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Whitley: For Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh it was more than just about winning

David Whitley
Gainesville Sun
Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh will retire at the end of the season.

A letter was sent to a search committee at Florida in 1994. The school was starting a women's soccer program and needed a coach. A longshot candidate wanted to make her case.

"I am intrigued with the possibilities involved in creating a new program and would be committed to making the University of Florida one of the top programs in the country," she wrote.

Twenty-seven fast years later, Becky Burleigh can say "Mission accomplished."

Actually, she could have said that 20 years ago. Seemingly in a blink, the Gators were national champs.

And seemingly in a blink, it's about to end.

Burleigh, 53, announced her retirement two weeks ago. She'll step down after the spring season, which begins next week.

The announcement was a surprise, but not a shock. After two decades of kicking butt, UF's program has struggled lately.

COVID-19 has split this season into halves, and the Gators went 2-7-1 in the fall. Discontent arose, but the grumbling was awkward. It's hard to call for a beloved queen to be kicked off the throne she built.

I couldn't tell you what went wrong or whether it could have been fixed. But Burleigh can tell you what one of the problems was:

Emotional energy.

"If you feel like you cannot consistently bring that every single day and do it enthusiastically, then it's time to let somebody else do that," she said. "That's what a team deserves, especially at this level."

She's been enthusiastically doing it since she was barely old enough to order a drink. Burleigh was 21 when she became head coach at Berry College.

Coaching is all-consuming, especially when you do it the Burleigh Way. She doesn't just concentrate on the X's and O's, she's a mother, professor, counselor, confidant and cheerleader.

"She means a lot more to us than just a coach," midfielder Syd Kennedy said.

That's the difference between winning and success. Any successful coach has to win games. But winning games does not necessarily equate to success.

That comes from making the people not just better players and coaches, but better people. It comes from giving countless Rotary speeches, helping charities and making your city a better community.

Burleigh was raised in Tarpon Springs, but had never set foot on Florida's campus until she showed up at the athletic offices for her interview.

"The vibe was young and exciting and people were getting after it," she said. "And then you see the resources."

Athletic Director Jeremy Foley offered the 26-year-old Burleigh the job. She said yes. He stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome to the Gators."

And the rest is women's soccer history.

In just four years, the Gators were hoisting the NCAA Championship trophy. They went 26-1 and beat North Carolina 1-0, snapping the mighty Tar Heels' 70-match unbeaten streak.

That's the same North Carolina that pounded Florida 9-0 two years earlier. Burleigh knew the Gators weren't ready, but they needed to learn from the best.

Those early bumps forged relationships that went beyond the soccer pitch. Proof came when players told her they'd ordered her a birthday present.

"I was thinking it was like a sweatshirt," Burleigh said.

It was a dog named Copa. He was eventually joined by another yellow Labrador named Cody. Then came Buddy, Rose, Large Marge and Lucy.

"All rescues," Burleigh said. "All mutts."

All loved their owner so much they hated to see her go to work in the morning. A lot of times, they went with her.

The sight of a dog wearing goggles and sitting in the sidecar of Burleigh's scooter became one of Gainesville's charms.

Ah, those scooters.

Burleigh figured out early that parking was a problem on campus. She started scooting to work, only to discover there also was no scooter parking.

In fact, you'd get a ticket for parking a scooter at a bike rack. Burleigh got her share.

"I tried to befriend the parking people," she said. "Didn't work. Those people are hardcore."

She eventually ordered a sign she'd hang above her scooter.

"Parking for Soccer Coach's Scooter Only."

It was fake, but it worked for a couple of years. Somehow, it's hard to imagine Urban Meyer appealing a ticket before the UF parking politburo.

"They didn't rescind any of the tickets," Burleigh laughed, "but they at least appreciated the effort."

Burleigh's always had an innate need to expand herself, to try new things. Even if the program was still winning like it's 1996, the tug to move on would have been hard to ignore.

So as she rides her Vespa into the sunset, how do we measure the only coach Florida women's soccer has ever known?

It's partially by the 14 SEC titles and 22 NCAA tournament berths and 507 wins. But it's also by the emotional energy Burleigh brought every day.

It's by the life problems she helped players work through. It's by the bonds she forged. It's by the smiles she spread.

And it's by all the misty-eyed people who've approached her the past couple of weeks.

"It's like you're going to a funeral, but you're not dead," Burleigh said. "They're going to say a lot of nice things about you."

There are a lot of reasons for that. Perhaps the biggest is that Burleigh wasn't just a winner at Florida.

She was a resounding success.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com.

Whitley