When you’ve been around the world of college soccer for a while, you tend to become numb to words like “shocking” and “stunning” which have become commonplace in the lexicon of some when describing the sometime turbulent world of the sport. But make no mistake, Texas’ hire of Tennessee head coach Angela Kelly to be the new head of their program is both of those things and then some.
There could be little surprise when ex-coach Chris Petrucelli got the boot after yet another limp season in Austin that culminated in a second successive first round elimination in the NCAA Tournament. Texas hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008 and hasn’t won a major trophy since they won the Big XII Tournament in 2007. For all the promise Petrucelli brought coming into Austin, the team only won the league once and never looked like serious contenders to make it into the College Cup in his reign. Combine that with a team that looked increasingly stale and a bloated salary, and it was hardly surprising to see Petrucelli depart at the end of 2011.
Once news of his ouster became known, speculation as to his replacement cascaded to include just about every big name under the sun. With massive coffers, the reputation of the University of Texas, and a success hungry athletic department, it was not difficult to see why the Longhorns job was seen as being so coveted. There was every chance for the UT brass to have their pick of a candidate pool that likely exceeded a hundred applicants, most of them likely very qualified.
I had been led to believe that Texas’ shortlist was a very short one indeed, and that a big name appointment was likely in the cards. It’s safe to say Kelly’s name was not on that shortlist, and once word trickled out to me late last week, I was left to reset my jaw back into place after reading the news. Among other things, Kelly had seemed like a lifer at Tennessee after helming the program for twelve years. There had been little indication that she would be looking elsewhere, but the lure of Austin appears to have been too much to resist.
Kelly doesn’t sail into Austin without a fair share of major trophies to her record. In Knoxville, the former North Carolina star picked up three straight league titles and also brought home four SEC Tournament titles. The Lady Vols also made five appearances in the Sweet Sixteen over the years in the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, as you might expect, Kelly’s pipeline into Canada has also bore much fruit over the years, with many prime Canadian prospects trekking across the border and into SEC country.
The new Texas boss’ recent record though is not reassuring. Tennessee’s last league title came in 2005, and the Lady Vols spent much of the past half-decade in the shadow of Florida and more recently South Carolina in the SEC. The Knoxville side’s record in the SEC Tournament has been poor as well, with just one appearance in the final in the past six seasons in the miracle run of 2008 that saw the team lift the title in Orange Beach. The fact that Tennessee has won just one major trophy in the past six seasons likely has some in Austin ill at ease with their new boss.
Perhaps most worrying though for Longhorns supporters is Kelly and Tennessee’s recent lack of success in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee actually is going through a longer stretch without a win in the Big Dance than Texas having not won in the NCAA Tournament since 2007, with the Horns’ last win having come in 2008 against Washington State. Tennessee has only qualified for the field of sixty-four twice in the past four seasons, a mark that would’ve been worse had they not stolen the SEC’s auto-bid in 2008.
While you’d certainly commend Kelly and the Lady Vols for a much improved season in 2011, you can’t ignore how this past season ended for Tennessee. Given a seed that some questioned, Tennessee were drawn at home against an Ohio State team that looked dead in the water coming into the NCAA Tournament, with some wondering what the Buckeyes were doing in the Big Dance in the first place. Tennessee lost. Badly. Their 3-0 defeat to the Buckeyes was likely the most disappointing result of the entire tournament.
If anything, there might be a little more verve in Austin with the new blood. Tennessee did score ten more goals in 2011 than Texas, and though Kelly’s Lady Vol teams were unapologetically direct in their style, they were at least able to excite offensively this past season, something the Horns haven’t been able to claim in a while.
Make no mistake though, this is a major gamble from an athletic department who has seen their two previous hires underwhelm as the Longhorns played second fiddle to Texas A&M in the state for much of the past decade and a half. While Texas has ruled the roost in many sports, they have almost always lagged behind on the national stage in soccer. If Kelly turns out to be the figure to lead the team out of the realm of the above-average, most will wonder why the hire was doubted in the first place.
But if Kelly’s recent middling form with Tennessee follows her to Austin, we could well see the Longhorns brass pilloried for what may be seen in retrospect as a lack of ambition in filling the breach left by Petrucelli.