Ray And Tracey Leone: Together In Marriage, 3 Miles Apart In Coaching
Tracey Leone made history as coach of the United States team in the inaugural FIFA Under-19 Women's World Championship in 2002. That team, which included future U.S. national team players like Heather O'Reilly and Ashlyn Harris, won the tournament that in 2006 became the Under-20 World Cup, the sport's signature youth event. In the process, Leone became the first former U.S. national team player to win a World Cup as both a participant on the field and a head coach.
Achieving both was unprecedented, and more than a decade later, she remains the only one to do so.
So it was a notable choice of words that her husband, Ray Leone, used to describe what his wife did as coach of the Northeastern University soccer team a season ago. Northeastern started that season with a 4-0 loss against eventual national champion UCLA and went winless in its first nine games (0-6-3). It then won five of seven conference games to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Association and eliminated the No. 2 and No. 1 seeds, the latter on its own field in the championship game, to win the CAA tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament.
To her husband, the turnaround that stretched into this season with a CAA regular-season title is even more impressive than winning a world championship against Brazil's Marta and Canada's Christine Sinclair.
"The mindset that you have to flip, it's really unprecedented," Ray said of turning a team winless at midseason into an NCAA tournament participant. "And then the season they're having this year and being regular-season champions already, I'm so proud of her and happy for her and her team, because they've felt everything."
The insight is more than that of a proud husband. A day after Northeastern played Boston College in the first round of that NCAA tournament a year ago, Harvard played a first-round game against Boston University.
Harvard's coach? That would be Tracey's husband.
Alone in Division I women's college soccer, and rare if not unique across the spectrum of college sports, Tracey and Ray Leone are partners in marriage and parenting but, at least indirectly, competitors by profession.
"We're definitely rooting each other on all the time and following the results of the games," Ray said. "We're always following each other, even though we're literally too busy to go see each other's games."
A multifaceted partnership
Two head coaches in a household is not altogether uncommon in college sports. It's just that it usually involves one team. Tennessee softball co-coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly and Baylor soccer co-coaches Marci and Paul Jobson are prominent examples of that. There are also partnerships that follow a more familiar pecking order, including Hartford basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti and assistant coach Bill Sullivan, her husband, and Texas A&M volleyball head coach Laurie Corbelli, whose husband, John, is the associate head coach.
The Leones have fit both categories during the past two-plus decades. Each technically worked for the other along the way, and they once even shared a head-coaching position. Now separated on the soccer field, each is a product of the partnership. And with a combined record of 21-7-5 this season and two of the nation's stingiest defenses, that's working out well for all involved.
"I'm abstract, and she's black and white," Ray said. "That combination is really what soccer is all about, where there is a preciseness to soccer but you've also just got to think outside the box and be crazy creative."
Ray finished his playing career at the University of Charlotte in 1985. Within a year he had not only been named the first women's soccer coach at Berry College in Georgia, but he also reached the NAIA championship game in the team's debut season. He moved on to also start the women's program at Creighton in 1989, the same year Tracey finished an All-America playing career at North Carolina. Familiar with the soccer scene in that area, Ray reached out to Tracey to see if she was interested in coaching. She was still part of the national team as a player and looking to get back to her home state of Texas, so it took her a year to take him up on it.
At least as Ray recalled it, the reconnection came when, to Tracey's chagrin, legendary UNC coach Anson Dorrance subbed in Ray for her during a pickup soccer game at a camp in the Houston area.
Nevertheless, the two, who were married in 1992, proved as good for each other on the field as off it.
"I got to find out what the 'Evil Empire' was doing from one of their own," Ray joked of Tracey's ties to a North Carolina program that dominated the sport.
The methodical precision of that system balanced out his off-the-cuff tendencies. But for Tracey, who played for Dorrance not only with the Tar Heels but with the national team that won the first Women's World Cup in 1991, being around Ray helped a neophyte coach understand that she didn't have to try to be the equal of her mentor.
"At the end of the day, as much as I would love to be as great as Anson, I'm not," Tracey said. "And I'm not him either. We're different, and so it's hard to kind of break from that as a young coach. I think what Ray did for me was to immediately teach me to have ideas in different ways, to blend kind of the background that I had that really worked at North Carolina with some new ideas that he brought from the experiences that he had.
"So early on, I learned quickly that what made North Carolina successful was important to bring in pieces with you, but that every team is different and every team isn't North Carolina."
