excitement grew.
Fuchs, a highly patriotic child of the Cold War like millions around the world, waited in great anticipation for the puck to hit the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"I always wanted to play ice hockey," Fuchs said as she recalled the United States' hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. "I always wanted to play in the Olympics."
As she got older and grew out of her "Future Olympic Star" T-shirt, Fuchs would replace dreams of playing on a sheet of ice for a field of grass and pursue a life in field hockey. Eight years after watching the miracle in Lake Placid on TV, Fuchs was named to the 1988 U.S. Olympic field hockey team.
In addition to her highly decorated playing career that also included the 1996 Games, four years playing at the University of Connecticut ('88) and four World Cups, Fuchs has impacted the game considerably from the sidelines.
Fuchs arrived at Michigan in 1996 as an assistant coach to help right a struggling field hockey program.
We wanted a national and international search. Tracey clearly rose to the top. In the sport of field hockey, it's hard to find anyone with better credentials than Tracey.” -- Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, on Tracey Fuchs
"We were at the bottom of the Big Ten," Fuchs said of her arrival in Ann Arbor. "In five years, we were champs."
Following the 2008 season, with a head-coaching vacancy at Michigan, Fuchs was determined to stay with her team as the new head coach.
Beyond her 12 years as an assistant coach at Michigan, Fuchs knew she was ready for the promotion because of her time as the head coach of the U.S. Junior National Team, a title she has held since 2005.
As the hiring process continued, Fuchs avoided talks with other schools regarding head-coaching opportunities.
"I actually turned down Northwestern twice," Fuchs said. "They knew my intentions were to stay there [Michigan]".
However, in December, Fuchs was informed that she would not be given her dream job. Michigan was bringing back former head coach Marcia Pankratz, whom Fuchs served under during the Wolverines' 2001 NCAA championship season.
"It was traumatic," Fuchs said. "It was really, really difficult. I was hoping to stay there."
Northwestern AD Phillips never lost touch with his top choice.
"Tracey's intents were clear from the beginning," Phillips said. "I told her, 'Please just keep me informed.'"
Fuchs called Phillips on Dec. 29. Phillips was in San Antonio, Texas, watching the Wildcats' football team lose in overtime to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. As he gave her the play-by-play over the phone during the closing minutes of overtime, they discussed the opening.
"We wanted a national and international search," Phillips said. "Tracey clearly rose to the top. In the sport of field hockey, it's hard to find anyone with better credentials than Tracey."
Phillips saw the similarities between Amonte Hiller and Fuchs and knew he was targeting the right candidate. Both were elite collegiate players with years of experience working as an assistant coach.
After a lunch meeting between the two coaches, Amonte Hiller gave her full endorsement of Fuchs.
"It was important to have Kelly's input," Phillips said. "It's hard to argue with the success she's had. It's what all programs aspire to be."
On Jan. 15, the same day Michigan officially announced the return of Pankratz to Ann Arbor, Fuchs was introduced as the head coach at Northwestern.
"It's almost identical to Michigan when I got there," Fuchs said. "We've got to get these kids to believe they belong.
"We have to be patient. It may take six months or it may take two years. It's not going to happen overnight."
Phillips knows the rebuilding process will take time, but he is confident he has the right person leading the way.
"The program did not get broke overnight, so it will take time to rebuild," Phillips said. "I'm not expecting overnight magic."
While revitalizing the program will take time, one date this season will have particular significance for the first-year head coach. On her calendar, Fuchs has an orange circle around Oct. 2. On that Friday afternoon, Northwestern will host Michigan in Evanston.
She will coach against her former players. She will coach against the woman who beat her out for her dream job. She will coach against the school that went in another direction.
"I'm going to have a lot of emotions and feelings," Fuchs admitted. "If we win that game and lose the rest, I will consider the season a failure. It's really important that it's just one game in a 20-game season".
Patrick Carney is a contributor to ESPN.com. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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