Fathers, lock up your daughters, unless of course a great education is something that interests you. Because you know, there isn’t a women’s professional soccer league anymore, and the likelihood of your daughter making a national team is not so good. Seriously, just make them quit playing soccer before someone like Becky Burleigh gets her hands on them, because once she does, your little daughter will quickly become a woman, a strong woman, and maybe a national champion.
Burleigh, head coach of the University of Florida women’s soccer team, became the darling of the collegiate soccer community when the University of Florida team she started in 1995 won the 1998 NCAA crown. From literally nothing to a national championship in four seasons. Let the Title IX defectors speak up against that, not to mention two NCAA College Cup appearances, seven Southeastern Conference Tournament titles and nine NCAA Championships berths. Beyond the team honors, Burleigh claimed National Coach of the Year in 1998 and SEC Coach of the Year in 1996 and 2000. She ranks third on the NCAA Division I All-Time Winning Percentage Chart, and just took her gators past 200 wins. She had just over a year to put the first gator team on the field and she hasn’t looked back since.
Surely, there is something she has to teach the children about getting a free education, I mean, making it at a big time NCAA soccer program. She has coached 10 NSCAA All-Americans, 11 NAIA All-Americans, 19 All-SEC players, and 56 student-athletes on the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll. Your daughter could be the next Ameera Abdullah, a Gator sophomore and member of the Colorado Rush Nike team that won the 2006 US Youth Soccer National Under-19 Championship with a 3-2 win over Eclipse Select (Illinois). Or maybe she’s the next Melanie Booth, a senior defender who played the entire 90 minutes for her native Canada in a friendly match versus the U.S. The U.S. won 2-0, with former Gator All-American Abby Wambach starring along with another former Gator, Heather Mitts, who played the entire match on the U.S. backline.
If all of this sounds like a UF PR campaign, I guess this is where I should admit I’m an alumnus of the graduate school at UF. But I’m not playing favors, and neither is Becky apparently – I had to stalk her for more than week to finally get her on the phone (chalk another one up for prominence of the blogosphere), and then we squeezed a quick interview in this past Saturday, minutes before UF kicked off their SEC rivalries on the gridiron with Tennessee. As we learned at the end of that game, however, a lot can be squeezed in to a very small amount of time…
What’s your perspective on the state of the women’s game?
The womens game has come a long way. A lot of the veterans of the national team get credit for that. Like Michelle Akers. Women like that were just so far ahead of their time, and I think the problem we have now is other countries have culturally caught up to us in terms of women are aloud and accepted into the sporting world. We’ve had that in the United States for a long time, but other countries are just developing that culture. The problem we have in the US is that we don’t have the tactical background of soccer that those other countries do because we don’t have soccer on television 24/7 like they do, so its gong to be hard to keep pace because of the fact that we are going to miss that tactical component, that cultural component of soccer being our national pastime. And so other teams will catch up pretty quickly and some of them already have.
How do collegiate athletics and the national program co-exist? Is there a relationship there?
College is not an adequate source of development for our national team. Our season is so limited in terms of the time we can spend with the players. We don’t play enough high-level games in the course of a year. We do in our season, but that is just a limited time. And once you’re out of college, unless you’re on the national team at that point, we don’t have an avenue for you to play at a high level. College does well for the younger generation, but I don’t think it will ever be a good feeder for the national team like it has been in the past. We’re beyond that with our national team. I hope [the pro league] comes back. There are some players that wouldn’t be discovered if not for the WSA. Heather Mitts who played for us and starts for the national team I think got discovered in the WSA. And now we graduate kids and they don’t have that opportunity.
How do you motivate on the college level, especially with it being the end of the road for most of the student-athletes?
There is plenty to still play for in college: getting your education paid for, going to a good academic institution, and all those things that go with college. So motivation isn’t hard in college. It’s beyond college where the problem lies. Colleges are not competing with professional leagues in terms of players. Because education is still such an important component to Americans so that won’t be a problem for us. It’s just what we lose once they graduate from college. They try to play in the W summer league and amateur events, but it’s hard. You have to be really self motivated beyond college.
How do you recruit?
There are more international kids coming over, but we just try to go to high-level events, and there are plenty of good players, it’s just a matter of getting them. We don’t have a scouting program, it’s all about us going – coaches – to the events ourselves.
Do you find the top club and youth national team events catch all the players, or do you worry that there is some one out there who has been swept under the rug?
All the best kids are at the top events. There might be some hidden people here and there, but there are so many top events, you’ll get to see people as long as you attend most of those. I think our youth national team programs and top club programs are doing a good job of identifying top talent in their area and bringing them to the surface. If there is political involvement it is just that our recruiting process begins so much younger, that we have to do a lot of dealings with the club coaches and it gives them a lot of power in the decision making process, but that is something that will evolve. Recruiting evolves.
Is that power a good thing?
It depends. It can be both good and bad, but in my experience, it has been mostly positive.
How have you turned ‘no program’ into one of the nation’s best?
Good relationships with the coaches and families as we meet them. Recruiting is our life-line. That is it. You have to recruit well and play an aggressive schedule to see where the strengths and weaknesses of your team are. We don’t shy away from anything. You have to willing to be exposed in order to get better, and that is why we play the best competition. We’ve lost our fair share of 9-0 games.
How can kids get on your radar? Say they aren’t part of a great club program.
I think they need to be persistent. They need to recruit themselves to the schools they are interested in. There are still only three of us coaches that can go out – two at any one time – and that is a lot of ground to cover with just three coaches. So it’s important if there is a school you are interested in to recruit yourself, at least to get that door open.
Do you go on-line in your recruiting process? Several websites have launched in the last few years targeting just such a avenue.
We use the internet in terms of looking of info, but I don’t use recruiting services or anything like that. I think that’s a waste of time. We are going to be at every event we need to be at, and we will see everybody we need to see. I don’t need a recruiting service telling me that. There’s always players you don’t see. I learned very early in my career that it’s ok to miss out on players. The thing is to invest in a player that can help you for four years. People panic, but it’s a big mistake.