5/17/2016 0 Comments
by Chris Foss
As the sporting nation recently prepared to watch the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team sweep to its fourth consecutive NCAA championship, ESPN released a list of all-time great college and pro dynasties. Not surprisingly, UConn’s earlier teams made the list, as did the UCLA Bruins, New York Yankees, Chicago Bulls, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Islanders. Each team on the list won three or more consecutive championships. I expected the Boston Celtics to make the list as the greatest dynasty of all time in terms of consecutive championships won. Led by Bill Russell, the green and white won eight straight NBA rings between 1959 and 1966. I was surprised, then, to see that I was wrong. One team bested the Celtics, a squad that many sports fans, myself included, either never heard of or remember little about today: the North Carolina Tar Heels women’s soccer team, winners of nine straight NCAA championships between 1986 and 1994.
Many different things come to mind when most of us consider the Tar Heels, let alone college soccer, a relative backwater even as soccer is starting to achieve success in America at the professional level. Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” and his mere one college championship get a lot of recognition. Dean Smith’s 36-year run as head coach of the Tar Heels’ men’s basketball team and his two NCAA championships are frequently recognized by the media and fans, as well as the run of successor Roy Williams (this year’s buzzer-beating failure against Villanova not withstanding).
But during the Smith years on the men’s basketball team—and in fact, throughout the entire 37-year history of women’s soccer at North Carolina—the Tar Heels were coached by Anson Dorrance, a name which deserves to be in the conversation when considering the all-time great college coaches. The Tar Heels lost a total of two games in the championship years, and drew only eight times in nine 25-game seasons. Eat your heart out, Golden State.
Arguably the squad’s most famous alum from those years was Mia Hamm. She would go on to help the U.S. women’s team win World Cups in 1991 and 1999, and take home Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004. Pretty impressive for a woman born with a club foot. Oddly, though, her years at North Carolina are not well-remembered by more general sports fans. Hamm was one of four Tar Heels to take home the women’s Hermann Trophy, annually awarded to the country’s top male and female soccer players—and the only one to do it twice. Her Tar Heel teams lost only once when she was on the field, and she was voted Female Athlete of the Year in 1993 and 1994 for all women’s sports in the entire Atlantic Coast Conference.
So why isn’t the Tar Heels dynasty better remembered and recognized? I consider three possibilities:
A lack of drama: One of the major problems with winning it all year after year, and hardly ever even losing a regular-season game along the way, some argue, is that it sucks all of the suspense out of the games. But the 1959-66 Celtics had plenty of drama, particularly against the 76ers in 1965, when John Havlicek’s legendary steal saved Boston from potential doom when they were one play away from losing the title that year. With so many fewer goals scored than in basketball, even great soccer teams are always one muffed play, foul, or badly-played corner away from disaster. Was the competition relatively bad? Probably, at times. But for the reasons just discussed, nearly all soccer games are close, even when the teams are far apart talent-wise. Drama is, furthermore, all about perception. The mainstream media apparently never saw much drama in those Tar Heels of the late 1980s and early 1990s perhaps because they were caught up in the Bulls, baseball’s labor issues, and the Cowboys “dynasty”, rarely caring to look below the headlines to find interesting stories in the Tar Heels locker room or along the sidelines.
Sexism: Are the Tar Heels underappreciated because they are women, in the hyper-masculine world of sports fandom? This seems like a possibility, when one considers the general state of affairs of women’s sports nationwide. Male athletes who have never won anything (J.J. Watt anybody?) can get endorsement deals. Mia Hamm is one of very few female athletes to achieve mainstream success in terms of money earnings, media recognition, and endorsements, and all of that happened after she left North Carolina. In basketball, where women have achieved some level of success, no one has really broken through to the next level of stardom. A couple of years ago, it seemed like Baylor-turned-WNBA star Brittany Griner might shatter the glass ceiling. Even before a domestic violence incident tarnished her career, so much of Griner’s notoriety on the court came because of her ability to dunk, rather than win championships or endorsements. Meanwhile, the WNBA itself, the first women’s league to stick after a number of false starts, has largely done so with the financial and institutional support of the NBA. One wonders: would Mia Hamm and the Tar Heels have transcended the sports sex/gender barrier to a greater extent if they were on the men’s soccer team?
A lack of mainstream interest in soccer: This one seems closer to the mark than a lack of drama or even sexism. Although soccer is widely popular at the club, high school, and college levels, that popularity never spreads out to reach a broader fan base. There aren’t very many casual fans at amateur women’s soccer games, let alone those of men. During my graduate school years at the University of Colorado-Boulder, there was no admission fee to either men’s or women’s soccer matches, which received sparse publicity in contrast to football and men’s basketball. There are some exceptions, but they always seem short-lived. For example, Portland was captivated in 2002 when the University of Portland Pilots women’s soccer team broke through and won one of the few NCAA titles not claimed by the Tar Heels. Portland is unusually supportive of soccer relative to other U.S. cities, however, as seen by the fact that it’s home to arguably the two most successful professional soccer teams in the country, the Timbers (men) and Thorns (women). But around the nation, half-empty stadiums and dismal TV ratings remain the norm for women’s soccer. Granted, MLS TV numbers are also appallingly low. On the other hand, the game cited by Equalizer Soccer below was a regular-season match, and MLS attendance is climbing. Average attendance in 2015 for the National Women’s Soccer League did increase from 4,137 the year before to 4,804, but only three of the league’s nine teams have attendance capacity below the latter number. Four NWSL stadiums can fit more than 10,000 fans. Bottom line: NWSL games don’t typically sell out, and attendance figures need to keep increasing for the league to remain viable. Unfortunately, the Women’s World Cup only comes every four years.
Women’s sports are slowly being taken more seriously. The NWSL is hanging in there, thanks to teams like the Thorns and dedicated players. On April 25, the expansion franchise Orlando Pride set a new league attendance record, packing 23,403 fans into the Citrus Bowl. Meanwhile, the flap over Novak Djokovic’s tone-deaf comments deriding equal pay for female tennis players shows that mainstream Americans take that issue seriously. While UConn basketball keeps on winning, other women’s teams are getting stronger, especially out West, where Oregon State and Washington both went to the Final Four for the first time in their history, garnering a lot of regional press along the way. But for now, the Tar Heels soccer dynasty seems doomed to obscurity, perhaps—as Keith recently argued to me—largely because it took place in an era when soccer was far less mainstream. In the end, not just one, but two full generations of four-year UNC athletes never knew losing. That’s an extraordinary achievement. Not even John Wooden’s legendary Bruins were that good. By the measuring stick laid out by the 1986-94 Tar Heels, the UConn women—to say nothing of Golden State, in a men’s league—has a long way to go to meet the criteria of “greatest of all time”.
* We’ve addressed the dynasty issue at the Tattered Pennant before—for more, see Keith’s article: http://www.tatteredpennant.com/home/sports-dynasty-is-not-up-for-debate
 In terms of consecutive titles won by baseball, basketball, hockey, football, and soccer teams, amateur and pro.
 For UNC soccer stats from these years, see “NCAA Soccer Division I Records” at http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/w_soccer_RB/2012/D1.pdf or the team’s archive of media guides at http://www.goheels.com/ViewArticle.dbml?ATCLID=205682601.
 http://equalizersoccer.com/2015/09/16/nwsl-semifinal-playoffs-tv-ratings/. In 2015, semifinal matches for the National Women’s Soccer League went head-to-head against early-season NFL games and posted a 0.0—that’s right, zero—rating. Yikes.