Gator Nation News

Becky Burleigh Looks Back, and Ahead

The women’s soccer coach on retirement, teams and, yes, those inevitable tears.

After 26 seasons as the only soccer coach Florida has ever known, Becky Burleigh coached her last match this spring.

She finished with 431 victories – the second most ever by a Division 1 coach – 14 SEC championships and 22 NCAA appearances. Oh, and that one amazing national title in 1998.

Burleigh was actively involved with her teams and with the campus community. We all feel fortunate that she is not going anywhere and will continue to live in Gainesville.

I have to say that she is high on my list of favorite coaches at Florida because she was always accessible, always had a smile and won at such a high rate.

Count this grizzled veteran among the many people who will miss her being on the pitch (see, I do know some soccer terms).

I hope this isn’t our last interview, but I decided to throw 14 questions at her ­– one for every SEC title she won at Florida.

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When did you know you were going to retire? Was there a single moment, an epiphany, when you just knew you were going to call it quits?
That’s a hard one. It wasn’t like, here’s the day I knew. There was a combination of things. COVID-19 kind of told everyone what was important. And the opportunity to teach at Florida was a great one. It was kind of a confluence of things. It wasn’t like, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve been dying to retire.”
 
It was more like I wanted to do some things that aren’t allowed in my rhythm of coaching because of the time restraints. COVID was saying, you better do them while you can.
What are you going to miss the most about being a coach?
Being on a team. I’ve been on a team since I was 10 years old. That’s going to be No. 1, for sure. Being outside for a significant part of the day. I know that seems weird. Also, the close interaction you have with people every day. You know so much about your team. Feeling that connected to a group of people, I don’t know if you get that in a regular job.
What won’t you miss?
Having to make alternate weather plans, which in Florida happens often. I won’t miss busing and travel days that are 12 hour long. If I have to do another drive to Jacksonville to fly to Atlanta to go somewhere else … that’s the one that gets me. But there is a lot I love about coaching. The good thing about travel is you get caught up on your reading.

Retiring UF head soccer coach Becky Burleigh, center, with 2015-16 midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard (BSBA ’16) and 2013-16 forward Savannah Jordan (BA ’16, MS ’20).

Urban Meyer once told me that he would be joined at the hip forever with Chris Leak after they won the national championship. Is there anyone with whom you will always be connected?
A lot of our alumni are a very connected group. I hope that still continues and I can now devote more of my time to them. It’s hard to pick one person out. We are all connected at the hip. That whole team is a very special group because, not only did they win a championship, they started it all.
Why did you think it could be done at Florida?
Because of the success of everyone else and the commitment from Jeremy Foley to all sports. And just seeing the amazing work being done by all the coaches, it was hard to think that it couldn’t be done when you see it happening all around you every single day. To be around those coaches … I was 26 when I started. I needed all of those resources.
You had never been to UF before you came to interview? What was your initial impression of Gainesville and the campus?
The very first night Ian Duvenhage [then the UF men’s tennis coach] and I went downtown to Harry’s. I loved it. I loved the college town feel. I liked the young vibe, not only in Gainesville but the coaching staff. I had been offered some other jobs, but I knew Florida [was the right place for me]. The interview started at 9 and I called my best friend during the lunch break and told her “I don’t need to see any more; if they offer me this job, I’m in.” It was just a vibe, an immediate vibe that I knew I would fit in, in terms of the town, the people, everything.
Do you think you’ll be able to go to a Florida soccer match?
I will, but I want to respect the new coaching staff and don’t want them to ever feel like they have anyone looking over their shoulder. I want them to feel like it is their program. I would totally respect boundaries. It’s a little weird with me being in town, so I will be over-protective of those boundaries early.
What Gator coach did you bond with the most?
[Track and field coach Mike] “Mouse” [Holloway] and I go way back. We used to play spades together. [Women’s tennis coach] Roland [Thornqvist] because of his love for soccer. Mary [volleyball coach Mary Wise] is right down the hall.
 
That’s a hard one. I don’t know if I could pick one.
 
