By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Two decades ago, the landscape couldn’t have been more perfect for the addition of women’s soccer as the Southeastern Conference’s 19th sport.
The rapid growth of the sport of soccer across the country and in the southeast, coupled with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina as the league’s 11th and 12th members, as well as the increased popularity of all collegiate athletics set the stage for the SEC to quickly take a new sport to an elite level.
“I think there was a growing sentiment to add one or two additional sports for women at that particular time,” said Roy Kramer, SEC Commissioner from 1990-2002. “Soccer was very popular at the time, not just at the collegiate level, but in high schools, particularly in the southeast. As a result, our schools felt that they could build programs and recruit nationally, but also recruit heavily within the region. With some of the other sports that other conferences added, that was not the case. Those sports would require almost exclusive recruiting in specific regions of the country. For us, soccer had one-upmanship on other sports at the time.”
Kramer had no doubt that the SEC would be successful in its newest venture, given the full support of both the league office and the member institutions towards broad-based athletic programs.
“I thought we would be competitive because that’s just the nature of the SEC,” Kramer said. “One of the great strengths of the SEC is that when they sponsor a sport, they sponsor it at a national level, and that was certainly true when soccer was added. I think we may have surprised people nationally because they didn’t realize the level of commitment, facilities, recruiting and things of that nature. Within our conference, we felt that we would be competitive very shortly.”
When soccer first started in the SEC in 1993, just four programs sponsored the sport – Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Still, the excitement surrounding the new sport was palpable.
“It was kind of a groundbreaking with women’s soccer and the success of the World Cup,” said Warren Lipka, who was Kentucky’s first coach, starting the program in 1993. “There was a lot of momentum and it was just exciting being a part of a conference that was ready to support the sport and develop soccer in our conference. It was kind of odd having only those four teams the first year and developing the tournament, but it was exciting down the road to see programs adding soccer and coming into the conference.”
It was the commitment that each program made to soccer that made the imminent success possible.
“We had to look at scheduling, facilities and how we could maintain those programs,” Kramer said. “We had to look at conference involvement with regard to the championship, but those were relatively simple issues to solve. The sport became extremely competitive almost from day one because the schools made that kind of commitment. When this conference sponsors a sport, it is going to sponsor it at the very highest level and that was certainly true of soccer.”
The 2012 season marks the 20th anniversary of SEC soccer, culminating with the SEC Soccer Tournament Oct. 29-Nov. 4 in Orange Beach, Ala. To celebrate this milestone, the SEC Digital Network will be highlighting the history, great players and memorable moments of SEC Soccer with 20 stories over the next eight weeks, running each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“The 20th anniversary of soccer in the Southeastern Conference gives us the unique opportunity to celebrate our rich tradition in the sport, as we prepare for continued achievement in the coming years,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. “The student-athletes who have played soccer in this conference over the last two decades have laid a solid foundation in the sport for years to come.”
Don Staley couldn’t have been more excited when he heard the news that the SEC had made the decision to add women’s soccer.
Staley, who went on to become the first head coach at Alabama, served as both the men’s and women’s head soccer coach at Radford from the mid 1980s until his move to Tuscaloosa. He knew the opportunity to coach in the SEC meant coaching at the highest level; he was certain the conference would support soccer like no other.
“Probably two years before I took the job at Alabama, there was a big push for Title IX and the addition of women’s soccer to the SEC and other big conferences,” Staley said. “A lot of young coaches like myself who were coaching at mid-majors looked at it like, if we do a good job here, maybe in a year or two, some of these opportunities are going to open up. A lot of us started rushing to revise our resumes and make contacts.”
Staley’s foresight paid off, as he would interview for the head coaching jobs at both Alabama and Auburn.
“I interviewed first at Auburn and, not long after that, Alabama contacted me,” Staley said. “While I was waiting to find out about the position at Auburn, I interviewed at Alabama and they offered me the position. Who knows what would have happened if Alabama hadn’t called. I left Radford after being there 10 years. I was excited about the opportunity to go to Alabama, a big-time SEC school with a big budget.”
What Staley found when he arrived in Tuscaloosa surpassed even his own expectations.
“At Radford, we drove in vans and got $15 a day in meal money,” Staley said. “I came to the SEC and we got nice charter busses and Nike contracts and everything was first class. When I look back, the Big South Conference did a wonderful job with men’s and women’s soccer, but it was just eye-opening when I came to Alabama. You would get on to some of these fields and it was big-time in every way, shape and form. I was like a kid in a candy store and it was exciting to watch the sport grow back then.”
Since the sport’s inception, the University of North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference had set the standard in women’s soccer. When the SEC began sponsoring the sport, there had been 11 NCAA Championships contested. The Tar Heels had won 10 of those titles, with George Mason claiming the 1985 crown.
Regardless, it was the SEC’s reputation as a leader in all sports, particularly football, that gave soccer instant legitimacy.
