Told several weeks ago he was nearing the milestone of winning 500 games, UConn women’s head soccer coach Len Tsantiris ’77 (ED) raised his eyebrows and had a single word response: “Really?”
Tsantiris, who prefers talking about the achievements of his student-athletes, reached the milestone Thursday night at Morrone Stadium with a 3-1 win over Rutgers, which advanced the Huskies (9-7-2) in the 2012 Big East Tournament to a game Sunday against Marquette (13-2-2) in Milwaukee. The Huskies took a 2-0 lead in the first half on goals by senior midfielder Linda Ruutu ’13 (CLAS) and sophomore defender Gabrielle Charno ’15 (CLAS). Rutgers cut the lead to 2-1 in the second half before sophomore midfielder Riley Houle ’15 (CLAS) sealed the victory at 80:58.
After the game, Tsantiris deftly avoided the Gatorade bath his team planned to celebrate his landmark victory and quickly turned a post-game conversation with reporters away from his accomplishment and toward the business at hand.
“I’m thinking about Marquette now. That would be a big game,” he said. “We want to bring this group on our home field for the tournament. It’s not going to be easy. We saw some great signs today. They fought everywhere. We kept defending well and moving forward. We did what we had to do.”
The semifinals and finals of the Big East Championships will be hosted by UConn on Nov. 2-4.
In his 32nd year as the Huskies’ coach, Tsantiris now has a career record of 500-180-53 and is only the second women’s soccer coach to win more than 450 games. Anson Dorrance of North Carolina, the former USA National Team coach, has a 634-32-22 record. Tsantiris’ teams have appeared in 28 NCAA national tournaments in four NCAA Championship games. Before leading the Huskies, Tsantiris spent four years as head coach of the girl’s soccer team at E.O. Smith High School, in Storrs, where the Panthers set a record for winning 56 consecutive games and won three state championships.
“Whenever we play I want to win. I hate losing, I can tell you that,” Tsantiris said earlier this month. “The other thing is to take care of the kids you are responsible for and the people around you. I try to be a team player all the time and do my job and not worry about other things. That’s what it takes. I’m interested in my program, the kids I deal with day in and day out and my family.”
Senior midfielder Karen Gurnan ’13 (CLAS) grew up in Tolland, Conn., and has known about Tsantiris’ success at UConn for years.
“Growing up around here it’s been such a tradition,” she says of the Huskies women’s soccer program. “We’ve had some struggles the past couple of years, but in the end all those wins add up. I think a lot of players who have been through here, say he really teaches you the game, not just one aspect of it.”
Tsantiris has been recognized for his contributions to the development women’s soccer in Connecticut by the Connecticut Soccer Ambassadors, a statewide organization created to promote soccer at all levels. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Hellenic Education Progressive Association, the largest Greek-American fraternal organization, which includes such notables as broadcaster Bob Costas, tennis star Pete Sampras and the late NFL star Alex Karras.
“They have to understand the game,” Tsantiris says of his student-athletes. “If you understand, you enjoy the game. We try to do it through playing so they understand and do things that will be spontaneous. It takes a while to get through to the kids what they need to do.”
Excellence on the Field and in the Classroom
What women’s soccer players at UConn also must do is excel as much in the classroom as on the playing field. Since 2002, the team has had the highest team GPA at UConn.
“I think it’s realistic. If you don’t have 3.0, you can’t get the majors you want,” Tsantiris says. “If you’re in school you have to work hard [on the field] and in the classroom. My idea is if you are able to do both, you become very confident and successful as a person. I think that’s my job. I want to win, but on the other hand, the kids are more important than the W’s. Winning, getting them graduated, becoming confident, getting jobs and moving on as citizens. That’s a win.”
Ruutu says Tsantiris constantly emphasizes the importance of keeping up with class work.
“Everyone has been responsible in doing their part and maintaining their GPA,” she says.
“We do this thing called learning groups,” adds Gurnan. “You learn from each other. When we do those things together it makes us closer on and off the field. I think everybody’s held to that higher standard.”
Tsantiris’ time at UConn also directly connects him to the history of Husky men’s soccer,
having played under legendary coach Joe Morrone, for whom the Huskies’ soccer stadium is named. Tsantiris was a four-year letter winner and earned All-New England and All-Yankee Conference honors. During those four seasons, the Husky squad qualified for the NCAA national tournament three times, advancing to the Final Eight in 1971 and 1974 and to the Final Sixteen in 1975. Upon graduation Tsantiris played professional soccer with the Connecticut Yankees in the former American Soccer League.
His coaching peers say Tsanitiris’ accomplishment sets a high standard.
“For you to win 500 in anything, you’ve got to be a big time coach,” says Huskies men’s soccer head coach Ray Reid. “He’s one of the top coaches in the game. I’ve watched him for a long time. He’s very good tactically and good with the students. It’s dealing every day with the games, the injuries and academic pressures. It’s very difficult what he’s done. ”
Nancy Stevens, UConn’s Hall of Fame field hockey coach, adds that Tsantiris has often met with the field hockey coaching staff to share their experiences.
“Len has been a great friend and colleague during my 23 years at UConn,” she says. “Our coaching staff has sat down with him on several occasions to share ideas, because our sports are so similar. He has taken the women’s soccer program to the national championship game four times, which is a terrific accomplishment. His love of soccer, understanding of the game and commitment to excellence has been a source of inspiration to me.”
Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma says the 500-win milestone is “an incredible amount of wins, regardless of sport, but especially in soccer,” noting that a collegiate soccer season does not have as many games as a basketball season.
“Our women’s soccer team is probably as successful, if not more so than any women’s sport in America because of their consistency and the level of excellence they have attained,” Auriemma says. “They have been to a bunch of College Cups, won numerous conference championships and have a great coach. Lenny is one of the most passionate and best teachers I have ever been around. I’ve been fortunate to be a friend of his and Connecticut has been fortunate to have him for all these years.”