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A Champion of Circumstance

Jon Lipsitz doesn't always know what's next, but he knows he'll be OK. Chance is always on his side.

Photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics

Jon Lipsitz is a champion of circumstance. Rarely does he become its victim, and this day was no different. He and anyone affiliated with Kentucky women’s soccer were in a room at Commonwealth Stadium, all there to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show streamed from the Internet and projected on a wall. It viewed like the traditional Selection Sunday show fans associate with the men’s basketball tournament, except it was for women’s soccer and it was on a Monday.

Lipsitz knew his team would earn its bid to the field of 64—it ended the season No. 17 in the RPI—but watching the show still made him a bit tense. He tried to keep his arm around his wife, Kathryn, but he struggled sitting still.

Selected teams were called off in groups of eight while a pair of talking heads traded sound bites in between. Among the dozens of particularly expert lines: “This could be literally anybody’s tournament,” just in case you thought the man on the screen was being figurative.

The first bracket featured Louisville, a team some around the program had hoped UK would host in the first round. The hired Voices of Reason played up the Cardinals as tournament sleepers, even though we had earlier been instructed it could be anybody’s tournament, so how can any team be a sleeper? Maybe they weren’t being literal at first? The players jeered to each other. Lipsitz abstained, mostly.

The screen transitioned to the next grouping. Eyes scanned from top to bottom, looking for something that began with a K. Virginia, Long Island, Washington State, Kentucky, West Vir—Kentucky?

Lipsitz was hired in December 2008 to take UK, which stagnated in the last few years of Warren Lipka’s tenure as coach, to NCAA tournaments, and it had just qualified for its first in Lipsitz’s third season. Lexington would even host the first-round game against Washington State.

Lipsitz freely admits that chance, or something resembling it—luck would imply a degree of undeserving—has put him where he is today. Finding his career path, meeting his wife somehow at a New Year’s Eve party, ending up with two sons and a fence and a mortgage and two little dogs ... it all just kind of happened, he said.

Part of life’s beauty is in its unpredictability, and he seems to have embraced that. He trusts that maxim because he’s worked hard enough to deserve whatever seemingly random byproducts result.

Jon Lipsitz (background) talks to his team. | Photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics

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“My life has been a really weird series of events. It really has been.”

Maybe Jon Lipsitz capitalizes on chance so often because he simply gets more than the everyday everyman. Like anything a coach tells his team, it’s only true because he believes it. And like anything a player hears from a coach, it’s only true because the coach speaks believably. He doesn’t drone on in mindless coach-speak, spinning together clichés like a toddler in its alphabet soup.

Every moment in every training session, every film study, every game, every anything—each is its own chance for Lipsitz to teach a unique lesson to his team. He has a master’s degree in education, and he taught high school social studies for several years before taking an assistant coaching job at Ohio State in 2001. Some of his lessons are direct: When he sees something he doesn’t like during a game, he huddles the players on his bench to demonstrate what should have happened. To the uninitiated eye, a man in a well-tailored suit and properly shined shoes squatting and scooting along a soccer sideline would look silly. But the players get it.*

*The fact that Jon Lipsitz wears a suit to coach soccer games deserves a separate story. In short: He wanted to be taken as seriously as the basketball coach at Charlotte when he was hired there in 2005, and the basketball coach wore a suit. It’s now become part of his brand; it was one of the first things athletics director Mitch Barnhart learned about Lipsitz prior to interviewing him, and a drawing of a floating jacket, shirt and tie is Lipsitz’s Twitter avatar.

Some lessons are more indirect. In a game at Vanderbilt in October, a referee aided the Commodores by passing them the ball to help get off a direct free kick just six seconds before halftime. Lipsitz had never seen anything like it, he said, and his players didn’t understand it either.

Lipsitz approached the referee on his way to the locker room. He had already been issued a yellow card in the first half for telling the referee he “absolutely f---ing sucked,” so he knew to be careful. He was told he’d be ejected if he swore. With his team listening, he didn’t swear.

