Profile of a Trailblazer
Coach Kim Wyant
NYU men’s soccer head coach Kim Wyant is no stranger to making history. As a player, her list of “firsts” is staggering: A starter in the first ever NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship game (she was also named Tournament MVP), first goalkeeper for the USWNT (in which she would go on to make 16 appearances, including the team’s first ever win and first ever shutout,) a standout in the inaugural season of the USL-W League (North America’s first professional and semi-professional women’s soccer league), winner of the first USL-W League championship.
Her trailblazing did not stop after she stepped into the world of coaching. For almost 25 years, Wyant has been impacting the game through her leadership at the club, professional and college levels. Considering that Kim Wyant breaks new ground like the rest of us breathe air, it only made sense that, when the New York University men’s soccer program found itself with no coach just one game into the 2015 season, it turned to this legend in the midst of the crisis. Wyant assumed the role as head coach of the program and thus, became the only current female head coach of an NCAA men’s soccer team.
Last month, while finishing her fourth season at the helm of the Violets, Wyant added another accolade to her list: Believed to be the only female head coach to guide a men’s team into the NCAA tournament. NYU navigated one of the country’s toughest conferences and made it to the Big Dance for the first time in eight years with a 12-4-3 record.
I spoke to Coach Wyant about her rise to this role, what the experience has been like and her thoughts on, what may be an elephant in the room for some but that is a non-issue for her, her staff, her players and so many others.
Hannah: I want to start off by saying congratulations on making it to the NCAA tournament this year and also, as a Swarthmore alum, for knocking out Haverford.
Coach: They have a very good team. It was a very good game. It’s unfortunate it came down to penalty kicks. You can’t explain some things that happen...It went to the 7th round. And then, you know, the next night we were on the unfortunate end of the penalty kick shootout…In fact, three games came down to PKs on that weekend at that Montclair State site. They were good games, they were even games. It’s a crappy way to win, it’s a crappy way to lose.
Hannah: I imagine how exciting it must be for the program. It’s been 8 years since your last appearance in the tournament.
Coach: It has apparently been 8 years and I mean, when you think about it, it’s so hard to get to the NCAA tournament. It’s very hard. Most people don’t realize really how hard it is to get to the NCAA tournament... I mean some programs go a stretch where it’s once in every 15 years that they get to the tournament. I thought, obviously it’s great that we got in. 8 years is really not that big a deal.
Personally and for the group I was coaching, especially with my group of seniors, it was just really gratifying. To see those guys go out the way that they did and to know what we’ve been through together with the coaching change so abruptly their freshmen year. And just, on a personal level, to know how hard I have worked and how hard our staff has worked to be able to see the results in four seasons. It’s very gratifying. I am very proud of that. There’s no question.
Hannah: You’ve done a couple interviews about obviously your pioneering role as the first and only female head coach of a men’s NCAA soccer program. I’ve perused many of the documents available to see if, three years out from your appointment, that you remain as the sole one.
Coach: A lot of people are interested in talking about how I am the only female coach which is fine, I am happy to talk about it. It’s really a non issue I think. I am like the woodwork now I feel like *laughs*. I think I am the only coach in Division III men’s soccer that has played for the national team... There would have to be some sort of research done to confirm that. I’ve been around for so long, I know a lot of the men’s coaches at D1. I know a lot of the guys who have played D1 soccer and who played for the USMNT. What they’re doing is they’re coaching in the men’s professional leagues or they’re coaching in D1 men’s soccer. You just go down the list -- Chris Armus, Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna. Any player that came on the men’s side from the national team programs are getting those big jobs right away.
Hannah: Looking at how you got this job, you ended up taking on the role because the men’s head coach at NYU had to step down due to family reasons at the start of the season. You were tapped out of that situation as someone who was well-qualified and perhaps kind of knew the program as an assistant on the women’s side.
Coach: It’s either the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time *laughs*. For me and for my professional development, it’s definitely the right place at the right time which is my message to a lot of young coaches who are trying to map out their career. How am I going to get “here”? You never really know how you’re going to get there. You think, this is what I want do. This is the ultimate outcome. Now, how am I going to get there? What I just say is, you have to make sure you’re doing your education. You have to make sure you’re getting as many opportunities as you can to get experience. You’ve got to be good for sure. You’ve got to be confident. All those things, but the opportunities will present themselves and when they present themselves, you’re ready.
Hannah: So, you did have an ultimate goal of being a head coach of an NCAA men’s soccer program?
Coach: No. Absolutely not *laughs*... [In 2011], I had dialed it back a little because my kids were born in 2006 and 2008 and in that moment in my life, I wanted to spend time at home with them. I was staying involved in soccer to the level I wanted to be involved. I was coaching a youth girls soccer team in Long Island... which kept me connected, busy but not too committed with my career. It was perfect.
