O’Connor leaves men’s soccer to take URI job

By Sean Ahmed

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.

Men’s soccer head coach John O’Connor officially announced his resignation Friday afternoon, leaving his post not only as coach but also as the head of the men’s varsity club, the Order of the C. The popular O’Connor, 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, women’s swimming head coach Sheila O’Connor, who will retain her recruiting and other offseason duties through July before relocating to New England with their two children. In an unrelated move, men’s swimming head coach George Villarreal has also set in motion his departure after this academic year, considering some other research-based swimming opportunities.

During Thursday’s last-minute meeting with his team, one of O’Connor’s players raised his hand to interrupt the emotional coach’s 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. We’re happy for you.”

“They were stunned. Because they don’t actively look for jobs like this, there’s the kind of stunned feeling,” O’Connor said. “But they said we’re happy for you. We’re sad that you’re leaving, but we’re happy for you. I appreciate that because their support is important for me. I know for sure I wouldn’t 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, we’ve done well, and I think this sport is important at this school, but he’s 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, that’s the next step. For him, for his family, I think it’s the best move for him and nobody can fault him for making this move. So really, it’s 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 O’Connor, who has led Chicago to a 113–74–17 record over his 11-year tenure. He along with women’s 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 women’s 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 don’t get that chance to coach at the Division I level,” said O’Connor, who was an assistant coach for five years at Division I Dartmouth before arriving at Chicago. “It’s a professional goal that I’ve thought about. It’s a great opportunity for me, and it’s a challenge—everyone looks for a challenge in their lives.”

Though O’Connor has been busy making phone calls to recruits to explain the situation and encourage them to keep their commitments, his control over the men’s 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 team’s 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 lion’s 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.

“There’s 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. “We’re diving into this and moving forward as quickly as we can.”

The athletic department will begin advertising its national search for O’Connor’s 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 school’s academic mission and physical-education teaching responsibilities.

The players, coming off their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 in a 14–5–1 season, are looking for someone who can match or exceed O’Connor’s intensity and continue pushing this program at high levels. Most of all, though, players and fellow coaches respected O’Connor 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 it’s a disappointment—this was a guy so likable and does his job well—but on the other hand this is a great new opportunity for some players. It could be a fresh start for them.”

O’Connor’s 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 men’s soccer, men’s swimming, and women’s swimming programs will aim to continue their progress despite the new faces at the top.

“It’s with mixed emotions we announce his departure,” Weingartner said. “A great move for the O’Connor family and Chicago’s 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.”