Dorrance came to Carolina
as a walk-on,
then hung around to build a sports dynasty
Women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has been described by
the people closest to him as an absent-minded professor so immersed in his own
thoughts that he loses track of time and struggles with many of his players’
Yet he has proven year after year that he knows how to win.
By any measure, he is the most successful college coach – of any sport –
ever. Consistently, he has molded teams that flirt with perfection, perhaps
because of his insistence that it is attainable.
But if Dorrance’s record of success is unassailable, it has
not always shielded him
Early in his career, he faced stinging criticism regarding
his outspoken views on the differences between men and women. And in the past
decade, he overcame the hurt and humiliation of lawsuits filed by two former
players that called into question not only his coaching methods, but his
personal integrity as well.
These triumphs and travails are illuminated in the 2007
biography by former Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers, “The Man Watching:
Anson Dorrance and the University of North Carolina Women’s Soccer Team.”
And the successes were also well documented by the athletics
department staff who nominated Dorrance for a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished
As coach of the women’s soccer team since its inception in
1979, Dorrance has led his teams to a 696-33-22 record, for a winning
percentage of .940, they wrote. In 754 games, the Tar Heels outscored their
opponents 3,012 to 339.
Under Dorrance, the women’s soccer team has won 21 national
championships, including 20 of the 28 NCAA tournament championships that have
been played. The first national championship was the 1981 Association of
Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Championship before the NCAA
championships for women began.
citizen of the world
The son of an American oil executive, Dorrance spent his
childhood on the move – from Bombay, India, where he was born, to Addis
Ababa, Ethiopia, where he met his wife, M’Liss Gary, to several years in Kenya
where he discovered his love of soccer.
After graduating in 1969 from boarding school in Fribourg,
Switzerland, he spent one semester at Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio,
before transferring to Carolina. He liked it here so much that he took five
years to graduate, earning a B.A. in English and philosophy in 1974.
That same summer, he married M’Liss, a former professional
dancer, who eventually started her own dance studio and ran Duke’s
undergraduate dance program for 30 years.
Finding a niche proved harder for Dorrance, who sold
insurance and studied law at N.C. Central University, ultimately to become the
lawyer for the family oil business and fulfill his father’s dream.
Then fate – in the personage of his former UNC soccer
coach Marvin Allen – changed Dorrance’s life direction.
In fall 1976, Allen, who had coached men’s soccer since
1946, told then-athletic director Bill Cobey that he was going to retire at the
end of the year and he wanted Dorrance to take over.
“That’s how I got from coaching Rainbow Soccer to the top of
Division 1,” Dorrance said.
He still is not sure what his old coach saw in him –
other than a passion for the game – that fueled his transition from a
skinny walk-on to a three-time All-ACC player.
After he became the men’s soccer coach in 1977, only a
part-time position then, he transferred to Carolina’s law school, intent on
dutifully carrying out his father’s plan.
Two years later, he also took on coaching the women’s soccer
team and for the next eight years coached both teams. Law school went by the
There was no money in coaching back then and no evidence of
a future, Dorrance said, but M’Liss realized before he did that coaching was
what he loved and was meant to do.
No magic formula
Dorrance has never bought into the cliché that winning is
everything. His one demand, throughout every practice and every game, is to
play the game the way it is supposed to be played: intensely, smartly and
aggressively – more so than women once permitted themselves to play.
Women, he noticed, had no problem competing ferociously
against an opposing team they disliked. In fact, the more they disliked a team,
the harder they played. But they had a hard time going after their teammates
with that same intensity.
Men, on the other hand, could easily play smash-mouth soccer
no matter who
As a coach, Dorrance had to figure out how to give women
permission to change their behavior. And the Seventies was a decade in which
feminists argued passionately that women had to be treated the same in every
It was a tricky, delicate business, and even now, Dorrance
treads lightly on the subject.
“I’d be hard pressed to sit here with an English and
philosophy background and tell you that I have any understanding about what is
innately different about men and women,” he said, “but I discovered, at least
anecdotally through my experience, that there are some real differences.”
For his team to compete at the highest level, the players
have to practice against each other at that level, even when they don’t want to.
“What we try to do here is to create this balance between
furious competition and personal connection,” Dorrance said. “The way we do
that is by not taking ourselves seriously. We make it a point to have fun.”
A wise teacher
He and his players relish being on top and, because of their
legendary success, expect all their opponents to bring their best.
But losing does happen, as it did early in this year’s NCAA
tournament, and when it does, it offers lessons that winning cannot.
As Dorrance talks about this, he begins rummaging through
the pile of papers on his desk to find the book his daughter Michelle gave him
years ago on Father’s Day, one filled with the inspirational quotes he
prescribes to his team as doctors dispense medicine.
The book is thick, and there is no index, but he finds the
excerpt from “My Losing Season,” Pat Conroy’s memoir about playing basketball
at the Citadel, that he shared with his players after this year’s tournament
loss. He reads:
“Sports books are always about winning because winning is
far more pleasurable and exhilarating to read about than losing. Winning is
wonderful in every aspect, but the darker music of loss resonates on deeper,
richer planes. ...
“Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted
but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and
more trial than free pass.”
Dorrance looks up and permits himself a slow grin.
“I guess my English and philosophy degrees actually do apply
to this job,” he said.