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’ names.
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 from controversy.
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 Service Award.
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 wayside.
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 they played.
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 environment.
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.
Originally published by University Gazette: December 15, 2010