UNC’s Tradition of Excellence

By Tim Nash

ansonIt has to be some kind of soccer factory, doesn’t it? The University of North Carolina women’s soccer program must be a place that attracts the top young players in the country, puts them on an assembly line and re-shapes them into the type of player that adds to the bottom line — wins and trophies.

There’s no other explanation, is there? The factory must be dripping with stress, littered with stories of failure and flame-outs. Somewhere within that soccer mill, there must be a dark room where all the pieces not good enough are tossed aside and forgotten.

How else could one school win so much and lose so little? Come on, 800 wins? In just 38 years? That’s an average of 21 wins a year for four decades. The players can’t be having any fun. It must be like a boot camp. And we are expected to believe that all those games were won by one coach? Forget it.

That last part is true. The rest are myths. On October 10 in a come-from-behind victory over Wake Forest, Anson Dorrance won his 800th game as head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

“And it was in 900 games,” says Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, a former Tar Heel now the head coach of the University of Central Florida. “That makes it more impressive. It’s unbelievable.”

Nine-hundred games exactly. Dorrance’s career record after the Oct. 10 win was 800-65-35.

Think that’s unbelievable? Here’s a sampling of the program’s success: In the 90s, the Tar Heels had a record of 238-7-3. They once went 101 games without losing. In a stretch between 1990 and 1992, UNC won 92 straight games. His 1987 team outscored its 24 opponents 98-2, and one of the goals they allowed was an own-goal. Carolina has won 21 NCAA championships and there have only been 31 of them. In 1992, the Tar Heels went 25-0, scored 132 goals and allowed 11, never scoring more than nine in any game. Over the history of the program, the team has scored 2,869 more goals than it has allowed.

It starts and ends with Dorrance, a highly intelligent, ultra-competitive, self-diagnosed introvert who happened to become a soccer coach and found more than enough to keep himself challenged and engaged by working with a revolving group of college-aged athletes. He has found ways to get his players to perform at their best for both themselves and the team at the same time.

“He cares about you and wants you to be successful individually and the team to be successful,” explains Tobin Heath, one of 55 former Tar Heels who have gone on to play for the U.S. Women’s national team. “There’s this mutual respect between player and coach that is unique to any team that I’ve ever played for.

“If you are not inside it, it’s hard to understand,” adds Heath. “Anson’s friendships and loyalty are lifetime guarantees.”

Hard to understand? It’s harder to explain. Many people who have been involved with the program on the fringes, but not actually inside, believe they understand. But that’s like saying you understand all about gravity because you fall down a lot. There’s a lot more involved.

And that’s what interests Dorrance, every piece of the story. All the different personalities provide him with challenges, learning opportunities, new things to discover, and most importantly people to impact and motivate.

“What’s interesting about coaching as long as I have is that every player is unique,” he says. “They all have aspects of their personalities that for me are incredibly intriguing. I have absolutely loved it. I love the game and love the kids. For me, it comes from them.”

The Dorrance Collection

You know what would be fun? If all the former Tar Heels contributed to a collection of quotes by Dorrance. There would be a lot about leadership, a lot about values and life choices, and quite a few about standards.

heelsSomeone would send in the line that explains UNC’s fitness standards, the one borrowed from former NBA great John Havlicek – “You will pass out before you die.” There would be the one he recently used about Allie Long’s toughness – “She’s no Casper Milquetoast,” he said referring to the old-time comic book character who was said to walk softly and get hit a lot with a big stick. Someone may contribute the one he used to describe the difficult decision players have to make to get out of their comfort zone by saying … “and after all, the mediocre are always at their best, aren’t they?” Ashlyn Harris would submit something about “an overbred dog,” which Dorrance refers to as yippy and whiney and requiring constant attention.

Mia Hamm might share the note she received from Dorrance after he spotted her one morning all alone in a park running sprints – “A champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.”

Heather O’Reilly could add one about ones “never-ending ascension” in life. Roberts Sahaydak could probably come up with quite a few winners. There would be soliloquies about the “indefatigable spirt,” but there would certainly be more, many more.

“I remember Laurie Schwoy and I would crack up,” remember Roberts Sahaydak. “When we would be travelling, we played this game – Let’s bring up a subject to Anson and see what his theory is on it. And he would go off on it. Religion, sexual orientation, politics, history, whatever. We wanted to hear what he had to say about all these different things. And he could back up everything he said. It was great.”