My friend Michelle Canning who had started her coaching career with me like 20 years ago landed the head job on the women’s side at NYU. At the time, I felt like I was ready to just mentor as many young coaches as I could and just be available in that respect. So, I told Michelle that I would be her volunteer assistant coach and I ended up being a very, very part time role on the women’s staff in NYU...I was at a lot of home games so of course the administration knew who I was and appreciated me being on staff. I had no clue about the men’s side because I was so little connected to NYU otherwise.
There was this event that happened where one game into the season, in 2015, the head coach on the men’s team had to resign. So, the way it was told to me was that the senior associate AD [Janice Quinn] basically picked up the phone when she walked out of the office with the news, called Michelle Canning to come to his office, she came down. It was basically, “Look Joe Behan has just resigned and we need a coach for the men’s team and we’re gonna ask Kim to do it. Are you okay with this?” because I was technically on the women’s staff so I thought that was great that they were concerned about how this was going to impact the women’s team. I always say this is all Michelle Canning’s fault *laughs*...So that’s how it happened.
The AD called me, I remember it was a Wednesday night and said this is the situation and we want you to take over the program. You need to let us know tomorrow by noon time. It was like 6pm on a Wednesday night *laughs*.
Hannah: Wow. Big decision and not a lot of time to think about it. You spoke a little bit about the AD at NYU and it leads to thinking about the sort of attitudes and worldviews that people have at a school like that. What do you believe the role of NYU as a progressive, social-justice oriented institution was in your appointment?
Coach: Well I think that’s a big part of it. They already have female leadership. The athletic director is a male. The senior associate athletic director, directly under him, is a female, which is really the person who handles the day-to-day operations of any athletics department. The senior associate AD is more the liaison between athletics staff and faculty and some of the big items that are happening. Managing the coaches, the hirings, the kids and the parents, all the moving pieces. So, when you have female leadership in those roles already, I think there’s obviously more chances for these types of situations happening.
Obviously, NYU is a very progressive, liberal institution and it is ahead of the curve on a lot of the social issues. So, the one place it could happen is NYU and the one place it could be successful is at NYU because the student body is different. These kids are very smart, Type A personalities. They are exposed to a lot of female leadership already in this institution. A lot of the players that I coach have female professors that are rockstars in their industry. They’re gonna have female leaders when they go into corporate America. This was not anything that was completely out of left field for NYU.
Hannah: That makes sense. So, it goes without saying that not every institution that you come into contact with or play during the season has the same head on their shoulders that NYU does. Do you feel like you have experienced any microaggressions or more explicit sorts of discrimination during your time as head coach so far?
Coach: I thankfully can say that I have never experienced any sort of uncomfortableness whatsoever in the four seasons that I have been doing this. I would be being dishonest if I said I wasn’t self conscious at times when I first stepped into the role because I was but I would quickly put it out of my mind because I would say that really doesn’t matter -- what matters is my professionalism on the field, what matters is how I am conducting myself and all of those things. That’s what matters.
I don’t know how other players feel about it because I do think, now that I am four years into this and have coached something like 60 games, I have made impressions on players from other teams that I meet and other coaches. There’s a lot of similarity in our schedule from year to year so there are coaches I see all the time. Like I said, I am the woodwork now, they’ll see me and say, “Hey Kim, how are you doing?” but I would think initially there’s got to be some curiosity among players and other coaches of you know “what is this?”, “how is this?”. But hopefully, I am being successful and hopefully, I am conducting myself in a professional way so I am making positive impressions on everybody that I am coming into contact with.
And that’s also true when I am out recruiting. I just got back from Florida where there is a big recruiting event down there and I met a woman on the plane ride back to New York who was with a Connecticut boys team. I struck up a conversation with her and she’s like, “Oh you’re like this famous coach” and I said, “No, you know, I am only famous in my mind” *laughs* and she said, “No, we all know about you and we’re all very proud”. It’s great to hear those things but I can’t carry that burden for all the female coaches out there. I can just do what I can do and do my job and do it to the best of my ability and hopefully people realize that it’s a non-issue.
Hannah: I was talking with some former teammates and friends about this upcoming conversation with you and I was asking to see if they had any questions they would want to ask someone in your role. I had one friend suggest, “Why are you so cool?!”
Coach: *Laughs* It’s very interesting in society. I mean, if you think about this and you just flip it around, let’s say that a female coach on a women’s soccer team quits one game into the season and then a male takes over from the men’s side. No one thinks twice about that. Not an issue whatsoever. It’s just seamless in society. There’s no question of whether that person can do the job. There’s no question that that person is qualified. There’s no question that that person who coaches men can coach women and can do it successfully. There’s not a blink of an eye but when the reverse happens, it’s like “Woah, woah, wait a minute. Hold on here. Is this gonna work?”
Hannah: Did you feel like your style changed when you started coaching men? Was your demeanor tougher, fitness punishments harsher? Anything like that?
