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Anson Dorrance declares innocence in academic scandal

Women's Soccer Head Coach Anson Dorrance pictured at practice Thursday afternoon.
Women's Soccer Head Coach Anson Dorrance pictured at practice Thursday afternoon.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the U.S. professional women’s soccer league. It is the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

But this one is different.

This one is more than just words on a page. This one is 131 pages worth of wrongdoings, detailing nearly two decades of poor decisions at the University of North Carolina. This one, like its black and blue cover suggests, has had physical ramifications in the month since its release.

“Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” it says. Most people know it as the Wainstein report.

At least that’s how Dorrance knows it.

On Oct. 22 , after eight months spent investigating claims of academic fraud at UNC, former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein released his report. His investigation found that from 1993 to 2011, there were more than 3,100 enrollments in paper classes through the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. These courses, orchestrated primarily by then-secretary Deborah Crowder and later department chair Julius Nyang’oro, never met.

In the report, Wainstein found that 47.6 percent — nearly half — of the enrollments in these classes were by student-athletes, including members of the North Carolina men’s basketball, women’s basketball and women’s soccer teams.

That last one, women’s soccer, matters the most to Dorrance, the only women’s soccer coach UNC has ever known. He’s also known as the winningest coach in the history of collegiate athletics, the winner of 21 national championships.

But even following the release of the report, even with all the scrutiny, one question has risen above the rest for Dorrance.

Did he know?

“We didn’t have any idea that this sort of stuff was going on, and I think Wainstein confirms that in his report,” says Dorrance, now in his 36th year at the helm of the women’s soccer program. “Wainstein came right out and said the prime movers were this professor and his administrative assistant, and so for me, looking at that, I felt that absolved us.”

Anson knows that isn’t what everyone wants to hear. They want him to come out and admit to knowing everything. They want him to say that he worked with former academic counselor Brent Blanton, the person implicated in the report as having steered players toward these classes and Crowder.

“Women’s soccer counselor Brent Blanton (“Blanton”) acknowledged that he often directed players who also played on the U.S. National Team toward these classes,” Wainstein wrote in the report. “Women’s soccer counselor Brent Blanton told us that he knew about the AFAM paper classes, though he believed that Nyang’oro was somehow involved in them.”

Blanton is now facing disciplinary action from the University for his involvement in the scandal, according to a person familiar with the matter. But Dorrance thinks people want more than that — he thinks they want him to be punished, too.

They want him to have worked side-by-side with Blanton. They want him to say that he used these bogus classes to draw in recruits, high school players who would eventually become national champions and award winners — after all, that’s the better story.

“Obviously that doesn’t sell newspapers, so you guys can’t sort of check that box and move on. You guys have to continue to dig and probe and I respect that, what your mission is,” Dorrance says.

But to Dorrance, the story isn’t what matters. It’s the truth about his part in the scandal, he says, that he never truly had a part. Dorrance has always had just one focus: his team.

“Inviting (Wainstein) in is a declaration we have nothing to hide,” Dorrance said.

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That singular focus is the reason Anson is where he is. It’s the reason for his national championships, but it’s also the reason he has an autographed book from Pete Carroll on his desk. Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks Superbowl-winning coach, called Dorrance some time after the Seahawks’ February win over the Broncos. He wanted to thank Dorrance for teaching him about being competitive, the thing Pete attributed most to his team’s success.

Carroll’s endorsement is more than just another book on a desk, though; it’s further proof that athletes and coaches regard Dorrance as one of the world’s greatest coaches, which is why he doesn’t need to sell recruits on paper classes. He won’t admit it, he says, because he doesn’t want to sound arrogant, but women’s soccer players didn’t come to UNC because the school offered bogus courses.

They came for Dorrance. They came to play under the man who has consistently developed elite women’s soccer players, from Mia Hamm in the early ’90s to Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn, the top two players taken in the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League Draft.

Dorrance swears the allure of independent studies and online classes aren’t why players come to UNC.

“I think the recruit thing is sort of a misnomer. I can see how it’s being confused,” Dorrance says. “The recruit thing gives the impression that these kids hadn’t already decided to come to North Carolina. This wasn’t like a lever we used to attract a kid to come — the kid was coming.”

But once the kids get here, Dorrance says he doesn’t abandon their academics. In fact, he stresses them as much, if not more so, than he does performing well on his team.

“They’re not dumb. They know that eventually they’re not going to be playing sport,” Dorrance says. “They know, they’re not idiots. They know that these people aren’t doing things the right way, and we can be a part of correcting that. Not just giving them an opportunity for an education, but beating them up with it, saying, ‘No, no, no, that’s not good enough. No, this isn’t good enough, no.’

“We just grind them into getting an education.”

Anson knows that eventually their bodies wear out and what remains is the education they have received.

“Anyone that takes piano lessons as a 6-year-old hates it, but then all of a sudden as a 40-year-old, they look back and say, ‘I just want to thank mom and dad for forcing me to take those piano lessons,’” Dorrance says. “I think a part of what we still have a moral obligation to do for these student-athletes that might not have any academic ambitions is to get them excited about something.

“Force them to get into something. Force them for it to have rigor for them, to challenge them.”

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