“It was amazing to see the level of athletes that we were able to attract into the conference because of football,” Staley said. “It established notoriety for us to be able to go into any state and recruit. For me, I followed football as a youngster and not only did I know about Bear Bryant, I knew about the conference and the significance of the SEC. Any time you wear a shirt or hat from an SEC school and, even when you’re overseas, you’d be surprised at how many people know about our conference. One time, I got off a plane at Heathrow for a recruiting visit and was wearing an Alabama hat. There was a guy with a big British accent who came up to me and said ‘Roll Tide.’”
Often, timing is everything. In the case of SEC soccer, nothing could be more accurate.
The 1990s may have been considered a golden age for the sport of soccer, and the SEC was ahead of the game in many ways. That vision allowed the league to reach the forefront of its newest sport.
“You have a lot of women playing the game and adding the sport helps the volume of opportunities for women,” Lipka said. “When you look at it fiscally, with the amount of participants you can have and not need a lot of equipment, I think all of those things play a factor. I think the ADs could see that. I know that when [former Kentucky athletics director] C.M. [Newton] hired me, he saw the rise of women’s soccer in the country. He knew it was the next sport to be popular and successful. He was an innovator. It was an easy follow for the league to play a sport that had been so successful at the higher levels and they wanted to be a part of women’s soccer.”
That growth reached its height in the early to mid 1990s, coinciding with the addition of the sport to the SEC. Because of that, the conference was able to attract some of the best talent in the nation to be a part of its young programs. In many ways, this helped the SEC overcome some of the growing pains it might otherwise have experienced.
“It was just incredible growth all around the country,” Lipka said. “The number of quality players out there has tripled or quadrupled from when we started in the 1990s. You can tell by the recruiting wars and the talent level of the players how the sport has really come along. I just see it continuing to get stronger and stronger every year.”
That the SEC became a destination for the nation’s top talent immediately became evident in the early years. Heather Mitts, a three-time Olympian, was a standout product out of Cincinnati, who chose Florida because of all the opportunities it would provide her both on and off the field. She became a member of the school’s 1998 NCAA Championship team.
“I just thought Florida presented the entire package, not only athletically, but also academically,” Mitts said. “I enjoyed my recruiting trip and I felt like I didn’t know what might happen on the soccer side of things, but I knew I would be very happy with the school if I had injuries or things didn’t work out with soccer. I really liked [head coach] Becky [Burleigh] and [associate head coach] Vic [Campbell]. As far as athletics are concerned, they treated their athletes very well. It was kind of the whole package.”
That kind of treatment wasn’t just exclusive to Florida. It was a standard of excellence that, from the get-go, was set at each of the SEC schools.
“I look around the conference and when I was at Florida, our team, in particular, was a dominant team,” Mitts said. “I have seen a lot of other SEC teams who maybe were not as strong then that are now dominating. All the SEC schools really do put a lot of focus on their female sports, and have allowed their soccer programs and all their female sports to grow.”
The extreme dedication to soccer was apparent to the league’s coaches from the very beginning.
“When we went into our yearly head coaches meeting, the Commissioner came in to talk to us and listen to us,” Lipka said. “That meant a lot to the head coaches. We knew people were listening and were willing to do what it took to help us become the top conference in the country.”
To look at the numbers and accomplishments, it is hard to believe that the SEC has sponsored soccer for just two short decades.
In 1993, the SEC had only four programs that sponsored women’s soccer. By 1996, that number had increased to all 12 teams that were then in the league. By the 1998 campaign, parity was becoming apparent and Florida won the conference’s first national title.
“In 1998, we hosted the SEC Tournament at Alabama,” Staley said. “It was exciting for some of those players to come in and play there and to see some of those crowds. I wouldn’t say it was exactly rock-star status, but it was fun to see fans in the stands recognizing players and coaches and pointing them out. People knew who these kids were, and that’s a statement on how far and how quickly SEC soccer came into existence with high acceptability and respect.”
The 20th year of SEC soccer now features 14 highly competitive programs.
The SEC is on the heels of a 2011 season that saw a record eight league teams make the NCAA Tournament field. It was a year in which play was so competitive that the No. 7 seed – Auburn – captured the SEC Soccer Tournament.
“I think with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, the conference is, if not the top conference in the country, right up there with the ACC,” Lipka said. “Those two are the top conferences in the country from top to bottom. The future is very bright for women’s soccer in the SEC.”
Slive agrees, noting the overall success of women’s athletics in the SEC. He has no doubt that soccer will continue its ascension among the nation’s elite in the coming years.
“Success in SEC women’s sports is well documented,” Slive said. “The league has won an impressive 75 national championships in women’s sports during the last 25 years. Our women’s soccer programs are continuing to develop into national championship contenders and will add to the SEC’s rich championship success in the near future.”