The Texas athletic program has seen some great athletes switch to coaching after calling it quits on their playing careers. Football defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, track and field head coach Mario Sategna and assistant baseball coach Tommy Nicholson had solid collegiate careers, but none of them were considered the best in the history of their sport.
Volunteer soccer coach Kristine Lilly, though, has a legitimate claim to that title. The former stalwart midfielder notched 352 caps for the US Women’s National Team — the most in the history of the sport for men or women — scored 130 international goals and won two World Cups to match her two Olympic Gold Medals.
“That’s the best player in the world,” head coach Angela Kelly said. “From [FC Barcelona forward] Messi on down to [Brazilian women’s national team star] Marta, there isn’t a player on the men’s or women’s side that wouldn’t have the utmost respect for Kristine Lilly, and that’s awesome.”
Lilly’s addition to the coaching staff is especially significant for the players who grew up seeing her on television.
“I feel like everybody watched her,” junior goalkeeper Abby Smith said. “Its just a great opportunity to have one of the best players to come coach.”
In 2010, Lilly played her 23rd and final season for the national team and began to think about coaching soon after her retirement. She interviewed for a spot on the Longhorn staff in 2012 but was hesitant to commit to the job so soon after the birth of her second daughter. By August of 2014, though, Lilly and her family were ready to move to Austin so that she could begin her coaching with Kelly, Lilly’s collegiate teammate at North Carolina and the godmother of her youngest child.
The transition from pitch to sidelines for the first-year coach has already changed her perspective on the game.
“It’s a lot easier to be a critic when you’re watching,” Lilly said. “When you’re in the game, it’s not as easy because its moving so quickly. You have to have the patience and realization to share that with them.”
She will continue that progression Friday at 7 p.m. when the Longhorns (7-5-2, 2-2-0 Big 12) travel to TCU (7-5-3, 0-2-3 Big 12).
But there’s also a balance Lilly has to see. Paid professional athletes can focus all of their attention on getting better, but most collegiate athletes will never make it to the pros and have to balance their academic pursuits with staying fit for elite competition. The dual commitment required to be a student-athlete is not lost on Lilly.
Lilly gave birth to her first daughter during her career, then returned to playing and had the monumental task of balancing motherhood with World Cup aspirations.
“If you want to play soccer, you’ve gotta do the other stuff,” said Lilly while glancing over her shoulder to watch her two toddlers kick a soccer ball back and forth with Kelly. “On the national team now, I think there’s two moms. You can do it.”
The new coach is most concerned with making sure her players enjoy the game that has given her so much.
“I like to see the response of the players. I like to see them get it,” Lilly said. “It’s been fun for me, and that’s what I want them to realize. It can be fun. You can work hard, but it can be fun.”