Jim Conlon still exceeding lofty expectations, 200 wins later

| Senior Sports Editor

The No. 5 Washington University women’s soccer team’s come-from-behind victory against the University of Rochester this past Sunday was not only notable because it was a win against a ranked opponent. Nor merely because it starts the Bears’ conference schedule off on the right foot. The win was momentous because it marked head coach Jim Conlon’s 200th victory as coach of the Wash. U. women’s soccer team.

After 11 seasons, 11 NCAA tournament appearances, eight conference titles and a national championship, reaching 200 victories is another impressive milestone in Conlon’s illustrious career. More importantly, the achievement reveals something that those around the coach have long known: Jim Conlon is a special guy.

“Coach Conlon is a great teacher, motivator, family man and friend,” athletic director Anthony Azama said in an email on Wednesday. “I am a better AD because of him. He leads with integrity and respect regardless of who you are. He lives the culture and mission—developing champions and impacting lives of not just his team but everyone he comes in contact with.”

Grace Bruton | Student Life

Jim Conlon acknowledges the crowd after the women’s soccer team’s loss in the 2018 NCAA semi-finals. Conlon won his 200th game as head coach of the women’s soccer team on Sunday, Oct. 6 against the University of Rochester.

Conlon started his career at Wash. U. in 2008 after eight years as the head coach at Wartburg College. At Wartburg, Conlon had turned a program that had never had a full-time head coach into a conference champion and NCAA tournament contender. He did this while coaching both the men’s and women’s soccer teams.

“That’s a very heavy load,” former Wash. U. athletic director John Schael said. “I felt that if he came to Washington University, he would have reserve hours to devote to a women’s program.”

Conlon checked all the boxes that the Wash. U. athletic department was looking for to replace decorated head coach Wendy Dillinger, who departed for Iowa State University at the end of the 2007 season.

“We were looking for a very special person,” Schael said. “One who was going to be an effective communicator, who understood the Washington University student athlete and what their priorities are. That was very important.”

In addition to checking boxes, Conlon’s mentality towards the athletic department and the University made it clear that he was going to be a good fit.

“He was always for the whole department,” Schael said. “He understood the value of intramurals, of the athletic trainer facilities and certainly sports and the interaction of the women’s soccer program with the other athletic programs within the department. And I felt very confident that he would fit well within the Washington University community.”

Conlon hit the ground running in his first few seasons at Wash. U. After winning the University Athletic Association conference title in 2008, Conlon guided his team all the way to the national championship in 2009 before falling to Messiah College.

“I’d say that our road to nationals my final year with the team—of course we didn’t win that very last game—but each one of those was just a monumental moment, just to get to that point,” Sam DiRaimondo, class of 2010, said of the games during that national championship runner-up season. “It’s hard for me to distinguish one as being the most memorable because we really had such momentum and such a unique group of girls that were pushing us to win.”

Conlon’s teams have been a force ever since. The Bears have never missed the postseason under his leadership. They made the nation championship game again in 2015, beating Messiah in the Final Four before falling to Williams College. Of Conlon’s wins, that victory over Messiah is the favorite of 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year Lizzy Crist.

“We ended up going to penalty kicks, which are pretty much a keeper’s worst nightmare,” Crist said in an email. “The benefit of being the keeper though is that because the odds are not in your favor, you have nothing to lose. With that attitude, I was able to make the necessary saves to earn us a victory. The vision of this massive sea of red (the bears were in red jerseys) that rushed to me and swallowed me up when we won will be ingrained in my mind forever.”

In 2016, Conlon’s team got over the hump, beating Messiah to capture the programs first national championship. For senior Taylor Cohen, the lone remaining player from that tournament run, that win is the most memorable.

“I’d say that’s number one. I still have it as the background on my phone, from that game,” Cohen said. “Just like coming into that was amazing and getting to play in that game and score a goal was memorable for me.”

The other 193 wins have come quickly. Not only is Conlon the winningest women’s soccer coach in Wash. U. history, he also has the highest winning percentage at .849. Part of what makes Conlon such an effective coach is the attention he pays to the dynamics within his team.

“One of Coach Conlon’s most important messages he shared with us was to always ‘value the person over the ball,’” Crist said. “What he meant by that was that cultivating relationships with the people we were surrounded by—teammates, trainers, coaches, administration, even referees and opponents—was more important than our win-loss record. With this mentality, we as players were able to fight, sacrifice, score, win, lose and grow with one another as a team.”

Another trait of Conlon’s that sticks with his players and colleagues is his passion.

“I have yet to come across a coach with as much passion and enthusiasm for coaching as I have with Coach Conlon,” Crist said.

Schael offered a similar account, saying that Conlon has “tremendous enthusiasm and confidence in himself.”

“[Conlon is] so high energy and very excited and passionate about the game and I would say that excitement is rather contagious,” DiRaimondo said. “He really worked us to be our best and to try our hardest at practice and then that effort would then play out in the games as well.”

The numbers do not tell the full story of the impact that Conlon has on his players. The relationships that he cultivates with his players extend past the pitch.

“He’s the first one to reach out to me when there’s a connection that he thinks I might have an interest in in the business world,” Cohen said. “He constantly sends us messages of encouragement and empowerment. Yesterday, he just sent us a little poem, to the entire team, about remembering little eyes on us, because we had a practice with some younger kids. He’s really trying to help us foster this culture of female empowerment and providing us with great resources and opportunities to do so.

For Crist, the lessons that Conlon instills about life are still useful in her life as a graduate student. “Coach taught us balance and prioritization—lifelong skills that are equally as critical in my work as a scientist,” she said.

Conlon is a model for that balance. On top of coaching and cultivating his players, Conlon is also a dedicated father and husband.

“His investment in the team is remarkable and most emulated by the sacrifices he makes to give us his time while raising two children with his wife, Jeanie,” Crist said. “His entire family—including his parents—attend almost every game to cheer us on.”

Conlon’s family-focus extends, in part, the team. DiRaimondo, for example, described the soccer team as “one giant extended family.”

Through talking to players, it is clear that Conlon leads by example. Aspects of his personality are infused into the team, imparting some of his energy, passion and knowledge onto each member.

“I think we are all driven players and that stems from [our] head coach,” Cohen said. “He also preaches respect, integrity, class. Our three mottos. And that obviously has to start at the top to funnel down to the rest of the players.”

There were high expectations of Conlon when he arrived at Wash. U. 12 seasons ago. His 200th win is a testament to his ability to consistently meet them. For Schael, there is no buyer’s remorse when it comes to hiring Conlon.

“When you connect knowledge and passion with talent and teamwork, you know, you’re really destined for a successful outcome,” Schael said. “And that’s really what Jim has done with that program. And it’s just incredible that you can enjoy that much success. And to have it sustained from one year to the next? That’s even more so incredible.”

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