“You absolutely suck. You are the worst referee we have had in the SEC. I’m sending in these clips to Manny (Ortiz, SEC coordinator of officials) and we will never have you again. You are an absolute bloody disaster. Nobody on either bench knows what’s going on. You should never be officiating this level, let alone a high school game.”

Photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics

He used zero American curse words (and one “bloody,” which the BBC allows on its broadcasts).

“He interrupted me three times while I was talking—this was the fun part—I kept saying, ‘Don’t interrupt me,’ and he kept asking if he’d get his chance and I said sure. So he starts talking and I interrupt him right away. And he goes, ‘Don’t interrupt me.’ I told him he interrupted me three times so I have two more times before I have to stop. The assistant referee is standing right there behind him and starts laughing. I said, ‘Look, even your own officials are laughing at you because you’re such a joke. I have to go talk to my team,’ and I walked away. I kind of felt like a jerk, but it was funny. The AR was laughing.”

Lipsitz said he doesn’t usually get that upset with officials; for the most part, he thinks SEC referees are top notch. But in that moment, a lesson presented itself. How could he pass it up?

**

“If you work really hard, things happen. We try to tell our players that all the time. I can’t guarantee you success if you work really hard, but I can guarantee you won’t have success if you don’t work hard.”

Maybe Jon Lipsitz capitalizes on chance so often because of how well he understands everything his job entails. He doesn’t just tell his women where to stand and teach them better ways to kick a small ball around a big field. He’s an obsessively detailed soccer strategian, a professor, a counselor, a marketing director and Tony Robbins all in one. And he’s always open to adding more subtitles, because he’s always learning.

He’s piecemealed his image after years of holding all kinds of different jobs: marketing director at a sports marketing firm, Division III women’s soccer coach, youth soccer club director of player development, high school social studies teacher, Division I assistant coach, and Division I head coach. Most coaches at his level do everything they can to get to the top as quickly as possible, whereas Lipsitz didn’t have “college coach” as his only job until he was 40.

Because of that, he doesn’t come across very ... coach-y. He’s not a man who stays in his office until 10 o’ clock every night; he’d rather work smarter during the day and get home in time for dinner. He loves learning from other coaches, but he doesn’t want to do it from other soccer coaches. Too boring, he said. He’d rather go across campus to one of John Calipari’s or Matthew Mitchell’s basketball practices.

Jon Lipsitz high-fives some shirtless fans. | Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics

“I don’t care about the Xs and Os. I just want to know how they’re getting things done,” he said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is attack, attack, attack. Can we do it? I’ve thought about seeing if I can go watch an Oregon football practice. They have a reputation on having the fastest-paced practices in the business. I want to see what it’s like.”

That’s not to say his own practices don’t move fast, because they do. As a bystander, his practices are remarkably efficient but they seem almost relaxed. The relationships are strong enough so that nobody really gets frustrated. During a one-on-one drill, an attacking player trails off away from the goal, and Lipsitz reminds her to attack, not go to the imaginary taco stand in the concourse (the taco stand is referenced often). But his sarcastic bite is met with a peer-like acceptance, very far from a young adult storing away another coach’s snide remark. Besides, the players will return the jab later. Like friends, they all go back and forth.

What earned Lipsitz his current job is evident on the training field. The man doesn’t just know what good players do, but he knows how and what to demonstrate, how and what to communicate (and not communicate), all to a level of detail unseen elsewhere.

“A lot of people say the defender needs to be in this part of the field. That’s not good enough for Jon,” assistant coach Aaron Rodgers said. “The body shape needs to be a certain way. Their footwork needs to be a certain way. They need to look for certain things. They can’t just be in a certain part of the field and play soccer. They have to do certain detailed things in terms of footwork and position. He stresses little things like that, that you don’t see a lot of coaches spend a lot of time on. It’s not just the attention to detail. Every coach has that to a certain degree. It’s the details themselves that often get overlooked.”

Most coaches go straight out of college to find a grad assistant job somewhere, and all they know how to do is coach. But Lipsitz knows how to teach because he’s done it in so many different settings, adapting to different learning styles and different material. He also knows the women’s soccer program isn’t going to market itself—the words of a former marketing director at a sports marketing firm, remember, not a coach. So he took to Twitter.

