Early in his tenure as the Florida athletics director, Jeremy Foley had to do something he had little experience with. He had to hire a head coach to start a women's soccer program.
He chose a 26-year-old named Becky Burleigh. Her experience consisted of five successful years as the head coach at Berry (Ga.) College, including the 1990 and 1993 NAIA national titles, but the Southeastern Conference is the competitive summit.
"He took a major chance," Burleigh said.
Let history reflect that Foley got it right and then some. Florida's 3-0 victory Sunday over Miami was the 500th win of Burleigh's career. In her 25th season as the only soccer coach the Gators have known, she became just the third Division I coach in history and the sixth across all NCAA divisions to record 500 victories in her sport.
After surviving a post-match Gatorade bath and receiving a flood of congratulatory messages, Burleigh's been trying to respond to every message while preparing her team to start SEC play Thursday at LSU.
"It's been a little overwhelming," she said. "It's been really nice so I'm definitely not complaining about it. It's been fun to reconnect with some people, and I'm really excited about seeing some people this weekend we haven't seen in a while."
The timing for a reunion couldn't be better. After visiting LSU, Florida returns home for the soccer program's alumni weekend. It's normally a festive gathering of current and former players, coaches and staffers - this weekend will include a barefoot 4v4 tournament, tailgating before the Florida-Tennessee football game and a postgame get-together - but this annual celebration will resonate a little more deeply.
Burleigh is quick to share the credit for her milestone.
"Every player that's played here, every coach, every staff member, they're all part of that 500," she said. "Sometimes coaches get a lot of credit for that, which is understandable because you have to have one person (in charge), but it really takes a lot of people to get there."
Witness the 22 United Soccer Coaches All-Americans, 48 All-SEC players, 156 student-athletes on the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll and seven CoSIDA Academic All-Americans that Burleigh has coached. Not to mention the multiple awards as SEC and national coach of the year. She's led Florida soccer from birth to national power, accumulating one national championship, two NCAA College Cup appearances, 21 NCAA Championship berths and 14 SEC titles.
It's almost as if Burleigh, who moved with her family from Massachusetts to Tarpon Springs, Fla., at a young age, was meant to coach the Gators.
"From the very beginning, I've always felt that the University of Florida was very committed to women's soccer," Burleigh said. "And then you take the school, which is a top 10 academic school in the country as a public institution. You've got the Florida weather and the people.
"There aren't a lot of people that leave the Athletic Association, and even some that leave come back. It's such a great place to work. There's a real sense of community. Everybody cares about each other's results on and off the field. I just don't know that you find that camaraderie everywhere."
Florida has a coaching roster full of men and women, from volleyball's Mary Wise to Roland Thornqvist with women's tennis and so many more, who've put down roots in Gainesville while building programs that are consistently successful over time. As her 500th victory demonstrates, Burleigh is prominent on that list.
She's also a pioneer although she shrugs off that designation. She's the first woman in Division I soccer and just the second woman across all NCAA divisions to win 500 games. Only Aliceann Wilber of Division III William Smith College with 576 wins has more victories than Burleigh among female soccer coaches in NCAA history.
"I'm glad you said the second woman (to earn 500 wins) because Aliceann Wilber is truly the pioneer and doesn't get enough credit for that, for sure," Burleigh said. "I've never really thought of myself that way. For me, I took something that was a passion of mine and have been able to make it a career. I've been really, really lucky because not very many people get to do that."