The Pac-12 is the Big Black Hole of women’s college soccer. If you’ve got a weakness, you will be buried. And it won’t be a shallow grave; nine teams were selected to this year’s NCAA tournament.
From 2006 to 2012, Arizona was 6 feet under. It went 9-52-6 in the conference. Is it even possible to be that bad? One year it went 1-16-2 overall, and scored just six goals.
It’s not that the UA wasn’t diligent and selective each time it went through the hiring/firing process. It brought in two successful head coaches from Washington State and another from Iowa State.
But the league is so brutally difficult, so unforgiving, that Arizona kept changing the nameplate at the head coaches’ office, from Fraser to Klein to Tobias to Oyen.
You don’t have to hire a big name coach to compete in the Pac-12. No. 1 Stanford found its coach at St. Mary’s. No. 2 UCLA wooed the head coach at Central Florida. Oregon spent some of Nike’s money to hire the coach of the Saint Louis Billikens.
So when Greg Byrne and his lieutenants gathered at a Phoenix hotel room in December 2012, interviewing six applicants, it was not bowed by the résumé of Tony Amato, whose background included head coaching jobs at Rollins (Florida) College and Texas’ Stephen F. Austin University.
And, oh, yes, a term on the staff at Stetson.
“The thing I looked at,” remembers Byrne, “is that Tony had won big at both Rollins and Stephen F. Austin even though he didn’t have great resources. He figured out a way to make it work.”
On Wednesday morning, Amato was at the Tucson airport at a time of the soccer season most UA coaches were leaving town to look for work. Of all things, Amato was taking his second Arizona team to the NCAA playoffs that begin Friday in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
How impressive is this soccer turnaround? Lute Olson turned a 4-24 Arizona Pac-10 team into one that won 21 games in his second season. Amato probably had less with which to work.
“People didn’t warn me not to take the Arizona job,” Amato said Wednesday, “but some of them got in my ear and raised some questions, like ‘Can you win there? Do you have the resources to be competitive? Are you aware of the challenges that come with the job?’
“I took all of that into account and really welcomed the challenge. I had done some things at Rollins and SFA that hadn’t been done there before.”
You don’t need a pedigree from Stanford or UCLA to win in college soccer. NCAA-bound Cal coach Neil McGuire is from Augusta State. Kevin Boyd, coach of Arizona State’s tournament team, is from Tri-State University, wherever that is.
Amato grew up near Philadelphia — “I was so passionate about soccer that I would be heartbroken when I’d look outside and see it raining on game day,” he said — but moved to Naples, Florida, for his high school days. He wound up at nearby Rollins College, where he became a Sunshine State Conference Hall of Fame soccer player.
He was one of six would-be Arizona coaches interviewed by Byrne, and the one that made the most positive impression.
“It’s very rare when you can hire a proven commodity,” says Byrne. “You make the best calculated hire you can. Tony’s track record made us think he was the right coach at the right time.”
What’s the saying, if you can win in Nacogdoches, Texas, you can win anywhere? Or something like that.
Amato’s Wildcats are 10-7-2 this season, arriving at the NCAA tournament with perhaps the youngest team in the field. The UA uses just three seniors extensively — Gabby Kaufman, Mykaylin Rosenquist and Alex Doller — and finds itself in the NCAA tournament in part because freshman Gabi Stoian scored 13 goals, tied for the second-highest season total in school history.
How difficult is Pac-12 women’s soccer? Stoian didn’t even make the all-conference first team.
Stoian, the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year, from Scottsdale, was the first person Amato recruited when he arrived in Tucson; she had committed to play for the previous staff, then withdrew her pledge after a 2012 season in which the Wildcats finished 2-7-2 in the Pac-12.
How’s that for hitting it out of the park on your first swing?
“Look, I’m a grinder,” Amato said. “I put a plan in place and now I’m grinding it out. I’ve been on the pace of a tornado since I got here. People say, ‘How do you like Tucson? What have you seen?’ I tell them I know the path from my house to the office. It’s non-stop, but that’s what it’s going to take.”
In 2003, Amato got his first big break, the head coaching job for his alma mater, the Division II Rollins Tars.
The Tars’ athletic director was realistic.
“He told me, ‘Hey, if you finish fifth in this league we’ll think it’s outstanding,’” Amato says. “When I left, we were fifth in the country.”