@UKCoachLipsitz has about 1,500 followers, and he uses the site to its intended purpose more so than, say, Calipari: Whereas @UKCoachCalipari sends messages out and admittedly doesn’t read responses, Lipsitz uses it as an actual social medium, talking back and forth with followers on soccer, UK sports or whatever has Twitter abuzz at that moment.*

*I prefer listening to music as I write. One night while working on this story I hit a snag and couldn’t focus with what I was listening to. I tweeted about my problem, and Lipsitz replied: “Morrison. Earth Wind and Fire. Keith Sweat. Tribe Called Quest.” I went with Earth, Wind and Fire. He replied: “My absolute fav. band.”

Before, fans had no way of connecting with coaches that way. Write a letter, maybe you get an autograph returned. Now that the technology is there, Lipsitz has learned to promote his program, his team and himself in a personable way that wasn’t possible even as recently as when he took the job.

Avatar for @UKCoachLipsitz. | Image courtesy of twitter.com

And nobody connects with people better than he does.

**

“Things happen for a reason, I think. I try to be good to people, and I’ve worked my ass off. And so far, things have happened.”

Maybe Jon Lipsitz capitalizes on chance so often because his priorities seem to be in the right place. He cares more about the relationships in his life than anything else. Truthfully, that’s the first thing you learn about him, because that’s the first thing he’ll tell you: More important to him than a job are the people he’ll work with, and more important than simply leaving the office is going home to Kathryn, Zach and Max. It was hard for him to leave every job he’s had and every town in which he’s lived because he didn’t want to leave behind family, friends, co-workers, players—anyone. Many coaches would say that with a quiet irony, considering how often burned bridges serve as the coach’s currency to barter for the next recruit’s letter of intent or the next athletic director’s job offer. But Lipsitz is sincere, and Barnhart could tell when the job opened in 2008.

When it opened, associate athletics director John Cropp (he oversees women’s soccer) came to Barnhart with a name: Jon Lipsitz, from Charlotte. Cropp had spoken with a lot of players that went through the club system in Ohio, and they all told Cropp and Barnhart when there was an opening, go for Lipsitz.

Throughout the process, it was made clear that Jon Lipsitz has friends everywhere, and a lot of them came to bat for his candidacy at Kentucky. Without those connections, Barnhart said he may have found Lipsitz’s name independently. Then again, maybe not.

Cropp called Lipsitz to arrange an interview, but Lipsitz said he didn’t have the time because he had to prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament. Cropp, a former football coach, understood.

“So I said if that ruins the timing, that ruins the timing. I have to take care of this,” Lipsitz said.

Athletics director Mitch Barnhart hired Jon Lipsitz in December 2008. | CatsPause.com file photo

The NCAA Tournament bracket came out within a few days. Charlotte drew Tennessee, which had just won the SEC’s tournament. It was a de facto interview. Charlotte won 2-0.

The more Cropp and Barnhart heard about Lipsitz, the more they felt urged to bring him in for an interview, so they did. After his second interview—which Barnhart said was impressive because of how clear Lipsitz’s desire was to be at Kentucky—Lipsitz called in a favor to a friend. The friend, who just so happened to be a UK alumnus, put a good word in Barnhart’s ear.

Several other friends and acquaintances did that independently, too, Barnhart said. A handful of former UK players—Kim LaBelle, Annie Gage and Elizabeth Ramsey, among others—had played for him in the club ranks and vouched for him to UK’s higher-ups.

Less than a month after beating Tennessee, Lipsitz was introduced as Kentucky’s coach.

Accepting the offer wasn’t a given, though. Lipsitz was coaching a Charlotte program well on its way up, a program in his home state where his kids were two hours away from their grandparents in Raleigh. That was huge for Lipsitz. And at the same time Kentucky was interviewing him, the North Carolina State job had opened.* There, he could have moved across the street from his mom and stepdad.

*Lipsitz had arranged an interview for the North Carolina State opening but was offered the UK job and never went.

