North Carolina makes its 38th appearance in the NCAA women's soccer tournament today. The Tar Heels have fielded some of the best women's soccer players to play the game, but as calendars turn and players move on only one thing has remained consistent, their coach, Anson Dorrance.
Dorrance and his squad are fresh off of an ACC tournament victory where they dismantled an undefeated Virginia squad to win their 22nd ACC championship. Now the Tar Heels and their coach will host Ohio Valley conference winner Belmont in the first round of the women's soccer 64-team tournament on a field rich with Dorrance's influence.
This is a familiar tale to Dorrance and his team, as his legacy as one of UNC's greatest coaches began nearly 50 years ago.
It was the beginning of the spring semester in the early 1970s when former United States Women's national team coach Anson Dorrance first graced North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill. A second-semester freshman and self-described athletic-dilettante, Dorrance made sure his dorm-mates knew just where is competitive edge was.
“If you want to win, put me on every single team,” Dorrance said to the intramural sports manager of Teague Residence Hall. It was the beginning of Dorrance's first dynasty, as Teague went on to dominate the intramural sports scene on North Carolina’s campus for 10-plus years after that moment.
Teague's dominance in the 1970s set the stage for Dorrance's legacy as one of the greatest athletic figures to ever be a part of the University of North Carolina.
Dorrance, dominance and dynasties — a trio of words that would make a lovely title for a North Carolina recruiting pamphlet, but the three didn't come hand in hand right off the bat for the UNC coach. It was humble beginnings for the soccer mastermind. The freshman intramural sports prodigy turned walk-on soccer player used his love for competition as fuel for his entire coaching career.
“I’ve really been interested in competing in everything my whole life and the thing I loved about Teague is there were other people in there who had my same attitude,” Dorrance told NCAA.com. “It was a great training ground for me, for my collegiate women’s soccer team but also for the U.S. women’s national team.”
Dorrance currently sits atop all Division I coaches with a winning percentage of .903 and an all-time record of 866-75-41. Since the inception of the program, Carolina has produced 21 NCAA national championships under Dorrance, including 21 outright ACC titles and 21 ACC tournament championships. He has also won ACC coach of the year in 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2018 and 2019.
Where does this success come from? Dorrance cites two main factors: recruiting and the university he works for.
“We’ve built our success on the backs of some incredible athletes that selected to come represent the University of North Carolina,” Dorrance said. “And fortunately for me, I represent a remarkable university and a beautiful campus in a temperate part of the United States. It’s very attractive.”
After dropping out of law school, Dorrance coached both the men’s and women’s teams at UNC throughout the 1980s. In 1989 he then chose to focus on the women’s game — something that he describes as an opportunity to establish a sport in the zeitgeist American collegiate athletics.
“Basically I had a chance to pioneer a sport,” Dorrance said. “I saw it was a real opportunity to be a pioneer in a sport that I thought the United States could be very successful at.”
Dorrance describes himself as an evangelist for the women’s game. His passion to spread the sport of soccer to young women across the country isn’t the only proponent of growth women’s soccer has seen over the years.
The Tar Heel coach credits Title IX as the main catalyst for women’s soccer popularity today. A law that was implemented in 1972 helped build the wave of United States women’s soccer dominance.
“The nicest thing about women’s soccer is that checks all kinds of boxes. It certainly was another women’s sport, but it was also a women’s sport that was responding to an explosion at the youth level,” Dorrance said. “I think the combination of us riding a youth soccer boom, the advent of Title IX, the eventual terror of having the possibility of it being forced and the fact that so many numbers were on a women’s soccer team would check all the boxes.
“And the final piece that I thought was very critical was the minimal expense. It’s not like you’re starting a yachting varsity where the cost of the boat is more than any women’s soccer team would spend over the course of five or six years,” Dorrance said.
Dorrance turned a game that only needs a ball, some T-shirts, and a group of people into a sport that is at the pinnacle of female athletics across the world.
The United States Women’s National team won its fourth World Cup last summer. Under the command of Jill Ellis, the U.S. outscored their opponents 26-3 and have become one of the world’s most consistent women’s soccer programs.
A pioneer at every level, Dorrance was there in Ellis’ position in 1991, the year the USWNT won their first Wolrd Cup in China.
“Of course no one felt the United States was gonna win,” Dorrance said of the 1991 World Cup. “So we were disparaged by the international community. Even though looking back everyone assumes it was a cakewalk for us if you look at the rosters of all the teams we competed against, we were the roster with some of the fewest CAPS in the event. In other words, we had the least experienced roster, we also probably had the youngest roster.”
The 1991 USWNT roster was made up of soccer legends Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, and Carin Jennings. The entire roster consisted of 18 players, with nine of the spots belonging to, you guessed it, Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels.
