Virginia women's soccer coach Steve Swanson has his own unwritten "Zero Tolerance" policy. It does not cover NCAA eligibility infractions or illegal athletic gambling. It certainly has not been instituted by Terry Holland or the Athletics Department. Swanson's "Zero Tolerance" policy says he will not allow one of his players not to be a friend.
"A lot of coaches care about their players on the field, but more importantly he cares about them in the classroom and as people first," said freshman forward Sarah Lane.
As a college coach, Swanson retains a zest for the game and an unbounded enthusiasm reminiscent of little league and middle school coaches. Swanson was hired in February to take over the program when April Heinrichs left to become head coach of the women's U.S. National team.
In the spring, he started the meeting off with an icebreaker. He asked all those present - including players who had been friends for years - to say their names and tell one thing that no one else knew about them. That spoke volumes to the players about what life under Swanson would be like. Imagine George Welsh sitting around gabbing with Antwoine Womack or Tyree Foreman in an attempt to connect on a more emotional level.
"If you talk to anyone in the soccer world and mention Steve's name, everyone has good things to say about him, and I think that is the biggest compliment to him," said senior midfielder and team co-captain Katie Tracy.
Swanson's carefree persona and approachability have not drained a drop from his coaching prowess. He has built up a team from a decent, middle-of-the-pack contender to a championship defender. Twice. And he's not yet forty years old.
Swanson started his collegiate coaching career almost by accident. After a few months as the assistant athletics director at Dartmouth, the women's soccer coach unexpectedly quit. In August 1986, the women's head coaching position wasn't considered very important, so Dartmouth didn't conduct a national search for a replacement. Instead, Swanson was named head coach, but was reminded that his main job was still within the administration. He began working a double shift between both positions, but eventually he turned entirely towards women's soccer and became the first full-time women's soccer coach in Dartmouth history.
At Dartmouth, Swanson met Bobby Clark, the man who would become his soccer mentor. When Swanson took the helm, he was placed alongside Clark, the men's soccer coach.
Their friendship, which sprung from a mutual love of soccer but centered around family, deepened as the two coaches shared noon jogs, squash matches and games of indoor soccer. The duo also actively participated in a local youth club soccer program called The Lightning, which drew from Vermont and New Hampshire. During his time assisting with The Lightning and holding camps, Swanson met Andy Nelson. While he worked with Swanson at the camps, Nelson had ample opportunity to watch him interact with his players.
"Steve has always been able to create a special bond with his players," Nelson said.
On April 8, 1996, Clark officially left the men's head coaching position at Dartmouth and moved to Stanford, Calif. to become the men's head coach. Soon afterward, Clark was named director of Cardinal soccer. Swanson was not far behind.
"When [Stanford Athletics Director] Ted Leland named me Director of Soccer, I immediately tried to get the best women's soccer coach in the country: Steve Swanson," Clark said.
Swanson graciously accepted.
In California, Swanson inherited the fallen remnants of a once-proud women's team. In the years leading up to his arrival, the Cardinals had gone through three coaches in four years. It was a difficult transition for Swanson after leading Dartmouth to two Ivy League titles and three NCAA tournament appearances in five years.
But in the next four years, Swanson sculpted the Cardinals into a fierce soccer force with skilled coaching and impressive recruiting. In 1999, the Cardinal won the Pac-10 Championship and broke back into the national rankings with a 14-4-1 regular season. Swanson went 49-28-4 at Stanford, a .630 winning percentage
Then why did he jump ship? He abandoned one of the best universities in the nation, one that has won the Sears Directors' Cup, which goes annually to the nation's top all-around athletic program, six years running. He moved 2,800 miles to Virginia to fill Heinrich's shoes and the responsibility that would go with them. It was a move that would seem absurd to coaches whose only goal, from day one, has been to craft a high lifetime winning percentage. The answer to that question is simple: his family.
"Living [in Stanford] just didn't make sense for the Swansons in the long term," Clark said. "For me, it's different. I'm older and all my three kids are grown so my wife and I can make it work."
Both Steve Swanson and his wife, Julie, grew up in the Midwest and were never fully settled there in the Bay Area. They were trying to raise three kids in a small apartment when they were given the opportunity to move to Albemarle County. The offer was very attractive.
"My wife really had apprehensions about moving to California, made the sacrifice to go there but never really felt at home," Steve Swanson said. "It's a tough place to live if you're raising a family, and it was never meant as a long-term situation."
For the Swansons, the chance to return to a more familiar setting was too good to pass up.
"The Virginia program is so strong, and combined with the education and athletics, we felt it was a wonderful combination for our family," Swanson said.
In one of the hardest decisions of his life, Swanson left his players and new recruits at Stanford to head to the rolling hills of Charlottesville. He did not leave Stanford without guidance, though. Andy Nelson, his old friend from New Hampshire, took the head coaching spot vacated by Swanson, assuring that part of Swanson's legacy remains at Stanford.
From the beginning, everybody involved - from the Virginia Athletic Department to his players to his family - have been pleased with the transition. The Cavs are 7-5 and ranked 19th in the country. And after the annual Coca-Cola Classic Tournament held here two weeks ago, Swanson invited all his players and their parents over to his house. It was a chance for him to get to know them outside of soccer.
"He considers us his family here too," said junior midfielder and co-captain Lori Lindsey. "He seems really happy here, and that makes it easier. He's always smiling."
And whenever Swanson is praised for his personality, smile is just what he does. But as his strong record shows, behind the grin sits a skilled and cunning tactician, one who knows the art of infiltrating the defense of his opponents, with a smile.