On Sept. 3, the North Carolina men’s soccer team opened its 2010 campaign with one of the most enticing regular-season games in program history. Ranked fourth in the country, the Tar Heels hosted a top-ranked Akron squad that had dealt UNC a crushing penalty-kick loss in the NCAA Tournament semifinals the year before.
The Tar Heels suffered a 3-0 drubbing on the field, but the more telling loss might have come at the ticket window.
Despite the mouth-watering story line of UNC beginning its trek to a third consecutive College Cup, large sections of the Fetzer Field stands remained empty.
The men’s soccer team’s total 2010 attendance was less than half of the 51,000 spectators at Kenan Stadium for a mid-season football snoozefest against William & Mary.
“It was just a matter of recognizement,” Elmar Bolowich said. “I had my hopes up that we would actually have many, many more spectators in the stands.”
Five months later, Bolowich was back at Fetzer Field, telling his team that after 22 seasons as coach, he would be leaving for Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
Last Wednesday’s announcement came as a shock to a UNC community that couldn’t decide which was more surprising: that the winningest coach in program history would walk away from a team that had been so close to a national title, or that he was doing so to coach at a Jesuit school in Nebraska with an undergraduate enrollment of 4,000.
Sharing the spotlight
Though Bolowich and Creighton did not come into contact until three weeks ago, the circumstances that led him there were in place long beforehand.
He came to Chapel Hill in 1986 as an assistant to Anson Dorrance, at the time coaching both the men’s and women’s teams, and was promoted to head coach in 1989.
And as Dorrance’s now-famous women’s soccer dynasty took shape, so too did the shadow it cast on the men’s program.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Bolowich said. “He earned this status in the community, he earned his right to be where he is with the program. That was just a fact that affected somehow our position in the community a little bit. But that’s not Anson’s fault.”
Despite his laundry list of accomplishments including the 2001 national title, Bolowich is still 20 national titles out of first place in the building the two share.
“(Former UNC athletic director) John (Swofford) trusted us, and of course the rest was history,” Dorrance said. “Elmar has done an absolutely fabulous job developing our men’s team here at UNC.”
Bolowich never complained to UNC or to the media, but community interest was always important to him. While he lacked Dorrance’s verbal dexterity, no UNC coach did more to court the student body than Bolowich.
He participated in several functions for Carolina Fever, the student athletics support group. When UNC played at Duke this season, Bolowich rented a bus for students, purchased tickets and thanked them afterward for their support.
So when a school came calling where Bolowich’s soccer program would be the main focus during the fall, where there was neither a football team nor the looming specter of the most dominant program in collegiate athletics, he couldn’t help but listen.
“I wasn’t actively looking,” Bolowich said. “I got information on Creighton through another athletic director, and he and I were talking about Creighton … and the more we talked, the more I got interested.”
Bolowich’s friend connected him with Creighton AD Bruce Rasmussen in January. Bolowich notified UNC immediately, and told them he would be visiting Omaha the following weekend.
What he found there was much different from the multi-purpose Fetzer Field. Morrison Stadium is a gleaming 6,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium that houses a program that is no slouch in its own right. The Jays qualified for the tournament in 18 of the past 19 years and have played in three College Cups.
Of greater interest to Bolowich was the community’s interest in the program, both in the city and on campus, where homecoming week culminates in a soccer game.
The Jays boast a game day atmosphere so impressive that players from first-class programs like Akron and Indiana take pictures when they visit, said Paul Liberty, who writes for an independent Creighton athletic site called White & Blue Review. Creighton averaged 2,277 fans per game last year, about 650 more than UNC.
Bolowich, 56, felt he only had so many years before he was no longer able to make such an opportune jump. Though UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said he offered a raise on his $91,052 salary, Bolowich felt there was nothing UNC could do to provide the environment he craved.
“We have 28 sports, so our athletic director, his primary concern is looking after every sport, not necessarily looking after soccer,” he said. “So I’m not whining to him saying, ‘Hey, I want a soccer stadium otherwise I’m high-tailing out of there.’ That’s not how I operate.”
Bolowich told his team he was leaving during practice last Wednesday — news that was hard for him to break. Though it took the team by surprise, the players ultimately hugged their departing coach goodbye, and went on with practice led by Carlos Somoano, Bolowich’s top assistant who has since been named interim head coach.
“I think we all understand that when certain opportunities come up, people make decisions,” junior midfielder Kirk Urso said. “I don’t think there’s hard feelings necessarily on either side.”
UNC is currently accepting applications for the job, but will consider Somoano as a candidate for the permanent position. Urso said the team has told UNC they want Somoano to take control and added that the team hopes to have a new coach within a month.
In addition to competing with the women’s soccer dynasty and Davis’ emergent football power, whoever gets the job will now have the added difficulty of stepping out of a shadow Bolowich created on his own.
“If it doesn’t work out, I will probably be labeled as a goofball,” Bolowich said. “To me it really was a challenge to have this opportunity to do something totally new in a totally new environment and that’s what I was looking for. It actually at some point excited me.”
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