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Thursday, February 25, 2021

An ode to Becky Burleigh

Burleigh has the second-most wins among active Division I coaches

<p>Becky Burleigh&#x27;s announced her retirement as UF&#x27;s head soccer coach after 26 years at the helm</p>

Becky Burleigh's announced her retirement as UF's head soccer coach after 26 years at the helm

Few coaches can claim a long-standing legacy at a university. Fewer can say they’ve been there since the very beginning. 

Twenty-seven years ago, Becky Burleigh signed to coach the newly founded UF soccer program. She had previously coached for five years at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where she posted an 82-23-4 record and won an NAIA National Championship twice. Burleigh came to a school with a renowned athletic pedigree and brought its brand new program up to par — at just 26 years old.

It didn’t take her long to reach that goal. From the moment she signed as head coach to the day she announced her retirement, Burleigh has been a major force in maintaining those winning ways.

In fact, it only took her four years to win a national championship at Florida after luring sports legend Abby Wambach from top programs at the time like North Carolina and UCLA and convincing her to join a Gators team that only existed for three years. 

Burleigh has made the NCAA tournament on 22 separate occasions, won the SEC 14 times and emerged victorious in the SEC Championship 12 times. Burleigh’s current career record of 507-152-43 (a .753 winning percentage) puts her at No. 2 all-time for wins among active Division I women’s soccer coaches and No. 3 among all Division I coaches. 

I could talk about Burleigh’s accomplishments for ages. I could talk about how she’s a five-time SEC Coach of the Year or how she’s coached 22 All-Americans and 51 All-SEC soccer players. I could talk about her devotion to her players and how I still see her wish former players she hasn’t coached for years a happy birthday on Twitter.

But I’d like to talk about what Becky Burleigh helped do for me — a sophomore at UF who only liked a single sport when I was sent to cover the Gators’ soccer team.

I came to The Alligator in 2017, and I was strictly an American football fan. One of my least favorite sports was soccer, and I had often joked that soccer was “the game where nothing happens.” In 2018, though, I was tasked with covering the UF soccer team with no knowledge of the sport.

One of my best friends, Sam Campisano, was a huge soccer fan, and he ended up being my beat partner for soccer at the Alligator. I tried my best to learn the sport to cover it to the best of my ability, but I ended up finding a new love out of that assignment.

It didn’t take long for Becky Burleigh and her soccer team to enthrall me. 

It wasn’t her best year — the team finished 7-10-4 — but I fell in love with the game, the speed on the pitch, the electric shots and saves, the team’s personalities and the intensity of the fans. 

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There were plenty of problems to tackle during the season I covered the soccer team, but Burleigh was always blunt about them. She always held herself accountable and took steps to explain how she planned to fix those things, though: I witnessed it whenever I journeyed to the Donald R. Dizney stadium for midweek media. I saw it pay off in the SEC Tournament at the end of the year. 

Burleigh took that 7-10-4 team to the tournament semifinals.

That team gave me a complete 180 on how I view soccer. It pushed me to watch the Premier League where I chose to follow Everton, a team that I now hold very near and dear to my heart. 

And among the teams I have covered — and I have covered a lot as a writer for 10 semesters — that soccer team is among my favorites. Without her and her team, I would have never found such an affinity for The Beautiful Game.

So here’s to Becky Burleigh. For being a Gator legend, for spotlighting women’s sports at UF and for introducing me to a passion I’ll never let go. 

Contact River Wells at rwells@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @riverhwells



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