There would certainly be several from that one book he makes all his players read, the one by Viktor Frankl about his time in a Nazi concentration camp and discovering that the one and only thing he could truly control was his attitude.

“He had us read “Man’s Search for Meaning” and a lot of the quotes were about suffering and how a lot of times we’re thinking ‘Poor me, poor me, things are so hard,’” says Ashlyn Harris, a U.S. national team goalkeeper who had a successful Tar Heel career despite several injuries. “You kind of step outside your own situation and think about how grateful you should be and you shouldn’t be complaining. I wasn’t one for reading very much, but trust me, I could read that book six times just to clean up my attitude, just to understand that my life is hard sometimes, but there are people out there who have it a lot worse than I do.

“And a lot of his quotes are about how you treat people,” Harris adds. “The one I remember most is that ‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’”

Dorrance loves to read and is constantly referring to something he has read. He’s not sure how many books he goes through in a week, but he has “five or six going at the same time.” He pours through magazines and newspapers and internet links friends send him.

“I read a Time Magazine article recently that had a 20-question quiz to sort out whether or not I am an introvert,” he says. “Of the 20 questions, I answered 18 like an introvert so I am not just an introvert, I am a radical introvert. One of the questions was something to the effect of which would you rather do, go to a party with all your friends or read a book? I’d rather read a book. I’m not complex. I like to play sports. I like to read. On special occasions, I will go to a dinner or a movie with my wife and that’s about the extent of it.”

Rigid Structure

The structure must be intense, right? Sorry, that’s another myth. The only intense parts of the UNC program are in training and in games. There’s no two ways about it — when you play, you play with intensity, you train on your physical and psychological edge. The rest of the time?

“There was this cavalier attitude about other things involving structure,” says Heath. “The things that he didn’t feel were important, he didn’t put the same effort into. He didn’t put that on the players. But he was very clear about his expectations. When you walk into his office, there are papers and books everywhere. And that’s just the way he is. He has so much information in his mind and the way he is able to organize it and organize the people around him is just cool. And he teaches that to all of us.

“He’s such a unique dude,” continues Heath. “He’s kind of a mastermind of his craft, and what he’s been able to accomplish at UNC is just remarkable. It’s not surprising if you see the way he works and the way he is so passionate about everything he does when it comes to the program, the staff and the people involved.”

Dorrance certainly knows the quote Harris remembers, the one that says “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” You could change that a little to say “no one cares how late you are, as long as it’s not practice.”

“I just feel like we were always late,” laughs Roberts Sahaydak. “We were always rushing. It seems like we were very disorganized. We might show up 20 minutes late to an ACC banquet.”

Lip Service Requires Zero Effort

When Dorrance was a young coach, after Dr. Marvin Allen made the bold move to pick thetsc-2 25-year-old former Tar Heel player to replace him as men’s soccer coach, Dorrance used to watch Dean Smith, Carolina’s legendary basketball coach.

“Back when all of us were paying lip service to family, Dean Smith was demonstrating it,” he says. “All of us who were coaching during his tenure and watched him work and watched how he treated his staff and everyone on his team from Michael Jordan to the team manager, could see his genuine humanity. What all of us got was a tremendous lesson in the critical elements of culture. It was like all of us where in a school for developing family values in athletic programs and having critical core values.”

Dorrance has a habit of choosing the correct word for the right time. And “lip service” perfectly explains the bare minimum amount of effort one can give to a cause. If he isn’t putting it into practice, why talk about it?

“In reality Anson is a compassionate man with a huge heart,” says O’Reilly. “He has an appreciation, respect and love for his players and alumni as people.  During school years, Anson cares about your development and your ‘never ending ascension’ as a person, student, as well as a player. You can see it in the program’s core values.  After college, Anson loves hearing from his players about their families, jobs, and ambitions.  He’s a very loyal guy and has gone to probably hundreds of his players’ weddings.”

“When you are there for four years, you feel like you are a part of something really special,” says Tobin Heath. “And it’s not just your four years. You are part of the tradition, and that’s what Anson has created and cultivated there. It’s a testament to who he is and what he believes in and the type of relationships he’s made. I think at the end of the day, he’s a man who truly cares about the players that have played for him.”

