Coach changes lives

By Ana Patejdl

“Business or pleasure?”

The man sitting next to Janet Rayfield on the plane asked a simple question. But she had a difficult time answering him. She was traveling for soccer.

“I can’t separate those two things,” said Rayfield, head coach of the Illinois women’s soccer team.

In addition to soccer, a game she began playing in a Texas YMCA league at age 12, Rayfield loves education. It seems only natural that she blend both her loves and find her calling in coaching, which she first started doing at age 14.

“I enjoy learning on both sides,” said Rayfield, who is also working on her Ph.D. in exercise physiology at Illinois. “I enjoy sharing knowledge with someone so that they learn, and I enjoy being a student.”

Is she a good teacher? Let the results speak for themselves. In a remarkable one-season turnaround, Rayfield took the Illini, who finished eighth in the Big Ten and was the league’s worst defensive team in 2002, to a Big Ten tournament championship and as high as a No. 9 national ranking in 2003, the highest in program history.

Then again, Rayfield should know how to win. She played for and learned many of her coaching methods from legendary North Carolina and former U.S. women’s national team coach Anson Dorrance, while leading the Tar Heel program to the first of its 18 NCAA titles in 1982. She is second in career goals at North Carolina only to Mia Hamm.

From 1993 to 1998, Rayfield was the head coach at Arkansas. Just before coming to Illinois, she was a U.S. national team staff coach.

“She’s highly academic,” said assistant coach Dale Armstrong of Rayfield’s coaching style. “She wants the kids to be academic about the game, too. She wants them to think things through. So she asks a lot of questions and looks for them to come up with the answers.”

Rayfield, the program’s third coach in seven years, was hired in late July 2002 to replace Tricia Taliaferro after she took the head coaching job at Miami (Fla.). Although Rayfield knew the senior players because she had been an assistant coach in 1999, she was still faced with a challenging situation.

“I think the hard part was trying to blend all of the psychological issues,” Rayfield said. “Between the freshmen just not knowing what to expect now, some of them being angry because they had been recruited (by Taliaferro), some of them not really being concerned.”

Meanwhile, the returning players felt the pressure of having to prove themselves to a new coach.

“It was so hard,” said All-American forward Tara Hurless, who was a sophomore at the time. “Everyone was a freshman.”

Rayfield took things a day at a time.

“We didn’t try to come in and try to rock the boat,” she said. “I had coached with Tricia so I knew a little bit about her style so from that standpoint, it made the transition in terms of just the day-to-day operations a little bit easier.”

Armstrong said Rayfield gained the team’s trust not just with her words, but also with her actions. Rayfield set goals in statistics categories and fitness and charted the team’s progress throughout the season. Pretty soon, the players saw concrete results that made them believe in Rayfield’s methods.

By the end of the season, things started to turn around, culminating with a dramatic comeback against 11th-ranked Penn State in the first round of the 2002 Big Ten tournament. At halftime, the Illini were down three goals and had all but lost hope of winning.

“We’re thinking, ‘Who comes back from a three to nothing deficit?'” Hurless said.

But Rayfield wasn’t ready to surrender to Penn State and went on a motivational rant about why the team shouldn’t be either.

“It’s amazing how she knows when to ream us out or pick us up,” Hurless said. “She knows how to motivate us.”

The speech sparked the Illini, who scored four goals in 18 minutes en route to a 4-3 victory. The team took the momentum of the win into the 2003 season, adopting the team motto, “Raise the bar, narrow the gap.”

“If you’re at the top, you owe it to us to try to raise the bar,” Rayfield said. “If you’re at the bottom, then you’ve got either a long way to come, and if you don’t get there, then this is where the cut off is going to be, irrespective of who that means we lose in the process.”

Perhaps just as impressive as the success Rayfield has achieved on the field has been her ability to connect with her players off the field. She seems to have mastered the delicate art of creating close relationships with her players, who call her “Janet,” while still being tough and holding them to high standards on the soccer field. Both Hurless and senior defender and captain Meghan Kolze call Rayfield their “mom” away from home. Rayfield considers her players family, too. Her refrigerator at home is adorned with pictures of her “grandkids” – former players and their kids.

Kolze said a lot of coaches feel they can’t get close to their players, but that Rayfield made a big effort to get to know the team personally from the moment she stepped into the program.

Hurless said she almost followed Taliaferro to the Miami program because she was close to her and couldn’t imagine playing for anyone else. Fast-forward a year and a half to early 2004 when Hurless was invited to the U.S. Under-21 national team camp. She was so excited about the invitation and only wanted to tell Rayfield.

“I didn’t even call my parents,” Hurless said. “So I’m flooring it in the car, sprinting up the stairs in Bielfeldt to her office and she’s on her phone and I’m like ‘Oh, I don’t care,'”

Hurless blurted out the news. The usually reserved Rayfield quietly said, “I’ll call you back,” to the person on the phone and then joined Hurless in her excitement, hugging her 5-foot-4 leading scorer and picking her up off the ground.

“I know we would not be where we are today if not for Janet,” Hurless said. “She’s completely turned this program around.”

And to think Rayfield could still be working as a software engineer, which is what she did in her first seven years out of college.

“Being a software engineer was very much a profession,” Rayfield said. “I went to work. And I left work and work left me. Coaching is very much not that.”

Rayfield plans on being at Illinois for a long time, giving the program the stability it has been looking for since its inception in 1998. In that time, she’d like to win a few national championships, but that’s not how she will measure her success as a coach.

“The wins and losses part of it is always there,” Rayfield said. “But the fun part, actually, really is what happens when the players from your program graduate. And to see them go on and be successful, I think that is immeasurable, but it is by far the way by which I measure my success.”