Either one of those would have been better short-term solutions, Lipsitz said: Stay where you are without moving away from your friendships, or move across the street from your parents. But when he interviewed with Barnhart, Lipsitz said he felt something in Lexington. The people seemed kind. He wanted to raise his children in a college town, just like he was raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. And the athletics department seemed like a group of people he could work with.

Ultimately though, it came down to preserving the most important relationship he has. Kathryn Lipsitz suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Jon Lipsitz talks to his team on Selection Monday. | Photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics

“You wouldn’t know it because she’s in the two percent that’s had it for 15 years and doesn’t have motor function problems,” Jon Lipsitz said. “She has a lot of fatigue and she has days she can’t get out of bed, but if she walked in here you wouldn’t know. We’re very fortunate in that way. But I don’t want her to have to work full time and in the end, this was also more money.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t have come here for the same money because of the quality of life. But in the end, the ultimate quality of life is my wife’s health. For every reason, it all came together that I needed to be here.”

In the three years since moving from Charlotte, Lipsitz has found those relationships that are so vital to his being. The managers at Drake’s know his name. He and his family meet there because it’s about halfway between the office and the house. He goes to the same pet treat shop to get treats for Elli and Riley, and the staffers there know the dogs’ names and their spoiled taste buds.* And when he has to, he’s fine staying late at the office because he’s surrounded by kind and like-minded people.

*Elli is a shorkie, which is a yorkie-shih tzu mix. Riley is a morkie, a yorkie-Maltese mix. They look the same. Lipsitz said he spends most of his time at home just watching them go about their business, and he occasionally catches himself filming the two aimlessly run around the backyard. “I had always been no, no, no to dogs. For 15 years I said no. I went out of town with the team last year at the beginning of the season, and I came back to a dog. Now I’m totally whipped,” he said.

Over the years, and even since he arrived at UK, he’s slowly taught himself to better balance familythings and workstuff. He didn’t realize the balance was necessary when he first got into coaching, but the 50th birthday he’s already eyeing a few years down the road (he’s 46 now) has put things in perspective.

Last April he took Kathryn and Zach, his 15-year-old, to Italy for a week, just to get away. He never would have done that before, he said; he had always avoided family vacations in the past. This Thanksgiving, he and his family spent the holiday with some friends in the Cleveland area. He took his baggiest sweats and spent a weekend lounging, eating, sleeping and watching football, he said, in no particular order. He never would’ve done that either, he said.

But the chance was there, so he capitalized. He always does.

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Jon Lipsitz’s stance on fate is unclear. More rightly, he believes what is fair will happen to those that work hard enough to deserve it. When UK lost to Washington State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on penalty kicks, he said it was fair. The game was a tie through 110 minutes, and he didn’t bemoan the rules for what happened next. “What were we going to do, play soccer for three more hours until somebody made a stupid, meaningless mistake?”

But fate—again, luck would imply a degree of undeserving—has to have weighed heavily on his life, doesn’t it? Explaining everything otherwise seems incomplete. Most people fall in the comfortable category of making the best of what they’re given. If life gives you lemons, etc.

But Lipsitz’s life reads like a choose-your-own-adventure book, and you’ve picked the most outrageous series of events possible, but it’s also the only one that leads to world peace AND the end of hunger and poverty AND the princess being saved AND the aversion of the zombie apocalypse.

If it’s not fate, what is it?

“My life has been a really weird series of events. It really has been,” he said. “If you work really hard, things happen. We try to tell our players that all the time. I can’t guarantee you success if you work really hard, but I can guarantee you won’t have success if you don’t work hard. Things happen for a reason, I think. I try to be good to people, and I’ve worked my ass off. And so far, things have happened.”

Selection Monday was no different. Kentucky deserved to get where it had just arrived, but UK was off the board within one minute and 58 seconds of the show’s first frame.

“That was a relief,” he said. “We knew we were in, but that made it real. To get it out of the way like that was nice, wasn’t it?”

The champion of circumstance enjoyed the rest of the selection show, only briefly stepping away to take a call from a friend who just so happened to be one of Washington State’s assistant coaches.

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