Soccer coach makes history as she leads men’s team to NCAA Final Four

UChicago’s Julianne Sitch talks about ‘special’ moment as woman in leadership role

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

Julianne Sitch will be honest: Being the head coach of the men’s soccer team at the University of Chicago was not her “dream job.” How could it have been?

Growing up playing soccer with the boys in the 1980s in Oswego, Illinois, she didn’t have a woman coach to look up to. Data from 40-odd years later shows that, in the realm of women coaching men, not much has changed.

According to 2020 numbers from the U.S. Department of Education, 95 percent of NCAA men’s sports team coaches were male.

Fast forward to her first season at the helm for the UChicago Maroons—unbeaten at 20-0-1, four NCAA Tournament wins under their belts and headed to their second-straight NCAA Final Four—and Sitch has already made history as the first woman head coach to lead a men’s soccer team to a NCAA Final Four. And in doing so, she hopes she’s opened the door for the dreams of others.

“I think it’s important for young girls to see women in leadership roles,” Sitch said. “When they can see it, they can believe it; they dream it, and they continue to go after it.”

Historic hire

After former UChicago head coach Pat Flinn’s exit last spring—he took an NCAA Division I position at Drake—UChicago Director of Athletics and Recreation Angie Torain knew she had big shoes to fill. The team had made its fourth run to the Final Four—and third in four seasons—in Flinn’s final year in 2021 and was returning a strong core with hopes for another stellar year in 2022.

The program’s recent history of success drew an extremely talented hiring pool, making Torain’s decision even more difficult. But Sitch, a former UChicago women’s soccer assistant, an all-American forward at DePaul University and a professional player who retired with the Chicago Red Stars, was ready.

“She came in so prepared,” Torain said. “She knew UChicago, she knew what it takes to recruit here, she had a plan. She knew what her first 30 days were going to look like, and what her motto was going to be. It was her preparation, it was being authentic about who she is, and her experience, and I knew the athletes would enjoy the fact she had been at the next level from a professional standpoint.

“I’m so glad she stepped up to the plate and took the chance.”

With her focus on finding the best fit for the program, Torain said she didn’t think about the rarity of hiring a woman coach until the final stages. But with the recommendation of Flinn, the support of the search committee, University administration, and perhaps most importantly, the student-athletes, Sitch was named head coach on April 20, 2022. With the hire, she became only the second woman coaching a men’s soccer team in NCAA Division III—joining a familiar face in the team’s conference, the University Athletic Association: New York University’s Kim Wyant.

The two made history earlier this season, when the teams faced off in a match believed to be the first in which both men’s teams were coached by women. The squads played to a scoreless tie in that match, handing the Maroons their only non-win of the season.

“Someone had to be brave, hire women and who did it? UChicago did it,” said Amy Reifert, the longtime Maroons women’s soccer head coach. “This job isn’t just about coaching soccer, it’s about coaching soccer at the University of Chicago, and it works at UChicago because of who we are as an institution.

“We have men who see women in a lot of incredible spaces here, and you don’t see that everywhere. If the best math or best economics professor is a woman, our students wouldn’t think twice about taking that class.”

The players echoed that sentiment.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said team captain Richard Gillespie, a fourth-year student studying business economics. “The University of Chicago is a very forward-thinking place, and I think that it’s always looking to push the limits of what has been done and look for progress. I think they made a very sound decision in hiring Sitch, and obviously it’s paying huge dividends for both the University and for us, as the men who get to be led by her.”

Maintaining success

Sitch knows that what she is doing is historic, but she’s just trying to do the job she was hired for.

She’s certainly led the Maroons, a squad that hasn’t lost since a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Amherst in the 2021 semifinals last December, to where they want to be. With an even-keeled demeanor and by letting the team’s leaders be leaders, Sitch has worked tirelessly to instill what she calls a “champion mindset.”

“I feel like with any coach that I’ve had—Sitch included—is that you earn your respect through your knowledge of the game and the ability to lead other people,” said team captain Griffin Wada, a fourth-year student studying business economics. “She has both qualities in abundance, so that’s where our respect comes from. She’s the right person to lead us, and with this year’s success, there’s no arguing with that.”

But in the 50 years since Title IX was passed in 1972, the number of women in collegiate coaching continues to dwindle, even in women’s programs. In 1974, 90 percent of all head coaches for women’s teams were women. In 2021–22, women in NCAA Division I held only 43.7 percent of those same positions—a number very close to the Division III 2017-18 report compiled by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Torain said she believes that to keep women in coaching, they need to be supported with enough resources to also allow them to have a family, if they so choose. Creating more opportunities for women to be considered for men’s sports coaching positions is a start, too.

“I just feel grateful and humbled to be here,” Sitch said, while also looking back on that historic match versus NYU. “It’s a little crazy to think about (how historic this is) because sometimes you’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m doing this because it’s what I love to do.’

“But when you start thinking about it, this is a really cool situation that has never happened before. It’s something very special, and it’s something I can have forever.”

2022 NCAA Division III Final Four

Who: No. 2 UChicago (20-0-1) vs. No. 4 Stevens Institute of Technology (17-0-5)
Where: Salem, Va.
When: Thursday, Dec. 1, Noon CT
How to watch: