'Wouldn't trade it for anything': How Karen Shelton made UNC field hockey a dynasty
It's 8 a.m. on a mid-January morning, and a woman, standing about 5-foot-5 and wearing a navy blue parka and black boots, uses a shovel to scrape ice off the artificial turf at Karen Shelton Stadium.
The stadium, home of the reigning back-to-back national champion North Carolina field hockey team, is named after the Tar Heels’ 62-year-old Hall of Fame head coach, who’s won 22 ACC titles and eight NCAA championships in her 39 years with the program.
But this morning, it’s Karen Shelton herself scraping ice off the field. She has a practice to prepare for.
“I’ve never felt I am above doing anything,” Shelton said. “I’m going to participate in everything that needs to be done here. And I think that stems back from the ‘80s when I had to do everything. And I’ve always felt like it doesn’t matter — if it needs to be done, we’ve got to get it done.”
It’s this mindset that’s driven Shelton to build a juggernaut out of a program that was only 10 years old when she took it over in 1981.
‘Pioneers in bringing it all forward’
When Dolly Hunter made the phone call to Shelton in 1980, she figured she’d have some convincing to do.
Hunter was at the end of her fifth year as coach of the UNC field hockey team, and she was ready to step away. Wanting to make sure her team, which had an overall record of 54-27-3 during her tenure, would be in good hands, she called one of the most highly-profiled field hockey players in the U.S.
Shelton, then 23, was two years removed from a collegiate career at what was then West Chester State College in Pennsylvania, where she was a three-time national player of the year.
She didn’t think she wanted to be a head coach, but “fell in love immediately” on her first visit to Chapel Hill. Shelton returned in the summer of 1981 to interview with then-athletic director John Swofford, who said that despite her inexperience, Shelton’s on-field accolades and “sheer passion for the sport” made her an attractive candidate.
Initially hired on as a part-time coach so she could train with the U.S. National Team in the spring, Shelton made a starting salary of $7,700 with no benefits.
“As long as I could pay my rent and buy some food, I was okay,” she said.
In the 1980s and for much of the 1990s, the investment in non-revenue collegiate sports simply wasn’t what it is today. Title IX was passed in 1972, nine years before Shelton’s first season in Chapel Hill. But receiving proper funding for women’s sports was still "a work in progress," Swofford said.
“Karen and others were pioneers in bringing it all forward,” he said. “Because there wasn’t a lot of money for Olympic sports at that point in time, and certainly even less for women’s sports.”
Success came quickly for Shelton’s program, though. By the time she finished her fifth year at the helm, UNC had won three consecutive ACC Tournaments. But resources took time.
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While the national scholarship limit for field hockey was nine when she first became coach, the university only made three available until 1986, the year the program made its first Final Four appearance. And it wasn’t until Shelton won her first NCAA championship in 1989 that Swofford promoted her to full-time.
By the end of the 1990 season, the Tar Heels had been to four Final Fours. Still, there was no glitz or glamour in the life of a UNC field hockey player.
On road trips, Shelton would drive her team to games in a 15-passenger van. When they’d reach their destination, players and coaches would sleep four to a room, sharing double beds at hotels.
Field hockey wasn’t made a priority in the world of college sports — even on UNC’s own campus.
The team had to share Navy Field as a practice site with Mack Brown’s football team and the marching band. Even still, field hockey fell last in the pecking order out of the three, forcing Shelton’s group to practice every night from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
Then, before the 1995 season, the NCAA came to town as part of a Title IX compliance study. Things changed.
Practice times were moved to 1 p.m. The budget was increased.
“That was not necessarily something that we did,” Shelton explained, “but something that the NCAA did in coming and saying, ‘All right, this isn’t fair. You need to make this happen.’”
The Tar Heels finally got over the hump, winning their second national title in 1995 after falling in the championship game four times in the previous five seasons. Then came two more in 1996 and 1997 to complete the three-peat.
“Well, resources make a difference,” Swofford said. “There’s no question about that. They don’t guarantee anything, but they certainly make a difference.”
‘Look how far we’ve come’
Look around UNC’s field hockey facility today, and it’s easy to see the strides the program has made.
The team’s two-story home looks the part of a state-of-the-art Division I athletic facility. There’s an outdoor tailgating area, an upstairs players’ lounge with a memorabilia-filled wall and a film room with theater-style leather seats and magnetized tactics boards. The locker room features personalized cubbies with each player’s name, LED color-changing lights on the ceiling and an electric shoe-drying wall.
Like UNC’s other Olympic sports, the field hockey team travels to most road games in a luxury coach bus with TVs and Wi-Fi. When their destination is farther up the East Coast, like Syracuse or Boston College, they fly.
“It’s really been an ascension over 40 years,” Shelton said. “It’s been awesome … That’s kind of cool to look back and say, ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come.’”
But some things likely won’t ever change.
Before each season, as she’s done for 39 years, Shelton reminds her players that they are “nothing” until they prove themselves every single game. And before each game, she’ll gather that same group, this time to tell them they are “beautiful, strong, powerful” women.
“She sees our inner worth, too,” said first-year forward Brooke Behan, whose mother Peggy played on Shelton’s first NCAA championship team in 1989. “It’s not just about field hockey. It’s so much more than that.”
Circumstances have changed for the program, sure, but Shelton has largely remained the same person she was when she first arrived in Chapel Hill.
“(She) doesn’t seem any different today than she was when I got here,” said Mack Brown, who’s been friends with Shelton since his first stint with UNC from 1988 to 1997. “She’s still got the same energy. She’s still got the same competitive spirit.
“And she doesn’t have to. She’s accomplished everything you can accomplish in her sport.”
Behan and her mother often talk about their shared experiences playing under Shelton. When Behan shares stories from practices and games, Peggy jokes “it’s the same old, same old,” with her former head coach.
The 10-time ACC Coach of the Year’s consistency over the decades has paid dividends. Shelton ranks second in NCAA history in career wins with 692, trailing only Connecticut’s Nancy Stevens, who has 700.
Shelton’s team has the longest active win streak in the country with 46 consecutive wins, which she joked was one of the reasons why she didn’t retire after last season. And while she says her retirement is coming soon, her players realize it’s their responsibility to uphold the standard of excellence the program has sustained.
“It’s our job now to build the path for the future girls who come here,” said star sophomore forward Erin Matson. “Hopefully in 15, 20 years, they have a facility that’s 10 times nicer than this one.”
As Shelton, taking a break from shoveling, relaxes in one of the dark blue leather chairs in UNC’s film room, she wipes tears from her eyes recounting her journey to this point.
She thinks back on the lessons she’s learned from her teams, the ups and downs, what it’s taken to elevate North Carolina field hockey to national prominence.
Then, she stops.
“Listen, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Shelton says. “I really wouldn’t trade it. It’s been awesome to just go through the decades and see the differences and the changes and to feel proud. I feel like whatever we’ve gotten, we’ve worked for. You know, that’s fulfilling.”
Shelton gets up and walks through the glass door at the front of the facility, making her way toward the field.
She isn’t done working just yet.
This story is produced by Media Hub, a multi-disciplinary course in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students work as journalistic teams to create multimedia packages on stories from across North Carolina.