One of the things I loved was being in the Lem [Lemerand Center] because there was such a large group of coaches. The Lem had its own vibe. Everyone was jealous of it because we had more fun. I’m sad in a way, even though I’m happy soccer is getting a new building, but I’m happy I’m going out in the Lem.

Since her first interview at UF, Burleigh and UF women’s tennis head coach Roland Thornqvist have remained friends.

Urban Meyer once told me that he would be joined at the hip forever with Chris Leak after they won the national championship. Is there anyone with whom you will always be connected?
A lot of our alumni are a very connected group. I hope that still continues and I can now devote more of my time to them. It’s hard to pick one person out. We are all connected at the hip. That whole team is a very special group because, not only did they win a championship, they started it all.
Why did you think it could be done at Florida?
Because of the success of everyone else and the commitment from Jeremy Foley to all sports. And just seeing the amazing work being done by all the coaches, it was hard to think that it couldn’t be done when you see it happening all around you every single day. To be around those coaches … I was 26 when I started. I needed all of those resources.
You had never been to UF before you came to interview? What was your initial impression of Gainesville and the campus?
The very first night Ian Duvenhage [then the UF men’s tennis coach] and I went downtown to Harry’s. I loved it. I loved the college town feel. I liked the young vibe, not only in Gainesville but the coaching staff. I had been offered some other jobs, but I knew Florida [was the right place for me]. The interview started at 9 and I called my best friend during the lunch break and told her “I don’t need to see any more; if they offer me this job, I’m in.” It was just a vibe, an immediate vibe that I knew I would fit in, in terms of the town, the people, everything.
Do you think you’ll be able to go to a Florida soccer match?
I will, but I want to respect the new coaching staff and don’t want them to ever feel like they have anyone looking over their shoulder. I want them to feel like it is their program. I would totally respect boundaries. It’s a little weird with me being in town, so I will be over-protective of those boundaries early.

During Burleigh’s 26-year career at UF, she won 14 SEC regular-season titles, 12 SEC tournament wins, 22 NCAA Tournament appearances, one national title and a total of more than 500 victories. She is pictured here after winning the 1996 SEC Championship, alongside other SEC Champion coaches Steve Spurrier and Mary Wise.

Has there ever been a good movie made about soccer?
Well, there was a good series, “Ted Lasso.” Sylvester Stallone in “Victory” is so bad. Watching Stallone playing goal is entertainment though. “Bend It Like Beckham” is certainly not it. I’ll have to answer, “No.”
Does it seem surreal that 27 years have passed?
100 percent. Exclamation point. Exclamation point. It’s hard to even fathom. I grew up at Florida. My entire adult life was at Florida. The hardest part is when I think about how I was 26 and the players were 18 to 22. Now, I’m way over 26 and the players are still 18 to 22. The gap continues to widen.
What does the future hold for Becky Burleigh?
“What Drives Winning” [a book series, online workshop and speaker’s bureau focused on sharing insider tips from top athletics personnel,] has been a little passion project of mine the last few years, and we’re going to put it into a master’s degree program at UF in the College of Health and Human Performance. [WhatDrivesWinning.com]
 
It’s something I had volunteered my time to. It’s really cool, actually, because it’s coaching but it’s all sports. It keeps me involved in coaching in a different way and hopefully inspires a new generation of coaches.
 
I’m going to travel. I want to do some fall things. I want to go to the U.S. Open [tennis] and see a change of seasons.
What was your best non-championship win?
That’s a tough one. I will say this, I don’t think any of us should take any win for granted. Every win should be celebrated in some way.
How about your toughest loss?
Every time you lose in the postseason, the abruptness, it is the worst part of coaching. You go from being with your team 24-7, and then there’s nothing. And you know that team will never exist again.
Last one, Becky. What player made you cry the easiest?
With all this retirement crap, too many of them. I will tell you this, Sara Yohe (BSBA ’00) holds the freshman and career record for crying at Florida. I’ll go with her because when someone cries it’s hard not to join in.