There was a time, Anson Dorrance will tell you, when he knew nothing about women. Sure, he had been exposed to them: At age seven he came home a schoolboy boxing champion, and his younger sister, Maggie, promptly pulled on the gloves and drove one of his teeth down his throat. Around that time, too, he saw that his mother was the best athlete of all the adults he knew, defeating everyone in tennis and, he says, regularly "beating the s—- out of my dad in golf." But that kind of power only broadened the mystery, and attending an all-boys boarding school didn't help—though Dorrance did notice that when he donned makeup and dresses to play women in school plays, the boys became more attentive. Always a Juliet, never a Romeo: His first year as a student at North Carolina, Dorrance asked just one woman for a date. She turned him down. "The last time I ever asked a woman out in my life," he says.
Even in his late 20s he was "intimidated by women and girls," Dorrance says, and the early days of marriage left him as perplexed as ever. "He didn't know how to trust women; he didn't know how to communicate," says his wife of 24 years, M'Liss. "He'd say, 'You women are strange creatures.' He didn't like the way we reacted to things: He thought we got too fazed."
But now Dorrance is sure he knows women as well as any man alive. His monumental achievement in founding and building North Carolina's women's soccer program—which will be gunning for its 16th national championship in its 20 years of existence at this weekend's Final Four in Greensboro, N.C.—has done more than elevate him to the level of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and former Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable as one of the greatest Division I coaches in history. It has also made him an expert. Having amassed a 441-16-11 record coaching women and having coached the Carolina men and women simultaneously from 1979 to '88, the 47-year-old Dorrance is seen as an authority in the minefield of gender differences. He gives more than a dozen speeches a year to corporations on managing the sexes. Many players believe he has an understanding of women that goes beyond coaching. "He knows how women work, the way we think," says Tar Heels midfielder Tiffany Roberts.
"He taps into the core of your being," says national team assistant coach and former Carolina player Lauren Gregg.
Just ask him. "Women are more sensitive and more demanding of each other, and that combination is horrible," Dorrance says. "Men are not sensitive and not demanding of each other, and that's a wonderful combination for building team chemistry. We can play with guys who are absolute jackasses. We have no standards for their behavior as long as they can play: Just get me the ball. But if a girl's a jerk, even though she gets me the ball, there's going to be a huge chemistry issue: I don't want to play with her. But she serves you the best ball on the team! I would much rather play with so-and-so. But you're terrible together! I would rather play with her. Why? The other girl's a bitch."
He shrugs. "It's unfathomable to me," he says, "but for them this is major."
Such talk makes feminists cringe, but Dorrance never backs off. In 1994 The Citadel deposed him as an expert witness during its attempt to keep Shannon Faulkner from enrolling as the military school's first female cadet. The judge, declaring that his ruling wouldn't be based on gender differences, never let Dorrance testify. Big mistake, Dorrance says.
"I was going to tell him, 'If you bring women in here, you're either going to destroy the women or you're going to destroy The Citadel,' " Dorrance says. "You can't bring women into that environment and develop them the way you can men. Sure enough, they brought Faulkner in, and all the things I predicted in the deposition happened to Shannon. Women don't respond to that atmosphere."
What they do respond to, Dorrance believes, is the climate he has established in Chapel Hill—and for almost two decades it has been impossible to disagree. Since he became the women's soccer coach in 1979, North Carolina's success has been so spectacular that even the big boys have paid heed. "This is a women's soccer school," Dean Smith said last year before he retired as the men's basketball coach. "We're just trying to keep up with them."
Led by a parade of Tar Heels alumnae who have marched onto the national team and into the college coaching ranks, women's soccer has boomed in the U.S., and the country has become the preeminent power in the game. In 1991 Dorrance pulled off an astonishing double when, six days after North Carolina claimed its sixth NCAA championship in a row, he led the U.S. to the title in the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup, in China. No one has done more to shape U.S. women's soccer than Dorrance, and nothing has shaped his approach more than his belief that female athletes view competition differently from men and need a personal bond with teammates and coaches to succeed.