Driscoll Taking Helm of Tiger Women’s Soccer, Driven to Maintain Program’s Winning Tradition
By Bill Alden
Images courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications
Sean Driscoll first laid eyes on the Princeton University campus in 2004 when he was in town coaching a premier soccer team and the visit made quite an impression on him.
“I stood at the steps of Blair Arch and said this would be the dream job,” recalled Driscoll. “We walked around the top of the campus, we didn’t even go down to the soccer field. I was dumbfounded by it all.”
Driscoll’s dream came true when he was named the head coach of the Princeton University women’s soccer team earlier this year.
“The offer came in on a Monday and I was beside myself; I was incredibly humbled to join a university and athletic department with so much tradition and history,” said Driscoll, 43, the successor to Julie Shackford, who stepped down last fall after 20 seasons at the helm of the program.
“When you think about schools that command attention for academics and athletics, it is places like Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame, and the Ivy League schools. They command an immense amount of respect. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about that and how fortunate I am to represent this university.”
Upon graduating from Denison University in 1994 after playing tennis there, Driscoll didn’t think that coaching soccer was going to end up being his destiny.
“When I got out of college, a call came from the AD/former high school coach at my high school, offering me the chance to coach boys’ soccer as an assistant,” said Driscoll, a three-sport star in soccer, basketball, and tennis at Green Farms Academy in Green Farms, Conn. who decided to focus on tennis in college.
“I was looking for a job and I was intrigued. After some reflection and, honestly, out of respect for my former coach, I decided to do it. The head coach was exceptional and instantly became my mentor. His impact was enormous on my career. I learned the importance of organization, attention to detail and discipline. Those three months were as influential as any in my career.”
The next fall, Driscoll had to change his focus as he moved to the girls’ varsity team.
“The following year, at the same high school, the girls’ varsity head coach had left and the AD asked me if I wanted to replace her,” said Driscoll.
“I said are you out of your mind, I was not interested in coaching girls. I had watched them the year before on the opposite side of the field and they didn’t look that enthused. He said it would be a great opportunity and I took a gamble that truly changed my life in ways I never could have anticipated.”
In taking on that assignment, Driscoll decided that he had to show faith in his players.
“I learned very quickly that players don’t care about you until they know how much you care,” said Driscoll. “I genuinely cared for the kids and they saw that immediately.”
Caring for his players produced results as Driscoll put together a sparkling career record of 116-38-13, between stints at New Canaan High School, Brookfield High School, and Greens Farms. Driscoll’s team at New Canaan won state titles in 2001 and 2002, and the 2002 team was ranked No. 3 in the nation as it went 21-0-1.
In addition to coaching high school, Driscoll co-founded the Connecticut Football Club in 1999, which trains premier-developmental and premier teams from the U9 through the U23 levels, serving close to 1,800 boys and girls on 90 teams.
In 2004, Driscoll moved up to the college level, becoming an assistant coach for the Western Connecticut State University women’s team.
“The Western Connecticut coach, Joe Mingachos, is one of my close friends,” said Driscoll.
“He had said if you ever want to get into college coaching, to let him know, as we had enjoyed working together with club teams. We had a similar coaching philosophy and belief in how to get the most out of players. I loved all of my experiences in high school, the Olympic Development Program, Regional Staff and club soccer. The one uncharted territory was college. After three months with Joe and his team, the course of my career changed.
After helping Western Connecticut go 18-5-2 on the way to an ECAC New England championship, Driscoll took the helm of the Manhattan College women’s program in 2005.
“It was a lot of trial and error and learning as you go,” said Driscoll, who guided the Jaspers to a 40-41-14 record in five seasons, highlighted by a 12-5-2 campaign in 2006, the best single-season winning percentage in school history.
“A friend had told me that about 10 percent of what you do as a college head coach is on the field coaching, as there is so much time spent on recruiting, scouting, video analysis, paperwork, day to day operations and management of the players. After the first year, I realized he was spot on. Every day I learned something new. The experience at Manhattan really prepared me for the next step in my career.
Assuming a slightly different role, Driscoll became the associate head coach at Fairfield University in 2010. During five seasons there, he helped head coach Jim O’Brien accrue a 51-32-17 record overall and 31-10-6 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, including back-to-back appearances in the MAAC tournament final in 2013 and 2014.
