John Wooden coached the UCLA men’s basketball team to 10 national championships and the university raised a heroic-sized statue in his honor. Wrestling’s Dan Gable led Iowa to 16 NCAA titles. He would be lauded on the floors of Congress. And legends Lavell Edwards and Dean Smith both plied their coaching trade in famous venues that now bear their respective names (one a football stadium, the other a basketball arena). Coach Edwards claimed one national crown; Coach Smith claimed two.
So it’s tough to fathom how the University of North Carolina will honor their women’s soccer coach when he steps away from the pitch. Coach Anson Dorrance, a Church convert and his ward’s high priest group leader, has won 22 national championships for the Tar Heels, including the recent 2012 NCAA title.
The simple math is staggering — he’s coached for 34 seasons and walked away with college soccer’s top trophy 65 percent of the time. (He can also list a world title on his coaching resume after guiding the U.S. women’s national team to the 1991 World Cup title.)
Winning, said Coach Dorrance in a Church News interview following the Dec. 2 final, never gets old. “It gets better.”
For one, claiming the national championship in women’s college soccer is tougher than ever before. Millions of girls play the game and top players have more than 300 Division 1 college teams to choose from. And with age comes added gratitude for the 61-year-old coach who has known the peaks and valleys that often define his profession.
“The achievement — you appreciate it more the older you get,” he acknowledged.
Coach Dorrance will remember the 2012 season for adversity endured both inside and outside the lines of the soccer field. Several of his top athletes played on various national teams in different World Cup tournaments and were unavailable during the first stretch of UNC’s games. So reserve players were enlisted to fill in for starters and played, initially, to mixed results. The Tar Heels lost an unprecedented five games prior to the beginning of the NCAA national tournament.
Additionally, Coach Dorrance’s wife of almost four decades, M’Liss Gary Dorrance, was dealing with health challenges that often kept her from accompanying her husband to the games. The players, he said, opted to turn struggles into strengths. “Team chemistry was forged through adversity, it galvanized us. When we started winning, we appreciated it more.”
As the Tar Heels returned to full-strength, the skilled play of the starters was augmented by reserves that had persisted during the challenging moments of the season. They were ready and able to contribute. The athletes also dedicated their tournament run to Sister Dorrance, a dutiful member who joined the Church with her husband in 1976.
The Tar Heels stormed through the early rounds of the national tournament before meeting up with Brigham Young University in the NCAA quarterfinals Nov. 23 in Provo, Utah. Curiously, the match against the Cougars marked the first time Coach Dorrance had competed against the Church-owned school. BYU had secured a top-seed in their tournament bracket after recording the best season in their program’s history. The Tar Heel players knew their coach was a Latter-day Saint and pestered him with some playful teasing after finding BYU in their bracket.
Thousands squeezed into BYU’s South Field and witnessed a game whose outcome was in doubt until UNC forward Crystal Dunn scored the decisive goal in the second overtime. Following his team’s 2-1 victory, Coach Dorrance left Provo impressed with the BYU team and their spirited but courteous fans.
North Carolina would go on to beat Stanford in the semi-finals before defeating Penn State in the tournament title game, 4-1.
“I’ve never enjoyed this more,” Coach Dorrance said of coaching the Heels. “This is the nicest collection of kids that I’ve ever had.”
Anson Dorrance could aptly be called a world citizen. Born in Bombay, India, he moved around the globe with his family. Stops in various African, Asian and European countries exposed him to the world’s most popular game, soccer. He and M’Liss were introduced to the Mormon missionaries in the early days of their marriage. They accepted their gospel message and their invitations to be baptized.
The Church has offered the Dorrances a spiritual anchor, offering them comfort and hope during good times and bad. They belong to the Chapel Hill 1st Ward, Durham North Carolina Stake. The coach does not hesitate to teach what he calls “secularized” versions of gospel principles to his team — including the value of striving for personal and collective perfection. “What I’ve learned in the Church has made me a more effective coach,” he said.
The gospel, he added, is synonymous with teaching. “You love those that you teach — and there’s no better way to coach people.”
Coach Dorrance secured his legacy long before he claimed his recent 22nd national championship. But he’s already at work on the 2013 season — courting recruits, polishing his roster and preparing for title number 23.