The Path To A Milestone
Sitting in his new office next to his new field, John Hedlund can't believe he is still at North Texas after 15 years. Surrounded by his conference championship trophies, his coach of the year plaques and pictures from his playing days, Hedlund think
Sitting at 199 wins, Hedlund and the 2009 North Texas women's soccer team have two opportunities this weekend to push the head coach to a milestone. In NCAA Division I soccer, Hedlund is the 32nd winningest coach by victories. The list is topped by names like Anson Dorrance of North Carolina, Len Tsantiris of Connecticut, Chris Petrucelli at Texas and Jeff Hooker at Denver.
For me I take it one year at a time," said Hedlund. "And I never look past the game we are getting ready to play. I really believe that mindset alone has really helped my career. Also If you believe each year will be your last then you will put so much more energy into the season."
Entering his 15th season, the North Texas soccer program under Hedlund has been a model of success. The Mean Green has never had a losing season in its 14 seasons, won at least 11 games in each of those years, and reached the NCAA Tournament twice. Since the 1995 season, North Texas has the 14th most wins in the nation with 199. At home, he has posted an astounding record of 75-6-5 and only in the last four years has Hedlund had a soccer field to call his own.
"Once I get to that 200 number it will be very special to me," said Hedlund. "It’s a milestone that I can look back on when my coaching career is over and be very proud of all the wins. The memories shared by former players and coaches on the field is what I will remember most and how they were a big part of the success of this program."
The memories and his path to 200 victories began back in 1994 when Hedlund was hoping to achieve win No. 1 as the head men's soccer coach. He did not get that far because 1994 ended up being a weird year for John Hedlund. It started out great. He was named the head men's soccer coach at North Texas after Richard Lowe retired and was later named to the North Texas Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
"I was excited when I was named the head coach of the men's team," said Hedlund, who had been the assistant coach under Lowe for three seasons. "I rolled up my sleeves, and started to put a roster together. I went out and recruited, which I love to do. I put a pretty strong team together, one that I thought could compete with SMU. We were never able to see the product."
Hedlund was never able to see how good of a men's coach he was because in the spring of 1994, the men's soccer team was cut due to gender equality. The men's soccer and men's tennis teams were eliminated, but the school was adding women's soccer.
"The former athletic director at North Texas brought me in his office and told me he had good news and bad news. The bad news was about letting go the men's program, but the good news was asking if I wanted to coach the women's team."
Hedlund had mixed emotions. On one hand, he was hurt by what happened to the men's program. He was going to have to tell the young men he recruited that they didn't have a team anymore. On the other hand, he had an opportunity to start a program and accept the challenge of coaching women, with which he had little experience.
Before he could become the head women's coach; however, he had to finish his short-lived duties as the men's coach.
"The longest walk of my entire life was the one from the athletic director's office to the team meeting room. Telling the guys that the program was canceled was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do. That wasn't easy for me."
Hedlund worked hard at placing his guys at other programs and then he began the process of starting the women's team. He started with the club team at North Texas.
The Early Years
"I found out we had a pretty good club team here. I went to watch them play a few times. I talked to a few to see if they were interested, and I ended up moving about seven or eight players over to the varsity."
The club team was his base for the inaugural 1995 season and several of those players earned scholarships and made an impact on his Hedlund's early teams. Mary Chisenhall and Cristi Hendrickson both tied for the team lead with 18 games played after starting out their college careers with the club team. He added transfers, including goalkeeper Amy Smyser from Michigan State, and local players from Dallas.
"Right away, we were competitive," said Hedlund about his first season. "We took Texas Tech to overtime and beat LSU. We had a winning season. That was the goal from the beginning - to put a product on the field each year that the university and the athletic department could be proud of. I feel that we have done that each year. Even back then, we found ways to win."
"The Texas Tech game we almost won," said Hedlund. "They got a late penalty kick. I remember that because I ran out on the field yelling at the official. Now that I look back at it, I can't believe I didn't get thrown out of the game. I was learning what I could and couldn't do."
Hedlund soon began to realize that coaching women was a lot different than coaching men.
"I tried to coach women like I always coached men back then. And it really didn't work for me. Even though we were winning each year, I had to learn how to handle women, how to get the most out of them on the field. With the men, you can be a little forward and get in their face. With women, you can't do that. You have to go about it in different ways. With women sometimes all you need is a long stare. Back then, I was still learning."