The core values, the friendships, the fitness test, the experiences off the field, those stories take precedent when former Tar Heels get together.

“We talk about ridiculous stories from college,” says Heather O’Reilly. “But the funny thing is, sometimes you don’t even overlap with players but you still just ‘get it.’ For instance, Kling (USA defender Megan Klingenberg) and I didn’t go to school in the same years.  But we can appreciate the same things. We appreciate the community of Carolina that Anson developed.  It’s about watching out for each other but also demanding a lot from each other.  It’s a unique blend of hard work and fun. At Carolina those two things are not mutually exclusive and actually very much intertwined.”

Dorrance has coached 338 women in his career. A lot of them you’ve heard of, like Hamm and Heinrichs and Lilly and Overbeck and Parlow, Tarpley, O’Reilly and Heath and Dunn. Many very important ones you haven’t, like the Marslender sisters Julia and Liz, scholars like Paige Neilsen, Jessica Maxwell and Kelly Macfarlane. Seeing former players visiting or at the current team’s practices is not rare.

“In September after the (NWSL) season and Olympic run had settled down, I showed up at a UNC practice,” says O’Reilly, who still lives in Chapel Hill. “During the season, I can only practice with the team on occasion.  During one of the drills, Anson asked if I could step out of to give more reps to the current players.  It made a lot of sense, and I was just happy to watch and support the team.

“That evening I got a thoughtful text from Anson apologizing for excluding me from a drill and he wanted to be sure I knew I was welcome anytime and that the staff and players loved having me there. I told Anson to not worry for even a second, and that I not only came to practice because it was good for my game, but I came because it was good for my soul.”

The Future?

When do you think it will end? He did, after all, just sign a new three-year contract. Maybe Ashlyn Harris is right. “They are going to have to drag his dead body off the field. That man is never going to leave,” she says.

He still gets energized, but has learned to rely his staff more. And his staff is as much a part of the family as any player. There’s Bill Palladino, who has been there since the start, and his value can’t be quantified. A key presence and voice in the program’s success, “Dino” actually won the South Region Coach of the Year award in 1991 when he coached the Heels to the NCAA title while Dorrance, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly were in China winning the first-ever Women’s World Cup. There’s Chris Ducar, who combines recruiting duties with his goalkeeper coaching and general coaching roles. He’s been there 21 years. Tom Sanders, the director of operations, handles the bulk of the administrative duties (“Thank God,” says Dorrance.) This is his 24th year. The new guy, Damon Nahas, has been the perfect answer to Dorrance’s wish for fresh ideas, new methods, and plenty of energy. Nahas came to UNC from the Raleigh area youth club CASL (Capital Area Soccer League).

He’s done enough, don’t you think? All those records, all those titles, all those national team players, all those former players who are now coaching and are coaching players who will one day be coaching, and so on and so on.

But here’s the thing. As long as the world keeps producing freshmen, as long as a new season comes around once a year, there will always be a challenge. And Dorrance is right where he wants to be.

“There is something different about this place,” he says. “It’s what Charles Kuralt said, ‘What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well, or the bell, or the stone walls, or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is as it was meant to be, the University of the people.’

“We are a university of the people, and I love that,” Dorrance adds. “We are not elitist, we are a wonderfully diverse campus, and there is not one economic class that dominates our population. I think all those things together puts our university in a unique position. All of that has led to a long career here, and even when I was recruited by Stanford to leave at a significant raise, I stayed. I look back at all those decisions as some of the great decisions I’ve made in my life.”

If he retired, he could probably do without the wins, the on-field battles he enjoys so much. He can find a competition in anything he does. But his avenue to impact young people would be gone or at least limited. How would he be able to help them leave college with much more than just a degree and a tactical understanding of soccer?

How would he able to take an undergrad to lunch with a Nobel Prize winning scientist and watch with pride as the Nobel Prize winner, Aziz Sancar, offered his junior midfielder with a 4.0 grade point average, Franny Reuland, a spot on one of his lab teams?

“Can you imagine an undergrad being offered a job on a lab team with a Nobel Prize winner?” he says, clearly still excited. “It was just extraordinary. These are all the things that make it enjoyable for me. It’s not just the soccer, it’s women like Franny Reuland, a 4.0 student with ambitions to change the world.”

