Chapel Hill, N.C. — The University of North Carolina's Anson Dorrance is the most successful and possibly busiest college soccer coach in the country, yet his sports outlook seems incongruously simplistic. ``I don't think athletics is anything more than people running around, breaking a sweat, and having a good time,'' says the architect of not one, but two high-yield varsity programs.
Dorrance is the Certs mint of soccer, a two-in-one mentor who simultaneously guides the women's and men's teams to prominence. This fall he has handled his rare juggling act so adeptly that both teams advanced into the National Collegiate Athletic Association post-season playoffs. The women, who have won five of the last six championships and own a 47-game unbeaten streak, were expected to get this far. The men, however, have been a bit of a surprise, winning their first title in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference since 1966. Both teams are still alive and kicking, too, after beating major rivals in last weekend's tension-packed, single-elimination action. The women, now 21-0-1, move into the Final Four this Saturday at Amherst, Mass., after scoring a 2-0 triumph over William & Mary, which had ruined their perfect record with a scoreless tie earlier this season. The men (18-4) downed defending national champion Duke, 2-0, and will hit the road Sunday to meet South Carolina in a regional final.
This is all pretty gratifying for someone who once gave up a possible law career to coach soccer full time. Dorrance, a 1974 graduate of the university, was just six courses shy of a law degree in 1979, when his life experienced commitment overload. It was hard enough finding time to study, so when he was asked to add the women's team to his existing duties as the men's coach, something had to go. In a bold move, he dropped out of school, with no intention of going back. ``Everyone else has an interest in me getting the law degree, but I don't,'' he says in the hut that serves as UNC's soccer headquarters.
The Tar Heels' two-way coach doesn't really believe he has blinders on. Soccer isn't an all-consuming interest. He tries to achieve a balance. ``I think one reason I've been able to maintain two teams is because, with many interests, not just athletic, I don't burn out,'' he says.
Dorrance, the son of a successful oilman, was born in Bombay, and gained an international perspective while living at various times in Kenya, Singapore, Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, England, and Ethiopia. It was in the latter country that he first played soccer and later met the woman he married, ballerina M'Liss Gary. The couple has two daughters.
One consistent thread throughout the years has been a love of sports, a constant that convinces him he's accepted the right calling. As an undergraduate, he not only played on and captained the men's soccer team, but sought out every conceivable avenue of intramural participation. ``I remember one day I played four different intramural events,'' he relates, ``and over the course of one year I think I won 11 IM campus championships.''
Motivated simply by a desire to keep playing after graduation, he organized a senior club league and became a player-coach on one of the teams. This gave him plenty of administrative experience, and made him a prime candidate when a coaching vacancy occurred in 1977. Though flabbergasted by the totally unexpected offer, he agreed to take over the men's team, since it was a part-time job that fitted around his law studies.
Things snowballed from there, however, and for the past nine years he has worn the twin coaching caps at North Carolina and been an increasingly active member of the American soccer community. He has coached both regional and national junior teams, and teaches a licensing course for the United States Soccer Federation.
One of soccer's endless fascinations for him is also one of its greatest frustrations for others. ``There's a bizarre paradox about the game,'' he observes. ``It's incredibly difficult to score and it's incredibly easy to score. That sounds like a contradiction, but it's true. You can completely outplay a team for 90 minutes and lose, 1-0. That contradiction is why every game is exciting.''
Coaching two teams multiplies the excitement, but it also increases the demands on time, energy, and coordination. Dorrance tries to avoid conflicts, but occasionally must miss a game. Practices are handled in shifts with the help of four assistants, two of whom are full time.
In addition to his game and practice experience, Dorrance has benefited from the overall perspective offered by coaching two very different types of teams. The women are perennial national favorites, while the men, despite this year's results, are often underdogs against the top conference teams they face.
Succeeding so well in both situations has made Dorrance college soccer's most ubiquitous figure and a coach who has taken pleasure in doubling his and North Carolina's fun.