Soccer coach gives Illinois some stability
CHAMPAIGN – A few things you should know about the new woman in charge of Illini soccer: She has a yellow belt in tae kwon do, her players jokingly call her "Fatty Patty" and she's believed to be the only coach on campus taking acoustic guitar lessons.
"We'll do the national anthem sometime," Tricia Taliaferro said with a laugh.
At 26, she's the youngest head coach in Ron Guenther's athletic department and, without a doubt, the most adventurous, as well.
For a good time, Taliaferro likes to go snowboarding in Colorado. Or mountain biking at Kickapoo, a passion that goes back to her days racing dirt bikes as a girl in Dallas.
"I don't know if she told you, but she ran a marathon this summer," said her dad, former Illini quarterback Mike Taliaferro. "First time. Just set it as a goal to run a marathon in under four hours.
"And she did it."
That's the story of Taliaferro's life, which seems to add an exciting new chapter weekly.
Her latest entry tops them all. Last month, just three years into her college coaching career, Taliaferro was called into Guenther's office and offered the soccer job at her dad's alma mater.
Her old boss, Jill Ellis, was hours away from being introduced as UCLA's new coach, and Guenther needed an answer from Taliaferro, like, yesterday.
He didn't have to wait long.
"Even though professionally, I think everyone handled it, if there's going to be a fall sports change, you'd like it to happen sometime back in the spring," Guenther said. "We were caught by surprise. But we were very, very fortunate to have Tricia in position, and I felt comfortable she could take over the program."
There were just a few folks more excited to hear the news about the new coach than Taliaferro's proud papa.
Those were the returning Illinois players, who were sad to see Ellis go but glad to have Taliaferro replace her.
In two years as Ellis' sidekick, Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) had become a coach they trusted on the field and a buddy who made them crack up off it.
"She definitely knows how to keep us entertained and relaxed before games," midfielder Julie Schueller said.
There's her "Fatty Patty" routine, which is too goofy to describe in detail but involves the trim Taliaferro pretending she's too chubby to head the ball properly.
Another team favorite: the forward moonwalk, which she did last year to cheer up weepy forward Lisa Baldwin.
"She missed a goal or something, so I'm like, 'I'm going to make you laugh,' " Taliaferro said.
After she made like Michael Jackson right there on the field, Baldwin wasn't the only one laughing.
"Gotta keep it fun," Taliaferro said.
That's her middle name.
"We have these big, orange winter coats we wear when it's really cold, and last year she'd get in one before games," forward Emily Brown said. "She'd stand there in front of us and Jill would kick balls really hard off her. And Tricia would just let 'em bounce off her.
"They gave us pregame entertainment. She likes to do little goofy things like that, but she knows when to get serious, too."
Her youthful exuberance is what makes her a "hip" coach, defender Heidi Holtzman said.
And it's obviously not something Guenther held against her when he went looking for Ellis' replacement.
"As I looked at the age of people coaching soccer all across the country, it's a fairly young group," Guenther said. "It's a young, developing sport. And she's got a great relationship with the kids."
Taliaferro, a 1996 Maryland grad who spent one season as an assistant at George Mason and two under Ellis at Illinois, wasn't expecting to get her head coaching shot so soon.
"But I'm glad it did happen so fast because I'm not a very patient person," she said.
She celebrated her big promotion with family and friends in Los Angeles, a getaway she'd been planning for months. She'd gotten her hands on a few tickets to the Women's World Cup final and invited her dad, a mortgage banker who does a lot of business in California, to meet her out there and be her guest at the game.
Just as she was about to start packing for her trip, she got the call from Guenther. She was hired on a Wednesday afternoon and driven around to all the local media outlets that night, then left the next day for what turned out to be a trip she'll never forget.
Her father had gotten the family a room at the Pasadena Ritz Carlton, which used to be the Huntington Sheraton, which is where Mike and the Illinois football team stayed 35 years earlier for the Rose Bowl.
And get this: It also just so happened to be the same hotel where Team USA would hold its post-World Cup party. Taliaferro got an invite from former national team star April Heinrichs, her old coach at Maryland, and spent the night partying with Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the rest of them.
"She was able to get old dad in, too," Mike said. "It was just one of those weekends. If you ever tried to orchestrate it, you just couldn't do it."
Taliaferro knew a lot of people at the party, having played against half of Team USA during her ACC days. Under Heinrichs, the first female player to be enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Taliaferro was a dynamite defender, leading the Terps in scoring as a junior and leading them to a school-record 18 wins as a senior.
She's hoping things go so good as a head coach. Her first team should be a good one, with all but one starter back from a crew that went 12-8, made the eight-team Big Ten tournament and led the league in scoring.
Aside from Illinois' place in the standings, Taliaferro plans to keep everything else the same as it's been, from the aggressive style on offense to "Fatty Patty."
She even took the players on an overnight camping trip Monday night, just as Ellis and her staff did the last two preseasons.
"The one thing I told the players is: It's going to look and feel the same. It's just going to be me now guiding you guys," Taliaferro said. "We always tell them it's their team. I'm just here to push and guide you in the right direction."
The opener's a week from Friday against Marquette at the spiffy new field inside the track, and Mike will be there.
With bells on.
"It's almost another excuse for him to get back here and watch his football games," Taliaferro said. "Usually, he comes into town and I never see him the whole weekend. He's off doing tailgating stuff with his buddies."
Not next weekend. This time, he's here to gloat about his kid, not a win over Arkansas State.
"I can't wait," Mike said.
Illinois women's soccer by the numbers
Uniform number of goalie Amy Bessette, the only remaining player from the club team days
Transfers who could make an impact – Sarah Rowland (Villanova), Jen Sbalchiero (Illinois Wesleyan) and Allison Ullrich (Kentucky). Two-time team MVP Kelly Buszkiewicz started her college career at Virginia
New head coaches Ron Guenther has hired in the last five years: Theresa Grentz, Don Hardin, Yoshi Hayasaki, Lon Kruger, Sujay Lama, Terri Sullivan, Taliaferro and Ron Turner
Where Illinois finished in the Big Ten in 1998
The night the Tricia Taliaferro era kicks off at the new stadium with a 7 o'clock game against Marquette
Percentage of Illini goals scored by freshmen last season
Points put up by last year's dynamic freshman duo of Lisa Baldwin and Emily Brown
Goals scored by UI assistant Janet Rayfield at soccer powerhouse North Carolina. That's a Tar Heel record
Average attendance at an Illinois home game last year – down 136 from 1997
Minutes logged last year by "the Little General" – defensive dynamo Heidi Holtzman – who played every second of every game
The year Illinois will host its first Big Ten Women's Soccer Championship
Seats that will be added to Illinois' new soccer stadium in time for the 2000 opener