The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

'Becky was President of Team Florida'

16 days ago
Photo: Florida Gators

The following, written by Chris Harry, was originally published on floridagators.com.

The UF soccer era under Becky Burleigh, the only coach in program history, comes to end Saturday, but her legacy and unbridled commitment to the "Team Florida" concept will live on.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - OK, so put yourself in Becky Burleigh's place. The year is 1995 and the University of Florida soccer program is entering its inaugural season. Burleigh, at the age of 26, had been put in charge of the upstart Gators. With a resume that included a pair of NAIA championships, she jumped into the orange-and-blue fire with confidence, but there were some daunting moments early on.

Like, for example, learning she would share a practice field with the UF football team.

Again: This was 1995.

"We'd be out there first, so sometimes he'd be out there; standing there, just watching us," Burleigh recalled. "That's some pressure, you know."

He, of course, was Steve Spurrier, who some may recall was enjoying something of a Gators hey day at the time. It should come as no surprise, though, that Spurrier, the most passionate of Gators, never played the intimidation game with his young and impressionable colleague. Quite the opposite, actually. Florida's coaches then, like now, knew they had the resources necessary to succeed on a national stage, but also were part of a culture - "Team Florida," it became known - that leaned on one another for support, advice and mentorship.

And all that entails.

Like when Burleigh's first team had that first '95 season ended by Auburn in opening-round play of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Gators and Tigers were tied after regulation 1-1, only to lose in a sixth round of penalty kicks. The next week, Burleigh went to lunch at the old Yon Hall dining room. On her way to sit down, she passed Spurrier's table.

"Coach Becky!" the HBC snapped. "Better get to work on those penalty kicks."

Three years later, "Coach Becky" won the national championship in the program's fourth season of existence, still one of the most astounding achievements in UF sports history. But thoroughly impressive as well was the run of sustained success (500-plus victories, 14 SEC regular-season titles, 12 conference tournament crowns, 22 NCAA Tournament appearances) Burleigh amassed during a 26-year run with the Gators that will come to end Saturday when Florida (5-8-3) closes the 2021 campaign - and an era - with its season finale at Miami (1-10-1).

The aforementioned numbers, however, are only part of the legacy Burleigh will leave behind. Ask the folks she sat alongside in skull-session coaches meetings or shared conversations with in the hallways at Lemerand Center (a.k.a. "The Lem") or socialized with at holiday parties and tailgates. Burleigh loved and lived for the camaraderie among her brother and sister coaches and immersed herself in the collective "Team Florida" way.

Some testimonials:

* Volleyball coach Mary Wise: "Becky was president of 'Team Florida.' She took it to another level."

* Women's tennis coach Roland Thornqvist: "In my 20 years at Florida, I have never felt I had to do better than anybody else here in order to fit in, which would have been a very natural place to go to as a young coach. Becky did so much work behind the scenes to help cultivate that feeling and bring us all to the support table versus competing against one another, which made it much more fun to come to work."

* Softball coach Tim Walton: "One word I would use to describe Becky is 'inclusive.' Didn't matter if it was football or softball or basketball, she always tried to include everybody. Like when Abby Wambach came to town. She wanted the rest of us to have a chance to be a part of it. She always was thinking about ways to help others. Ways to improve our craft."

Over the course of her quarter-century-plus career with the Gators, Burleigh developed a fascination with performance enhancement. Burleigh likely possessed a performance chip at an early age, when she and her older brother started a lawn-care service. At first, she did it to make money, but saw that big brother did it to have the best yards in the neighborhood. The standards were high in the family and they followed Burleigh whether she was working at the local Burger Queen or the bakery at Publix. They went with her to Methodist College in North Carolina as a player, then to Berry in Georgia, where she got her first head-coaching job at 21, and eventually to Florida five years later.

"I closed the bakery at night and I loved the idea of over-delivering, so that when the morning shift came in they'd be like, 'Oh, who worked last night?' " Burleigh recalled. "I've always liked the concept of over-delivering, but it's hard to over-deliver at Florida. What is over-delivering at Florida, anyway? A national championship every year?"

Yes, but more realistically, so is a national championship in just four years.

