Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh announces her retirement

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh announced Saturday she will retire at the end of the season.

Rather than a retirement announcement ceremony where those important and vital to her career could celebrate the moment, Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh sat alone Saturday speaking to the media via Zoom outside of the Donald R. Dizney Stadium — clearly not the way a coach of Burleigh’s caliber, who brought a national championship to Florida when the program was still in its infancy, should go out, but a ceremony that epitomized several of the reasons behind her decision. 

UF athletics director Scott Stricklin said Burleigh, 53, informed him in late December of her decision to retire after 26 seasons in Gainesville, prior to Florida returning to training in spring for the second half of the season. 

Finding the ideal time to part ways wasn’t ideal, however, and Burleigh had to wait several weeks before telling her players.

“I think for me, what became really difficult was, after the holidays when it became pretty clear that was going to be my decision, there were a couple things. One, is just transparency and honesty are really important to me, and then the second is, with coaching, it’s a never-ending cycle,” Burleigh said. “Recruiting just continues, and how to continue to have conversations with recruits, and knowing that my decision is what it is, became really just an untenable situation for me.” 

The decision finalized, Burleigh and Stricklin told the team Saturday morning in a post-practice meeting she described as “very difficult.” 

In what has been a trying year for everyone due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burleigh didn’t want to burden her players with additional uncertainty, sadness, anger — whatever emotions may arise — by informing them of her departure. 

“I just feel like, again, it’s never going to be easy, I don’t think,” she said. “But I think in this particular environment, where everything feels like it’s been hard, I think just adding to that, there’s certainly some weight to that decision about how to do it.”

But the pandemic has also upended much of what long-time coaches like Burleigh have come to know when it comes to hands-on player development, which isn’t lost on her AD.

“I don’t want to speak for Becky, but just in general there’s no question that this year has been challenging for all of our coaches, and all of our athletes, and all of our staff. And I would even throw our fans into that – I think anyone who cares about Florida athletics and our student-athletes, obviously it’s not a normal year, but it’s been challenging,” Stricklin said. “It’s an emotional grind unlike what we normally go through. Whether it’s the social distancing or following all the protocols, or the quarantining, or just the general anxiety that all of this has produced, it is emotionally draining. It’s preferable to what we did last Spring, which is when everybody just sat home and our athletes didn’t have the chance to engage in any way, shape or form with their sports, but it’s still really challenging.

“That’s not to say it isn’t worth doing, but we’d be turning a blind eye if we said it’s business as usual.”

Burleigh said she was considering retirement prior to the pandemic, but, to quote her soon-to-be-former boss, saying it didn’t play a role would be turning a blind eye, too. 

“I think just the way that I prefer to coach my teams, in terms of player interaction and the ability for us to have meetings and us to discuss things and have some important discussions about important issues, that was really hard, especially in the Fall,” Burleigh said. “Team meetings were in a giant auditorium where you felt like you were having to yell across the room to talk to somebody, and there were just a lot of heavy issues that were occurring in the Fall and to not be able to process those effectively in terms of just communication was difficult.”

As many have in the pandemic, Burleigh further pondered what brought her happiness on a daily basis — and what she wanted out of the rest of her life. 

The motto “Person>Player” is one Burleigh is a firm believer in, and it’s a significant aspect in her coaching style; the pandemic made her change much of her coaching practices. 

Unable to engage in much of the priceless interpersonal conversations she would have daily with her players, staff and colleagues, Burleigh knew the time was right to move on from coaching the Gators. 

“I also think, the situation with the pandemic just in general, nothing to do with soccer, sort of lays bare where you have to go in terms of your happiness, and I think for me, I thought about this decision before COVID, but the pandemic certainly didn’t help the situation in terms of the way we were asked to try and manage a team. I’m glad we got to play in the Fall, so it certainly has nothing to do with that, it’s more how to manage all of that in the style that I coach.”

For Stricklin, he faces what is typically an unenviable task for athletic directors: replacing the face of a program. Although he doesn’t see it that way — a replacement — and he thinks there will be a long line of candidates at season’s end. 

But first, the Florida program’s focused on doing right by the one who did right by them for so long. 

“It’s rare to be going out on a coaching search looking for a replacement for somebody who’s only fingerprints have ever been on a program. That’s a daunting challenge, a daunting task, but we’re in such good shape to do it because of Becky’s efforts and the kind of person she is, and the way she’s invested into our young people and the Gators for a huge part in her life. I just want to thank Becky and just wish her the best as she moves forward with what’s next following the Spring season,” Stricklin said. “She’s someone who really embodied the culture that we have at the University of Florida in our whole department. She uses the term ‘Team Florida’, and no one has embodied that like she has. She’s the one who gets the coaches together to talk leadership. When she’s the one that when we have all staff events, she’s the one who’s MCing it. She has an infectious personality, she’s an unbelievable leader and she does what all great leaders do, and then she cares about other people.”