Successful college coaches seem to follow one of two paths in their ascension. Either a kid seems destined since birth to follow in the footsteps of a coaching parent — think Sean Miller — or they take a wayward route to a lofty destination, driven by success in and a love for a sport.
Arizona women’s soccer coach Tony Amato was well on his way to a career in the medical field when his passion for soccer took over. He was a referee in college, helped as an assistant coach, and — when a hospital internship left him wanting — committed himself to coaching. He is only at Arizona now because of a commitment to improving his leadership and because athletic director Greg Byrne knows how to find talent in unexpected places.
Amato arrived in Arizona two years ago from Stephen F. Austin, a mid-major program in the Southland Conference. Before that, he had a successful seven-year stint at his alma mater, Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
With Arizona’s program on an upward trajectory — the team went 11-8-2 a year ago, tied for the second-most wins in program history — it appears that Amato is here to stay. The coach and his wife, Samantha, have put down roots in Tucson and have a child on the way.
The Star talked to Amato about his career and the program:
It doesn’t sound like you were a 10-year-old with a clipboard. It sounds like you got into coaching because you were just a good soccer player …
A: “I was a really good student, looking to get into the medical field — I was a behavioral biology major — and I had it in my head to get into some allied health. I wanted to make money in college, so I was doing individual coaching sessions; I picked up a U-10 soccer team, at one time I was coaching a JV boys high school team my senior year. I had always had been a student of the game, with good coaches who said you have to study these games, and I was studying the 1994 World Cup, writing these runs down, and I just of loved it. When I started coaching the teams in college, I found myself obsessed with it. How do I make these kids better, how can we win?
“I started talking to my college coach, saying ‘I don’t know if I love the health stuff.’ I did a hospital internship — and he said, ‘You sound like you love being around the game. … Why don’t you try being a coach for your career?’ … I’ll never forget, he took me to lunch, we’re talking about what am I gonna do next, and he said, ‘This is what you have to do. Get a master’s, coach a women’s team, start doing coaching licenses’ and I said, ‘OK, I’ll start doing that.’”
Are you someone who gets more out of the profession from watching a girl who was struggling in the classroom now succeeding than just the soccer part of it?
A: “It’s all equal. There’s nothing like the wins and losses — the emotion that brings out is definitely unexplainable, and I am in coaching, ultimately, because when I was at that crossroads, I decided I actually love the game and like some of the other things. I went this way, and the feeling of when our girls score a goal, or we win a game, it’s unlike anything else I could be doing. I wouldn’t say I get more out of other stuff, I would say that’s what this is. It’s all of these things. It’s working with girls in classroom, working with managers, creating a fan experience — all of that is part of it.”
How was it taking on those roles at Arizona? How does it compare to a Stephen F. Austin?
A: “It definitely feels different in the sense that there’s more branches. Connecting the bridges to the importance of the marketing side of the program, the branding side, the fan experience side, in combination with the recruiting, leadership, all those things. There are just more branches to this than at Rollins or Stephen F. Austin. Those are two great places, and have a lot to them as well, but there’s more segments here.”
What is the biggest difference moving from a mid-major to UA?
A: “It’s not that the talent is so different. When I left (Stephen F. Austin), we were 30 in the RPI and we played Texas A&M in the tournament and it was a very good matchup. … For me, the biggest difference is I feel like our company is bigger (at Arizona). I have seven pillars — leadership, recruiting, coaching, performance, management, analysis, relationships — all these things are bigger than at my other schools. When I have sports performance meeting with staff — there’s a psychologist, a trainer, assistant coaches, strength and conditioning — it’s just bigger.”
What is it going to take to take the next step?
A: “The No. 1 thing is leadership. My leadership is most important. And then I would say recruiting. Recruiting is the backbone of everyone’s program. Everyone says they’re a much better coach when they recruit better players. But the leadership part of how I lead my staff, the girls, the program, is the most important.”
How important is it for a coach to feel like this is my home now? That you’re not a mercenary just taking over a program for a couple years?
A: “That’s where it was different from Rollins and Stephen F. Austin. It always felt like I was trying to move on. I want to build my career, I want more, I want to coach at the highest level. Those are great places, but I wanted to see how far I could take this. Now we’re here, and we can make this a home. We can invest in so many different things, really engross ourselves in the soccer community here. That’s really important to me.
“The first two years it was, ‘How do we get going in the right direction?’ Now I feel like, we’re here, our feet are on the ground, let’s really grow in the community and into different aspects of Tucson. That’s really important. One, for building the program, it’s important to be engaged in the process. Two, it’s comforting as a coach. Like, OK, we’re settled. This is where we live. This is what we do here. It’s more comfortable for everyone.”