Considering only four teams were in action last weekend as the Maroons transitioned from winter to spring seasons, it was an unusually busy week up in the second-floor Ratner offices.
Mens soccer head coach John OConnor officially announced his resignation Friday afternoon, leaving his post not only as coach but also as the head of the mens varsity club, the Order of the C. The popular OConnor, the winningest coach in program history, will take the helm of the University of Rhode Island (URI)s up-and-coming Division I program. The move has obvious implications for his wife, womens swimming head coach Sheila OConnor, who will retain her recruiting and other offseason duties through July before relocating to New England with their two children. In an unrelated move, mens swimming head coach George Villarreal has also set in motion his departure after this academic year, considering some other research-based swimming opportunities.
During Thursdays last-minute meeting with his team, one of OConnors players raised his hand to interrupt the emotional coachs struggles to voice his conflicted feelings over the decision. Second-year left back and 2006 captain Eric Kirkenmeier shifted the tone by saying, Coach, congratulations. Were happy for you.
They were stunned. Because they dont actively look for jobs like this, theres the kind of stunned feeling, OConnor said. But they said were happy for you. Were sad that youre leaving, but were happy for you. I appreciate that because their support is important for me. I know for sure I wouldnt be in the position I am now to accept this job if not for the players.
We all thought it was something to do with a player on the team or maybe something exciting, but he just kind of dropped a bomb on us, Kirkenmeier said. Yeah, this is a great program, weve done well, and I think this sport is important at this school, but hes going to a Divison I school where soccer is just as important as basketball and football. For any coach that works hard and is ambitious, thats the next step. For him, for his family, I think its the best move for him and nobody can fault him for making this move. So really, its congratulations; we hope the best for him.
The offer to move up the professional ladder was made last Wednesday. It was an appealing one to OConnor, who has led Chicago to a 1137417 record over his 11-year tenure. He along with womens head coach Amy Reifert will long be remembered at Stagg Field for putting Maroons soccer on the map and making the programs annual powerhouses. He now joins a new womens head coach to take on a similar challenge at URI, where the athletic department has identified soccer as part of its tier one and boasts top-class facilities and talent.
A lot of people dont get that chance to coach at the Division I level, said OConnor, who was an assistant coach for five years at Division I Dartmouth before arriving at Chicago. Its a professional goal that Ive thought about. Its a great opportunity for me, and its a challengeeveryone looks for a challenge in their lives.
Though OConnor has been busy making phone calls to recruits to explain the situation and encourage them to keep their commitments, his control over the mens soccer team has functionally ended. He leaves early next week for alumni-fundraising functions as well as spring practices, and he will mainly be returning to Chicago to participate in the teams banquet March 29 and the Order of the C banquet and Senior Week.
Two current coaches will split his immediate responsibilities on an interim basis. Assistant coach Avi Stopper, a GSB student, will take over spring practices, and both he and Reifert will bear the lions share of the recruiting duties. On the administrative side, wrestling head coach Leo Kocher, who has been with the University for 27 years, will take over as head of the Order of the C.
Theres no good time for a head coach to leave, but, having said that, this is probably as reasonable as it gets, athletic director Tom Weingartner said. Were diving into this and moving forward as quickly as we can.
The athletic department will begin advertising its national search for OConnors coaching replacement later this week. The faculty coaches will be looking for not only an able coaching replacement but also a person who fits the schools academic mission and physical-education teaching responsibilities.
The players, coming off their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 in a 1451 season, are looking for someone who can match or exceed OConnors intensity and continue pushing this program at high levels. Most of all, though, players and fellow coaches respected OConnor for his personability and energy, both of which made him a popular leader and noted recruiter.
Very approachable, super enthusiastic, just really concerned about how the guys were doing and how the team was doing, Kirkenmeier said. I think for the most part its a disappointmentthis was a guy so likable and does his job wellbut on the other hand this is a great new opportunity for some players. It could be a fresh start for them.
OConnors wife Sheila, who has led the swimming programs for 11 years, does not currently have a job lined up at URI, though she will be moving there in the summer and looking at her options then. Interested in both coaching and teaching, she may find a job with the Rams or at a nearby institution.
With each coming off an improved season, the mens soccer, mens swimming, and womens swimming programs will aim to continue their progress despite the new faces at the top.
Its with mixed emotions we announce his departure, Weingartner said. A great move for the OConnor family and Chicagos loss, but, having said that, we think that the position is a very, very attractive one that will get lots and lots of really good candidates.