From Clemson to Arizona State to Harvard
When Clemson announced it would begin a varsity women's soccer program for the 1994 season, both Tracey and Ray applied -- but not together. The thought was that in addition to simply doubling their odds, seeing the same last name and address on different résumés might pique someone's interest. In the case of then-athletic director Bobby Robinson, it did. Tracey was hired as head coach and began the work of building a program from scratch, with the knowledge that Ray would follow a year later and become an assistant when the team took the field for the first time.
With the players Tracey recruited to a program that at that point existed only in her mind, Clemson went 15-4-1 and reached the NCAA tournament in its first season, and in its next six seasons. The last of those came with Ray alone in charge after Tracey began to work with U.S. Soccer, first with youth national teams and eventually as an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team that won a gold medal in Athens.
A year before the Olympics their daughter, Mattea, was born in Arizona, where the family had moved when Ray became Arizona State's coach.
Mattea went with her mother for the long stretches of national team residency camp that preceded the Olympics, but Tracey felt she needed a change after Athens. She wanted to remain in soccer, but she had already started to feel that between the demands of motherhood and her natural demeanor, her future might be as an assistant coach. That was the job she took at Arizona State, first in a paid role, then a volunteer one. The latter made for a better work/life balance but also for a tighter budget.
When current Penn State coach Erica Walsh left Harvard after the 2006 season, the Leones saw an opportunity.
Harvard seemed an ideal fit for both, with Ray as head coach and Tracey as an assistant. Instead of spending what Ray said felt like 85 percent of their time finding players, recruiting perhaps 100 to fill 10 spots and losing out again and again to UCLA and Stanford, the structure of Ivy League athletics and the appeal of Harvard meant they needed to recruit fewer players to fill spots. For a specific type of player, Harvard sold itself. They weren't going to beat UCLA or North Carolina, not often at least, but that wasn't the expectation. And that meant more time coaching and a lifestyle more conducive to raising their daughter.
All of which worked out well, to the tune of Ivy League championships in 2008 and 2009, until the head-coaching job at Northeastern opened up before the 2010 season. Boston's unique concentration of colleges meant a chance for Tracey to again coach a Division I program, just three miles from the Harvard campus.
"It was definitely a challenge for me to work through how I was going to continue to try and be the best mom that I could for Mattea and take on a head-coaching position," Tracey said. "It was a definite challenge for me. But Mattea was wonderful, and luckily I'd had those early years with her to build such a strong relationship with her."
Winning over a new team
That wasn't the only challenge. This time, she wasn't building a roster of her choosing the way she did at Clemson or with the U-19 world champions. It was a new experience to inherit players who were already used to a philosophy or style and who were recruited to fit that style and might be skeptical of, or at least cautious around, a new regime.
Part of the first recruiting class that Tracey pursued through a full cycle was Bianca Calderone -- a local product who initially crossed Northeastern off her list when the coaching change occurred. The new coach won over the center back who is now one of the cornerstones of a defense that ranks second in the nation in goals-against average.
"I always assumed I'd have a guy coach because I had guy coaches growing up," Calderone said. "But as soon as I met Tracey, she was just so bubbly and open, it felt like she would be a mom away from home."
As much as the skills that made Tracey so good on the field, those qualities voiced by Calderone were what Ray felt would make her a successful coach way back when he tried to talk her into coming to Omaha. People enjoyed being around her, enjoyed playing alongside her. And as an education major, she had a knack for getting a message across.
"Tracey's a really sociable person, and I think everyone who comes here would say she's a really good recruiter," Calderone continued. "She really makes you feel at home before you come here. She's just so sweet, she just draws you in based on her personality. She's crazy, but it's an awesome crazy, so I think that draws people in."
Tracey and Ray have by now mostly figured out how to be husband and wife, mom and dad, and head coaches of programs separated by less distance than Manchester United and Manchester City. They try to stagger practices so that someone, usually Tracey, can always take Mattea to school. Most days one of them, often Ray, picks her up in the afternoon. Neither has regular luck persuading a middle schooler to come watch Mom or Dad work on game days, although Mattea does play soccer. New NCAA rules that prohibit in-person scouting mean more time at home, although that also means that even if Tracey or Ray has a free afternoon or night, neither can go watch the other's team play.
Perhaps the one thing that hasn't been sorted out is bragging rights. Outside of spring scrimmages, the two schools haven't played since Tracey took over at Northeastern, initially because she didn't feel comfortable coaching against the players she coached at Harvard. Even now, with those students gone, there are no immediate plans to play.
Unless, of course, they ever find themselves paired in the NCAA tournament.
Talk about unprecedented.