He would never again have a phone conversation with a high school kid like Ashlyn Harris, so afraid her parents would hear her talking that she hid in her closet while explaining how she didn’t want her parents to suffer financially anymore.

“I think for him hearing that from a kid my age, from then on I had a really special place in his heart,” says Harris. “He’s an incredible man, and I am very lucky to have a man like Anson in my life and he definitely molded me into the person I am today.”

The Present

The Tar Heels are in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Only the opposite of that used to be newsworthy. But this year’s Carolina team might just be over-achieving. While there’s still plenty of schools out there who have yet to beat UNC, the collegiate women’s soccer landscape has been bulldozed and evened out greatly. But despite some hard hits to the roster before the season started, UNC is 12-3-3 – or 804-66-35 — going into the ACC semis.

“I knew this year was going to be very challenging and difficult. But I have absolutely loved these kids, loved their attitude in practice, love the fact that despite a two-game losing streak we had earlier, their connection with each other is joyous.”

When the 90s ended, Dorrance was asked if parity had finally come to women’s soccer. “Yes, and I hope not,” he answered. He was right but his program remains in the hunt each year. In the 15 seasons since the turn of the century, there have been nine different national champions. Carolina has won six.

“Obviously, I’ve loved coaching every national championship team we’ve had, but this season reminded me that I love the profession,” he says. “I love watching them improve.”

Maybe he will get a chance this year for one of those locker room speeches. All former Tar Heels have heard them. Before they take the field for their last collegiate game, the seniors are asked to leave the room. Then Dorrance explains in emotional detail what each of those seniors have meant to the program. As a result, the underclassmen, usually in tears at this point, will do absolutely anything to send the seniors out as winners.

“When it was my turn and I stepped out of the room, he drew a picture of a field and then drew a heart around it,” says Roberts Sahaydak. “He got choked up in that meeting.”

When Dorrance won his 700th game seven years ago, he said it was a sign that he was old. Getting old, which by the way is not a bad thing, comes with thoughts of what you are leaving behind, what your legacy will be.

“I loved Robin Williams’ character in the movie ‘Dead Poet’s Society,’” he explains. “He wants to be a part of the conversation. He wants to get to write a line in the poem, to be a part of history. To be a part of the history of women’s soccer, the history of someone’s life, I am conscious of that.

“My attitude is that I want to have an impact on these kids’ lives,” he adds. “Certainly on the soccer field, but I don’t want to ignore all the other things I consider absolutely critical – the character piece or the academic piece. I want all my girls to have the belief that they can change the world, and hopefully the things we are doing are convincing them they can.”

The Rest of the Story

Sorry for the length of this article. In reality, you can’t do justice to Anson and the Tar Heel program in 3,500 words. Too many layers, and we’ve left out plenty, like who in the world meets their future wife in second grade? In Nigeria? Too long of a story involving M’Liss Gary, Standard Oil, American Tobacco and missionaries. Or how he and M’Liss were at one time legal guardians of Mia Hamm.

We didn’t touch his philosophies on coaching women and women as leaders, theories that became very popular in the 90s when women were climbing corporate ladders. We didn’t discuss how women in his program find “permission to be great,” and how that is a liberating revelation. Or how he admired former Tar Heel and national team great April Heinrichs because, “She refused to sacrifice her own greatness to be win the Miss Congeniality Award.”

We didn’t talk about how Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll took a chapter from Dorrance’s book “Training Soccer Champions” and uses it to make his football team more competitive in practice, or how Jurgen Klinsmann did the same as coach of the German national team. We left out everything about his work to start a women’s professional league in the U.S., and his ability to collect speeding tickets, and the success his children have enjoyed.

Couldn’t find room to point out that he won 172 games as the men’s coach at Carolina and explain the reasons why he chose not to coach both teams and concentrate on the women’s team. Stories about roller hockey and pick-up soccer and his golf game also didn’t make the cut. Regrettably, his respect and admiration for the UNC administrators he has worked under was not included either.

No rush, though. There’s probably still time.


Tim Nash is a freelance writer who co-authored “Training Soccer Champions” with Anson Dorrance and is the author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory” a collection of stories on the first 30 years of the U.S. women’s national team. Both books are available on Amazon.com. Visit www.the56thminute.com for more information


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