Hedlund was learning as he went, but he was also drawing on what he learned as an All-American player at Midwestern State, as a member of the U.S. National Team and a professional player with the Dallas Sidekicks.
"I learned from the coaches that I played for," said Hedlund. "I learned from Manfred Schellscheidt, who was my national team coach. I learned things from Gordon Jago, who was the head coach of the Dallas Sidekicks. I learned from Howard Patterson, who was my college coach."
"With Howard Patterson, he was a fitness freak. I've learned that in order to play at a high level my team has to be fit. He taught me a lot of conditioning drills and how to push players. Gordon Jago was a master at bonding with his players and making his players feel good and not play tight in games. And Manfred Schellscheidt, I learned a lot of tactical things, stuff that I do on the field, competitive drills, constantly competing hard in practice."
Despite the learning curve, Hedlund and his teams kept winning. They went only 2-4 in the Big West in 1996 but by 1999, they had posted a 7-1-1 conference record and ended the season by beating Texas, 2-1, in overtime at home.
"Texas was huge," said Hedlund. "I remember that. We played them at the intramural field next to the Beer Barn. The game was really muddy, it was raining. It was Coach Petrucelli's first year at Texas. He had just won a national championship at Notre Dame. We beat them in overtime, and I remember him coming up to me after the game. He said, ‘great game, but we will never come here again.' "
And the Longhorns have never returned to Denton. North Texas did travel to Austin to play them in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
One of the players that played a big role in the 1999 season was Krista Davey, one of Hedlund's first big recruits. She went on to play professionally with Mia Hamm and the Washington Freedom and was inducted into the North Texas Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005. Hedlund has a framed team picture in his office of that Washington Freedom team, autographed by Davey.
"Krista came up for a visit from Houston, and she wanted to stay close to home," said Hedlund. "We showed her around and somehow got her to come here without the facilities that we have now. That was a sell job. She was my first big recruit and from there we started getting kids like Teresa Vise, Christy Johnson, Marilyn Marin, Melinda Pina, Dani Slavonic. It just keeps going."
It wasn't until 2006 that North Texas moved into its on-campus soccer field located in the Mean Green Village. Along with the field, came new locker rooms, team meeting rooms and offices.
Playing In The Sun Belt
Despite not having an on-campus field, the Mean Green kept winning. In 2000, North Texas took another big step by joining the Sun Belt. The Sun Belt was attractive for Hedlund because it required less travel and the conference tournament champion received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
That automatic bid would elude the Mean Green for four straight years as NT lost in the conference finals from 2000-03. Denver defeated North Texas three straight times in the finals, and a rivalry was born. North Texas is 4-10-1 all-time against Denver, but the record perhaps does not illustrate how important each of those games were.
In 2003, Hedlund lost one of his toughest games, a 1-0 overtime decision to Denver in the conference championship.
"That was probably the hardest games that I have ever been involved in," said Hedlund. "I thought that was going to be the year that I get the monkey off my back and beat Denver. After we lost in overtime, I remember just sitting hunched over on the bench. Jeff (Hooker, the head coach at Denver) came over to me and said, ‘I'm really sorry. I know you wanted this bad. You have a great team. You'll get there.' "
Hedlund didn't have to wait long. The Mean Green won the championship the following year in 2004, beating Denver in the semifinals and then defeating FIU in the championship game.
"We came back that next year and beat Denver in the semis. That was probably the best game we have ever played. If I had to pick one game in my career, that was it. And Denver was loaded. I remember Jeff (Hooker) coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘Man, you kicked our butts.'"
North Texas repeated in 2005 with another conference championship and bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The win that stands out in Hedlund's mind in 2005, though, was against SMU.
"Beating SMU, 3-1, stands out. We beat them at their place. I remember Heather Hutyra's direct kick from 30 yards out, upper ninety. That was one of our better teams. One that could not only compete with SMU but also nationally. "
Hedlund's teams continued to win in 2006, 2007 and 2008 but they had to come home from the conference tournament empty-handed. He wants to get back to the wins in 2004 and 2005, but he also has bigger goals.
"For me, I want to get back to the NCAA Tournament again, but to get through a weekend or two and make a deep run in the tournament. That is my goal as a coach. In order to do that, I think I have to have a very, very confident team to go down to a Texas and beat that type of team at home."
"Did I think I would still be here 15 years ago? No, I don’t think anyone feels they will last at the same institution for that period of time but the University, athletic dept and administration have been first class and have always treated me and my family very well."