Oct. 10, 2013
Debbie (Flaherty) Cox was a member of the University of Michigan women's soccer team back when it started out as a varsity program in 1994. She is one of only two players in the 20-year history of the program to be named team captain three times and was the first player to earn All-Big Ten recognition. In 1997, her senior year, she helped lead the team to its first-ever Big Ten Tournament championship, as well as its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Q: Looking back on it now, what did it mean for you to be a part of Michigan's very first varsity women's soccer team?
A: There were a lot of reasons that went into it, but the whole reason I decided on Michigan was because of the challenge of being a new program. You didn't know where you would be after four years and that was scary, but it was a challenge I wanted. Other programs that were developed and established and great recruited me, but I thought to myself, 'Let me go somewhere and be great while I am there.'
Q: What were the biggest challenges of adjusting from a club team to a varsity team?
A: Meshing. That was the hardest part. We had transfers coming in that were older and had older club players that were all playing for a different coach. Then you have these freshmen come in and there's a stigma to it, like they think they are better. Meshing those many groups together was the hardest thing to do, by far. I know for Debbie (Rademacher), it wasn't easy for her. The team was hard on her and hard on each other. Those bumps lasted for a couple of years, but by the time senior year came along, we were rolling and were finally where we needed to be. Any time you have 25 girls on a team, there's going to be challenges no matter what. There's a newness to it. We didn't have leaders right away. Nobody had done it before. Everybody was feeling each other out and it worked out great, but it was a challenge. Younger players had to step up.
Q: Despite being a relatively new program, you actually enjoyed a lot of success. Your senior year, Michigan had won the Big Ten Tournament and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time. How were those teams able to make such a big jump in just three years?
A: I think the adversity we went through those first couple of years made us stronger. There was a lot of turnover, but those who stayed really reaped the rewards. It's like that old Michigan saying goes, Those Who Stay Will Be Champions. We went through a lot, fighting with each other, fighting for each other, but that year, it was a total team effort and we did really well. We didn't get the regular season ring, came up short there. It was awful. But we did end up winning the Big Ten Tournament and it all came together. The Class of 1996, I think, was the most important class, because they really helped us start getting on the same page. Everything was hitting right.
Q: As one of the only two three-time team captains in the history of the program, your teammates at the time obviously considered you to be a great leader. With everyone really in the same boat being a part of a new team, how did you set yourself apart from your teammates to really take more of a leadership role?
A: My best friend on the team and the greatest leader on the team was Ashley Marks. She is the most amazing person in the world. We talked so much about getting this team to where we wanted to be and going where we wanted to go. For me, I talked to people back home that had played college soccer and really picking their brain, what their teams were doing and such. I had a lot of friends playing D-I soccer, so I just tried to get as much advice as I could. I was never someone that was going to get in your face or be intimidating. My goal was getting everyone on the same page. I never set out to be a leader, though. I just wanted to win, work hard and get everyone on the same page. It's funny. You never see yourself as other people see yourself.
Q: How well do you remember your first game? What about your first win?
A: Oh goodness. That whole season was a blur. Wisconsin-Green Bay. That was our first game. I actually scored the very first goal. And thinking about it now, I also scored the last goal my senior year in the NCAA Tournament against Nebraska. It was all so new. I do remember playing on Elbel Field. Some of the funniest things happened out there. That field was horrible. I remember the club players telling us how good it was and thinking they were crazy.
Q: How did your experiences at Michigan as a student-athlete prepare you for life after soccer?
A: First of all, after what we went through, you realize that nothing is going to be handed to you. I've coached all around and kids now-a-days are coming up with a sense of entitlement. Michigan gave you what you needed but it still made you accountable for your actions and it made you responsible and that's where I think they were different. You wanted to wear your colors proudly and represent the block M on and off the field. I came from a tiny high school. I was never on the big stage. My freshman year was really the first time I experienced something like that, a sense of pride. People might recognize you as an athlete and it might be a big deal, but wherever you are, you're always representing something. From a more technical standpoint, you really learn how to manage your time. That was probably the most valuable skill I have learned. As a student-athlete, you obviously have to balance a lot of things. It was shocking for me at first, but it was such a valuable thing to learn. I can juggle a million things now and remember back to those days. Michigan taught you that.
Q: Tell us a little bit about what you're doing now?
A: After I graduated, I went right into coaching. I was at Dayton for two years. Then the WUSA started, so I tried to train and get back into that. I got invites and went to combines but it didn't work out for me. I was asked to coach a D-II school in Philadelphia, West Chester University. I spent three years there and it was awesome. We did really well. I grew up back in Massachusetts and the job at Holy Cross opened up, so I went there to coach for five years. I met my husband there, who was the football coach at the time. We obviously bounced around, but eventually went to Florida where I coached at Jacksonville University. My husband still coaches and we have three children with one more on the way.
Q: If you had an opportunity to speak to this year's team, what would your message be?
A: It's so cliché, but it would be to not waste any moment. As great as my life is now, I would go back in a second and I think my teammates would, too. You don't really appreciate it until you're a senior and by that time, you're grasping for every last second. For freshmen and sophomores, savor every second. Do all that you can do to be great on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Do it full force. People that don't do that can only look back on it and wonder what they could have done differently.