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Anson Dorrance
S.L. Price
December 07, 1998
Anson Dorrance, the legendary North Carolina women's soccer coach, is sure he understands what makes a female athlete tick, and he has 15 national titles to prove it. So why are two former Tar Heels suing him for sexual harassment?
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December 07, 1998

Anson Dorrance

Anson Dorrance, the legendary North Carolina women's soccer coach, is sure he understands what makes a female athlete tick, and he has 15 national titles to prove it. So why are two former Tar Heels suing him for sexual harassment?

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He's curious to see how he handles it. Dorrance's life has been a comfortable one; born in Bombay, raised in former colonial capitals—Addis Ababa, Calcutta, Nairobi, Singapore—and educated in Switzerland, he developed an expatriate's adaptability and used sports to fit in. But he has been nagged by the knowledge that he has never been tested. "My generation fought the Vietnam War," he says. "I didn't go, so how do I know what I'm made of? How do you and I know if we have any courage? I lead an incredibly gilded life."

It's a late afternoon in October, two days after the Virginia win. So far, Dorrance says, "I'm doing well. I can't say it's been a good experience, but it's confirmed what I've always believed about loyalty."

He begins speaking about the morning when news of the lawsuit broke. His family was at home. Michelle put on a Ben Harper CD and kept replaying the song I'll Rise, with lyrics by Maya Angelou. "We had it cranking all day," Anson says. "It got so we could sing most of it. That's when I was sure Michelle was going to be O.K. My youngest daughter, Natalie, typed the words out for me. I'm going to put them on the wall with If."

If, Rudyard Kipling's ode to stiff-upper-lip manhood, is Dorrance's favorite poem. "Kipling was the poet laureate of the British Empire, and I was born and raised in the British Empire," Dorrance says. "He is my poet laureate." This is not hard to believe. In his ramrod posture, his clipped diction and his speeches about honor, Dorrance carries more than a hint of imperial rectitude. He would look right at home in a pith helmet and jodhpurs. If, he says, "is about reconstructing things that have been destroyed. It says that even if people are going to destroy you, don't have any rancor. It's about being a positive life force. It's everything I believe in. It's everything I teach."


Oct. 22, 1994
Dear Debbie,
Just a quick note to let you know how much you mean to me. When I saw you for the first time in my [youth] camp four summers ago, I liked what I saw. I knew back then that very shortly my program was going to get its greatest challenge. When Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm graduated, when the ten seniors graduated we were going to need an extraordinary group to carry on an impossible tradition. I never dreamed I would end up with someone like you. You are perfect...amazing player, brilliant recruiter, eternal optimist that positively helps team chemistry just by being here.

These are trying times...the tie to Notre Dame, the loss to Duke, everyone questioning themselves.... That is why winning in these years will mean the most. You are my rock.... I know that you will always be there as a beacon of strength in these storms of doubt. I don't know how I won your loyalty or trust but I cherish it. Just like I cherish you. My respect for you runs deep, and, like your sweet note showed, it goes beyond your soccer prowess into the core of who you are. I am trying hard not to lace these thoughts with affection but as you can tell I care for you Debbie, and all that you do.

He was eight when he first saw a man die. The rebels came charging past his family's compound in Addis Ababa, rushing after fleeing soldiers loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie. One soldier tried to surrender and began praying for his life. A rebel pulled out a pistol and fired a bullet into the base of his skull. His corpse was left where it fell, helmet askew. At times, bullets whistled in the air, one even pinging into the chair Anson's father had just vacated. None of this touched Anson. Not in the way you'd expect. He thought it was all "absolutely hilarious," he says, like a good war movie. He wouldn't have minded getting that helmet.

Only once did it dawn on him that being the son of an American oil executive in wartorn Ethiopia might be sticky. His mother was driving him and his three younger siblings to the U.S. Embassy while bullets flew around them. "My mother kept screaming at us to put our heads down," Dorrance says, "and I kept peeking up because for me this was exciting! I'm not going to miss this movie, Mom! Then she yelled at me, and the panic in her voice was the one thing that panicked me the whole war."

Addis Ababa gave him something else. There, Anson met M'Liss Gary, daughter of an Air Force attaché. Their families were friends and would go camping together up by Lake Awasa. One night, all the kids were playing hide-and-seek, and Anson was it. M'Liss stayed close and watched him counting in the dark. When he was finished, he went and sat next to her. "How'd you find me?" she asked.

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