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UNC women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance covets culture over championships

UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance looks over his notes as he walks around at practice.

UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance looks over his notes as he walks around at practice.

But that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here for the 22 other trophies, so many they’re practically spilling out of their display case. And you’re here for him, the coach with more wins than anyone else in college soccer.

You’re here for Anson Dorrance. And he’s here to tell you why you should stay. Just look around: 20 ACC championships and 19 more national titles than any other program.

“You can’t argue data,” Dorrance said.

So what do you say? Do you want to continue the legacy of the North Carolina women’s soccer team, the greatest dynasty in sports? Of course you do.

Grab your jersey. Oh, and don’t forget your copy of Hyrum Smith’s “The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management” on your way out — you’re going to need that.

Confused? I can see how you might be. But making this commitment means you’re getting one in return. Because, as little as he advertises it, Dorrance is going to spend as much time coaching you off the field as he does on it.

“I think one of the best pieces of our program we don’t recruit with,” he said. “Because I don’t think they would believe us if we told them our priority is character development.”

***

The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.

While driving around campus one morning, Dorrance spotted Mia Hamm during a workout, all alone and visibly fatigued. The coach left her a note scribbled with a message, letting her know she embodied what he wanted from the rest of his players.

“Everybody wants to say that they’re working hard, but at the end of the day I think that your integrity is seen when nobody’s watching you,” former UNC forward Heather O’Reilly said. “And I think that really hit home for myself and a lot of players that said that they wanted to be the best.”

So what will you do? Will you separate yourself from your teammates? No matter; if you don’t choose now, the “competitive cauldron” will sort you out soon enough.

It’s an idea Dorrance lifted from former UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith in the 1980s. Dorrance watched as the team’s managers recorded everything that happened at practice — who shot what percentage, who boxed out, all of it. Then, at the end of practice, Smith would glance at the results.

“The top five guys would go shower immediately, the next couple guys would start doing sprints and the last couple I assume were sprinting until the end of recorded time,” Dorrance said. “And I was thinking, ‘This is fabulous accountability.’ And so we stole it, we soccer-ized it and we took it to a new level. And that’s been the foundation of our player development.”

Dorrance has always been a borrower. He constantly looks for things that inspire him, and when he finds them, he’ll take it all and throw it in his quote book.

Those that particularly strike him will find their way to the players, whether in the 12 core values they recite every preseason or the words they’re required to say to their teammates when they slip up.

“I want an impact on the human development of my kids,” he said. “And I think the best way I can do that is certainly by being a good role model, but I think in addition to provide them with things that inspire me.”

He learns from how UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams helped Brice Johnson reach his potential. He observes how to make the most of the talent at his disposal like North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora. And he finds out how to take a team with low expectations and turn it into a national champion, like UNC men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi did this summer.

But almost 40 years of absorption hasn’t changed Dorrance’s foundation. He’s still the same man you met earlier.

“He always stayed true to who he was and who he made himself out to be when he first met me,” former UNC defender Katie Bowen said.

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He knows who you are. If he didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. But there’s more inside you, and he’s determined to get it out.

***

The most important decision you’re going to make in your life is your next one, because that is going to determine the rest of your life.

O’Reilly made her intentions clear to Dorrance on her first visit to Chapel Hill.

“I remember sort of joking that Anson was soon going to need to add space to the boards where the national championship years are hung,” she said.

But things aren’t always that easy. For all the Hamms and O’Reillys, there are twice as many who choose comfort over greatness.

“To see how they invest in their talent is a fantastic exercise in taking this enormous potential and completely compromising it by not going after it ...” Dorrance said, “by being afraid of who knows: pain, injury ... success, whatever their fears are.”

What will you choose? It’s a light-switch decision, as Dorrance told Hamm — one that has to be made all at once.

Whatever you decide, you’ll have to accept what comes next.

***

It’s the people that blame everyone and their mother for all the different predicaments they’re in and all their different failures that are never going to make it.

When Dorrance heard former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson tell the story of a conversation he had with Smith, he immediately grabbed his quote book and started writing.

Thompson’s team was struggling. But Smith assured him he was fine — he had taken responsibility for his failures, meaning he would take responsibility for his eventual success.

“That’s one of the most incredibly powerful and wise stories I’ve heard ...” Dorrance said. “And then the more I thought about it, that’s the coaching game with my kids. Can I get my kids to take responsibility for everything?”

You’ve made your decision. Are you ready to take the blame when things go wrong?

Dorrance’s 2016 team faced a similar decision earlier this year after losing back-to-back games against Southern California and N.C. State.

The Tar Heels (13-3-4, 6-2-2 ACC) rebounded, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament — which begins for UNC when it takes on Liberty at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Fetzer Field.

“He pretty much left it up to us as leaders to decide whether we wanted to make something out of this season or not,” said redshirt senior defender Hanna Gardner. “And we made our decision and really brought this team back to life.”

You’re almost at the end of the journey, but things don’t end when you take the jersey off for the last time. There might not be any new years on the board at Fetzer, but you can still walk off the field with your head held high.

Oh, and don’t forget your copy of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” on your way out. You’re going to need that.

Because, while this was about numbers in the beginning, it’s about so much more now.

@jbo_vernon  

sports@dailytarheel.com