Coach: These were questions I had for myself when I was thinking about whether I should take the job or not take the job. My head was spinning and my mind was playing tricks on me but thankfully I have the experience and the maturity and have my own mentors that I have relied on. What I said to myself was, “I’ve been successful as a coach, I’ve been successful as a player and I’m not changing anything”. Obviously what I have been doing is good, it’s correct, it’s led me to the results that I’ve wanted to get. There’s no need to change anything.
The way that I treat players whether its male or female is the same. If I had changed the way that I do things then it comes across to players. They pick those things up. They know whether you’re being authentic, whether you’re being real, whether you’re being sincere. They know these things. I was just myself and I said, “I’m just gonna be myself”. I’ve got a lot of other issues and a lot of other problems and a lot of other things to deal with going into taking over a team that has just lost their coach so let me just focus on this crisis. I got some short-term goals I need to deal with and then I got some medium and long-term.
That’s what I had set out to do is just do deal with the fact that a team had just lost their coach. Let me put myself in the position of these players. How would I feel? I have either been recruited by this coach or I’ve played for this coach for one, two or three years. Once I started to break it down in terms of problem solve this, problem solve that then it really kinda helped to calm my mind down and not think about all these auxiliary things that were obviously the big elephant in the room -- here’s a female coaching a men’s team.
Hannah: There’s often a “model” set up within a women’s program that has a male head coach at a high level. The male coach will often have female assistants that take on the role of confidante or someone who can offer something to these female players that the head coach can’t provide somehow. Maybe they are just a person who is easier to talk to, who can relate more. You have male assistants at NYU. Do you feel that there’s that sort of configuration or expectation (in the reverse) within your program?
Coach: When I took the job, it was a crisis, there was a fire burning. When I decided to do the job, I knew that I could pull a staff together immediately. That comes from my experience and my longevity in the game because, of course, that was one of the things that was on my mind when I was taking the job. How can be successful so how can I solve these problems?
First thing I need is a staff...That was my main focus. It wasn’t, I have to have a male to kind of balance it out or to deal with some of these nuances that you are talking about. I need strong, experienced coaches who I can bring to the table right now so we can settle this down. That’s what I was thinking. That was the initial 2015 season.
Then when I set about hiring Joe and getting a full-time assistant. I was just looking for the best assistant I could find for the resources I had available to me. That’s it. If it’s a male, fine. If it’s a female, great. It was just about finding the best assistant that I could because that persons is with me daily. Joe is a perfect fit in a lot of ways. He’s very good. He’s young, so he bridges the generational issues that you have as a coach as you get older. I’m older, I’m a little bit removed from an 18 year old and Joe is sort of in between. You need these generational bridges between players and coaches. That’s always helpful. For me, it’s all about who can do the job the best.
Hannah: How would you describe your dynamic with the guys on the team?
Coach: I’ve had to get better at this as I’ve been at NYU for four seasons. I wouldn’t say I’m antisocial but I am a little bit quiet and a little bit removed emotionally...I’m finding that, first of all, these kids are growing up and they are more in touch with their emotional side. It’s more okay for younger generations to talk about their feelings and express their feelings so I’ve actually had to allow myself to become a little bit closer with the players, building more of a relationship with them, making sure that they know that I care about them as a person, how they’re doing in school, how their family is, and all these things. I’ve really enjoyed that sort of journey that I’ve been on since I’ve been at NYU because I’ve been able to really have these great relationships.
With the seniors that are graduating, it’s a very sad, bittersweet moment for me because we’ve been through so much together but I also know that they’re gonna be alumni and they’re gonna be great alumni...So, it’s that type of dynamic where we have this really great, solid relationship but they also know that there’s a line they can’t cross and they know that there’s an expectation when they’re on the field in terms of what my standards are.
Hannah: I have to say that that answer about the emotionality of these guys is kind of surprising to me. Maybe it’s my crystalized generalization I have about men in sports and male groupthink and behavior in athletics but to hear you talk about a vulnerability that exists and the men voicing things that are affecting them as a person off the field is good to hear.
Coach: Yeah, I do think there is some definite generational changes going on. I do think these players in these generations are more open to these more emotional conversations. There’s a lot of similarities in that respect when it comes to coaching men and coaching women. I just really think it depends on the person.
Hannah: I think that also speaks one of the beauties of D3 specifically is that you kind of get that ability to get to know these players as more than athletes.
Coach: Right, and the recruiting cycle is so early. It’s earlier on the women’s side but on the men’s side, before the player lands at NYU for their freshman season, I’ve already known them for 12 or 15 months. I’ve already talked to their parents 10 times. You can’t help but form these relationships that hopefully have some longevity.
Hannah: Thanks so much for taking the time, Coach. It’s just been really cool to be able to pick your brain considering all the groundbreaking things you’ve done.
Coach: No problem. If you’re around in the Fall, you can come out to watch a practice if you want to see how it all goes down. *Laughs* It’s pretty much a boring training session.
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