Reflections on “The Man Watching” and Anson Dorrance

If the mark of a good biography is something that makes you think about several aspects of life, then The Man Watching is a very good biography.

The subject, North Carolina and former U.S. women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, is described as someone you either love or hate. Surely a third camp exists — one that finds Dorrance’s contradictions and complexities fascinating. (If you need personal disclaimers here: I’ve interacted with him once, 21 years ago, and I found him to be a gracious winner.)

Dorrance is a military son who wanted to be a soldier. Today, he’s a women’s soccer coach who corresponds with his players with often-emotional letters, and his daily schedule and desk have no sense of military order whatsover.

Everyone wants to mimic his success, and yet the coaching style that carried him through much of his career is out of vogue now, both in terms of soccer tactics and player management.

He’s a book-devouring intellectual who turns around and competes with an arrogant fervor that would frighten most of the other folks in bookstores and libraries.

His intellectual approach to life made author Tim Crothers’ job a little bit easier. Though Dorrance may come across as arrogant, he’s open to self-examination and reflection. He’s candid about his successes, failures and controversies, something I’ve heard from Carolina colleagues who have covered his team.

“Arrogance” is a recurring theme of the book, and Bruce Arena provides a memorable quote about thinking he was the most arrogant person in the world until he met Dorrance. But it’s too simple to say Dorrance is “arrogant.” He’s so single-minded in his pursuit of excellence that he and his team develop an indifference to anyone or anything that could be in their way.

I first noticed it when I covered the ACC women’s semifinals in … I think it was 1990. I know UNC annihilated Duke. Dorrance was gracious in his postgame comments, and he was more gracious in speaking with a Duke player and her family in the parking lot later. The players, including an intimidating Mia Hamm, were polite but had little to say about the opposition, as if they weren’t quite sure whom they had just beaten. At the time, I did think it was arrogant. After reading this book, I think it’s planned obliviousness. Crothers gives a similar example of Heather O’Reilly in an elevator with Texas players, not realizing they were about to play each other.

Crothers, who hung around the program for several years and does well to organize his overload of quotes and information, carries this same tone. As a Dukie, it was hard for me not to notice a few offhand slights toward my school and the fact that Bill Hempen, the first women’s coach in Duke history, was simply an unnamed “Duke coach” on a couple of occasions. When he actually talks about Dorrance, he’s “Colorado coach Bill Hempen,” his current title. Not mentioned: He’s the same coach whose Duke team reached that fateful NCAA final against Carolina and made the mistake of taking the lead. (Duke assistant Carla Overbeck is named — she apparently thought Dorrance ran up the score.) Crothers identifies Dorrance’s wife, M’Liss, as a local dance teacher, not mentioning that she spent more than three decades on the Duke faculty. He speaks to plenty of people outside Carolina, particularly rival coach (and Brandi Chastain’s husband) Jerry Smith, but don’t look for non-Heels in the index unless they’re national team players.

That indifference extends off the field. It’s not disrespect, and in face-to-face situations, I’ve found Carolina soccer people friendly and fun. I’m just glad I haven’t had to share a plane or a highway with them. The team is routinely late to the airport, driving at high speeds and rushing onto planes at the last minute. Before 9/11, they sometimes “returned” rental cars and vans by leaving them on the airport curb. I’m sure no one in the Carolina program has ever thought about it in this sense, but that’s not very nice to their fellow drivers, fellow passengers and rental car companies.

The players and coaches don’t always come across that well in the book. Dorrance’s first recruits sound like they were drawn from a Hollywood script about tough, hard-living girls who come in and start beating people up. Dorrance doesn’t set many rules. The team’s initiation rites probably violate a handful of local ordinances.

But judging the Carolina program for relatively small crimes against society isn’t the interesting lesson to draw from the book. What’s interesting is how the book forces readers to reflect on themselves, their willingness to sacrifice toward a goal and their leadership philosophy. The book may be just as interesting for parents as it is for soccer fans.

That said, soccer fans could spend years dissecting Dorrance’s approach to coaching. He is a friendly father figure off the field and a hard-driving master of sarcasm on it. He puts his players through brutal fitness exercises. He reduces players to tears with his comments. He adapted Dean Smith’s coaching style to create a “competitive cauldron” in which practices are meticulously charted to see who’s first and last in everything.

That style doesn’t fit easily with the Positive Coaching Alliance, which influences everyone from the top levels of the sport down to us U7 soccer coaches. It’s not quite fair to call it new-school pablum — it draws heavily from UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden. And among the signatories on its board is one Dean Smith.

Dorrance’s influence also would is controversial in another coaching debate. Especially early in his career, he recruited hard-charging athletes, not necessarily those with the greatest soccer skill. He says he recruited Libby Guess (like me, an proud Athens Academy alum) because she went hard for a 50-50 ball with the goalkeeper. These days, the USA is desperately trying to adapt from being an “athletic” team to a more skillful team, with mixed results.

But Dorrance is certainly adaptable. He has adjusted his “competitive cauldron” approach. He recruited Aly Wagner, one of the prototypes of a more skillful approach to the game, but lost her to Santa Clara. He isn’t even insisting on an aggressive 3-4-3 formation that relies heavily on being able to outrun the opposition. (It’s also a system that works better with college’s liberal substitution rules.)

And like a good military man, he’s a man of responsibility. As presented in the book (certainly the plaintiffs in this case could argue otherwise), he fell on his sword to settle legal actions brought by former players Debbie Keller and Melissa Jennings, though he did little wrong and had virtually unanimous support from everyone else in the program. If he seems indifferent or arrogant to others, it’s because he’s thinking of his players first.

Is it necessary to be so single-minded in the pursuit of excellence? How hard should one push players to reach their best? How old should my kids be before I use Dorrance’s coaching style to encourage them in whatever they’re pursuing?

These are just a few of the questions that a reader will kick around after reading this book. We should all be grateful to Crothers and Dorrance for being such willing participants in the discussion. And yet for all the philosophical tones in which I’m casting the book, it’s also an entertaining read.

Highly recommended.

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One Response to Reflections on “The Man Watching” and Anson Dorrance

  1. kool-aide says:

    Hey, you should call the Duke Univ. libraries. They have a copy of this book on Dorrance and Wahl’s book but NOT your book! Shameful of them to ignore an alumnus ;)

    srsly, I wanted to read your book and I get most of my books from the library (I don’t have much $ to buy tons of books).

    I agree that The Man Watching is a great read. Many books like this one have a terrible index — actually, a lot of academic books that you expect to have a better index don’t. (yes, I’m a nerd).

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