“I was an associate head coach, it was good to take a step back at that time in my life; I had just gotten engaged and was starting a new chapter in my life.” said Driscoll, who is married to the former Heather Hathorn, a University of Maine soccer alumna, and has two daughters, Braelyn and Beckett.
“It was one of the hardest decisions to leave the program that I had built. I loved those kids and what they gave to our team. In fact, the first game we played that year, all the returning kids got off the bus at the end of the game and hugged me. It remains one of the most touching moments of my career.”
Driscoll formed a productive partnership with O’Brien during his time at Fairfield.
“It was much more collaborative, Jim treated me like a co-head coach,” said Driscoll.
“He made a lot of promises and he kept his word. We worked really well together and, in many ways, were a perfect complement to one another. We both gave up some things that we liked in an effort to offer the team the best experience possible. I will always be grateful to him for the belief and trust he had in me as a person and a coach.
While Driscoll acknowledged that following Shackford is daunting, he is up for the challenge.
“Julie was great for women’s soccer, she did a lot of wonderful things for the game, the university and the town of Princeton,” said Driscoll of Shackford, who went 203-115-29 in 20 seasons at Princeton with six Ivy League championships, eight NCAA tournament appearances, and an appearance in the 2004 College Cup Final Four.
“She is the only coach who has led an Ivy League women’s soccer team to a final four. You can’t replace someone like that. My job is to continue that tradition to the best of my ability.”
In order to continue that tradition, Driscoll is putting in a lot of time on the job.
“I can’t say what the future holds, that would be unfair, said Driscoll, noting that he was customarily working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. in his first months on the job. “However, I can promise that I refuse to be outworked.”
Driscoll’s initial exposure to his Princeton players on the field came during spring ball and he was impressed by their work ethic.
“The spring season was short, about a one-fourth of what I am used to,” said Driscoll, who is taking over a team that went 7-6-3 overall and 3-3-1 Ivy in 2014.
“The overall work rate, hunger, and desire was at a very high level. There was one session where I had to tell them to back off and dial it down because the intensity was so high. That is what happens when you get highly motivated kids with the desire to be the best on the field at the same time.”
Driscoll believes he has assembled a staff that can bring out the best in his players, retaining assistants Mike Poller and Ron Celestin from Shackford’s regime and adding Kelly Boudreau, a former player and assistant coach at Fairfield.
For Driscoll, keeping Poller and Celestin on board was an easy decision. “Mike is well versed in the club soccer in the country and also knows the talent in the immediate area very well,” said Driscoll.
“He and I had coached against each other for a few years and I always respected his work with his teams. In talking to him about the job, his passion for the game and this program was evident. In addition to being a talented coach, he truly loves recruiting and has a tremendous eye for talent. Ron is a legend. I call him ‘the mayor.’ He has been with the program for over two decades and his experience is irreplaceable. He can give a comparative analysis of players and the team’s performance based upon his time in the league, which is invaluable. He also has soccer connections across the country and knows the recruiting process inside and out. Moreover, he is a fantastic coach and I feel his ability to bridge the gap between the old staff and the current one is important as we move forward.”
Bringing in Boudreau gave the staff another valuable asset. “As for Kelly, I coached her on a club team and again for two years at Fairfield,” said Driscoll.
“She was starting goalie in her junior year when I came in. She then went from player to assistant coach and that is not easy to do. I expected some difficulty, but she is mature beyond her years. I trust her implicitly and she is incredibly loyal. She has done a fantastic job, thus far, with every aspect of the program. I have told her more than a couple of times that this transition to Princeton would not have been as seamless and comfortable without her. She is a true student of the game and has an immensely bright future in this profession.”
Looking ahead to preseason training, which starts on August 20, Driscoll is focusing on basics.
“The No. 1 priority is to maintain health, we have 22 healthy bodies, that is a little small,” said Driscoll, whose team opens regular season play by hosting Howard on August 28.
“We want to focus on enhancing our team chemistry and building a new foundation. Defense is the first order of business. I like a free flowing style with possession and ball movement, in the attack, but I believe you need to start with a defensive philosophy and ensure everyone is on the same page. You must have a strong base; they scored 35 last year, which is fantastic, but allowed 31. One of our areas of concentration will be to improve the goal differential. On the attacking side of things, we want to utilize the multiple options we have on the roster. Our job is to accentuate the gifts that our players have and provide an environment and system that allows them to defend with conviction and attack with creativity and flair.”