It's been 23 years since the Gators tasted that NCAA title glory, but Burleigh's thirst for performance - be it through achievement on the field or the study it away from the field - never wavered and continues to this day. It should come as no surprise, especially those who know her best, that the performance field will be her first post-coaching stop.

Come next fall, you'll find Burleigh a few goalie kicks up the road from "The Lem," at Florida Gym, where she'll be teaching a master's course called "What Drives Winning" for the College of Health & Human Performance. In creating the 15-hour course, Burleigh teamed with Department of Sports Management professor and interim chair Michael Sagas and renowned performance consultant Brett Ledbetter to put together a curriculum that will focus on character development, behavior management, priority alignment, team dynamics and self-awareness.

"Becky is really a teacher at heart," Ledbetter said. "She's going to continue to shape the next generations of leaders."

Burleigh, who holds a degree in biology and master's in exercise science, will trade the title of "coach" for "professor."

Candidly, though, she admits feeling even more qualified.

"I feel like I have gotten a PhD in coaching by studying other coaches here, interacting with coaches and all the connections I've made with them here," she said. "I think the [performance] field is fascinating and to be able to delve deeper into it is exciting to me."

Ask the coaches in "The Lem" (or at the stadium, golf course, basketball, tennis or lacrosse facilities, for that matter) and they'll have a thing or two to say about Burleigh and her deeper delves. Athletic departments can get very siloed, as coaches and teams look to carve out their territories. Burleigh played ambassador, all the while on fact-finding missions.

Like the time she volunteered to drive Billy Donovan to the airport in Jacksonville to pick his brain for two hours about recruiting. Or when she invited fellow head coaches to be guest coaches for her team in exhibition matches. When the social media boom began to invade collegiate sports she was at the UF forefront of presenting information on how coaches needed to address it with their teams.

She was also always there as a sounding board. Ledbetter credits Burleigh as being an outstanding listener; someone who can drive a conversation even from her place in the passenger seat.

"Becky is the most collaborative human being I've ever met," Ledbetter said. "Not only the head soccer coach, but the keeper of all secrets at Florida and the therapist for all head coaches."

And no one in Lemerand Center could put a number to the times Burleigh ducked into their office to suggest a new book, Ted Talk or motivational video to consume.

The pursuit to understand performance never ended. And continues.

"One of Becky's greatest strengths was her willingness, if not a need, to share," said Wise, the lone coach at UF with a longer tenure (31 years) than Burleigh's. "If she read an article that resonated with her, she was not going to pass you by without sharing it. It is her joy to do that and it transcends all parts of her life. She is one of the most generous people I've ever met, one of the most out-going. You couldn't go anywhere without her running into friends. It's just who she is, her authentic self, and she never wavered from her core values. That's a great lesson for coaches."

"One of the things about Becky, she's always searching for more, and not just with X's and O's," Walton said. "She's always just trying to find out more. Where so many coaches are grind, grind, grind and work, work, work, she's searching for more creative ways to do it and get results."

Her methods, granted, weren't for everybody. Sometimes she'd take ideas to the coaches' well and get ... well ... a polite pass. That was OK.

"Candidly, there were ideas of Becky's that would work for soccer that would never work with volleyball," Wise said. "That made me think they were having a lot more fun over at soccer."

Ah, fun. Burleigh, while driven and laser-focused, definitely emphasized fun as an outlet for the staff. She organized the holiday parties and DJ'ed at the annual Florida-Georgia game coaches tailgate in Jacksonville that (certainly not by coincidence) always seemed to fall on an open date for the soccer team.

"She helped make this place - arguably the most competitive cauldron of coaches in the country - into a family," Thornqvist said. "In circumstances where we could all be cannibalizing each other in search of trophies, that is a remarkable feat." Now, it's time to close the door on one rewarding chapter and walk through an open door to another. This one might very well be a calling, of sorts.

"What's fascinating to me about performance, as a coach, is it's not just limited to soccer or sports," Burleigh said. "I'm looking forward to exploring it from outside of sports."

If she misses the competitive arena, she can go work on those penalty kicks. For old-time's sake.