After he resigned from the position of national team coach in 1994, Dorrance kept active in molding the future of the women's national team. He admits he went over the head of the United States Soccer Federation when he appointed his replacement, Tony DiCicco, without their permission.
DiCicco went on to lead the USWNT to a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics and a World Cup championship in 1999.
"I think I was in the wilderness for 18 years," Dorrance said referring to the U.S. Soccer Federation's disdain for Dorrance's actions in appointing DiCicco.
The wilderness didn't hold him back from building the success of the USWNT program. Along with feeding players to the USWNT from his prestigious North Carolina program, he also developed a relationship with two-time World Cup champion, (2015, 2019) coach Jill Ellis.
At the time Ellis was the U20 national team coach and wanted Dorrance to come and train her team for an upcoming match.
"She wanted to look at the system we were playing in North Carolina, she wanted to see how I was doing it," Dorrance said, looking back at the situation as "hilarious." "I told her 'I'd love to,' so I went out there and trained her team and then I learned later she was reprimanded for bringing me in. Of course, she wasn't aware of the fact that I was on their hit-list."
The trajectory of the USWNT from that 1991 World Cup has been nothing other than up to greatness. Following 1991, the blueprint Dorrance laid out for the USWNT is still felt today. His direct effect is also felt on the roster, as five players on the 2019 World Cup-winning USWNT squad were once students under Dorrance at North Carolina.
UNC has always been home for Dorrance. A home that drew him away from the grind that is international athletics and a home to some of the most successful athletic figures.
Over Dorrance's tenure, he and his program have received praise from two of the most well-known Tar Heels in the history of the school — Dean Smith and Roy Williams.
"This is a women’s soccer school. We’re just trying to keep up with them,” former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith said about Dorrance's program in the 1990s.
“This guy right here is the best coach I’ve ever been around in my entire life,” current men's basketball coach Roy Williams said as he brought Dorrance out to center court during a preseason college basketball event this year.
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"I don't compare with Dean Smith or Roy Williams. These are extraordinary men. They function under enormous pressure. There is absolutely no comparison," Dorrance said. “Dean Smith adopted me as a young coach and would let me come and watch his practices.”
Dorrance added that Smith introduced him to the idea of a "Competitive Cauldron," — something Dorrance has tweaked and has become famous for throughout the culture of soccer. The competitive cauldron is an environment that fosters competitiveness and accountability each and every time one of Dorrance's players stepped on the pitch, whether for a match, a practice, a walkthrough or a conditioning session.
Dorrance credits the culture of coaching North Carolina fosters as the main factor for all of the coach-to-coach love no matter the sport.
“Any coach that comes in here can see the incredible support that all of us have for each other and it started with this culture that Dean Smith established, Roy Williams and I are very important part of and we aren’t the only ones. Karen Shelton, the reigning field hockey national champion is a part of that circle and there are so many others here that were a part of Dean Smith’s legacy,” Dorrance told NCAA.com.
After this season Dorrance’s legacy won’t be remembered just by national championships or number of World Cup players rostered from UNC. On Sept. 28, Dorrance Field was unveiled to the program’s greatest coach.
"His legacy is not just gonna be a name on a field. It'll be the memories that people have of one of the nicest, toughest, most competitive coaches that I've ever been around and a true friend to me personally," Roy Williams said in a video prefacing the Dorrance Field reveal.
"My first reaction after hearing that they were going to name the old Fetzer field now Dorrance field was that I was absolutely thrilled for Anson," 2006 National Player of the Year and UNC assistant coach Heather O'Reilly said. "What he's done for American soccer specifically here at the University of North Carolina for the last 40 years is unprecedented. He's an absolute legend of the game and I couldn't be more proud to be here at Carolina with Anson."
Shortly after the reveal, the Tar Heels went on to shut out Notre Dame 3-0 cementing Dorrance’s legacy with something that rang true throughout his career at UNC — a win.
“I’ve actually bled out there. For that surface to be named after me at a university of this caliber with the legacy of the athletic programs and teams and coaches…is an extraordinary honor.”— UNC Women's Soccer (@uncwomenssoccer) September 25, 2019
Congrats, Anson! An extraordinary - and truly deserved - honor. pic.twitter.com/lq5lLBxd4M
An architect and evangelist of a sport that gives young women everywhere a chance to compete on the world stage, Dorrance will always remember where it started.
"At the corner of this [Dorrance] Field is Teague Dorm,” Dorrance said. “That’s where I entered as a second-semester freshman. And behind the field, like literally 40 or 50 yards from the edge of the field is law school I dropped out of. So my whole world between 1970 and now is in basically this field and the surrounding 40 yards, and I have absolutely loved every day of it.”
*NOTE: Dorrance is currently the coach who has coached greater than 150 games with the highest winning percentage across all DI athletics according to NCAA.org. NCAA.org does not track Water Polo and Tennis coaching statistics.