Alta’s first and only soccer coach retires after 35 years, 16 titles
Jul 23, 2018 02:20PM
By Ron Bevan
After 35 years at the helm, Lee Mitchell, Alta’s only soccer coach for either boys or girls teams, announced his retirement in May. (Photo by Michelle Porter)
By Ron Bevan | [email protected]
The roar of the crowd could be heard that Thursday night in May at Rio Tinto Stadium. It echoed in the ears of Alta soccer coach Lee Mitchell. He had led his boys team to another state title. The sounds, the feelings were not new to Mitchell. He had heard them before.
But for him they rang differently. Although many wondered, only he and a few close associates knew at the time it would be his last game at the helm of the Hawks. One week later, Mitchell announced at the team’s final dinner that he was retiring as the coach of Alta.
“I had made the decision earlier in the season that this would be my last,” Mitchell said. “But I didn’t tell the boys until after the championship game. I wanted the season to be about them, not me.”
When Mitchell announced his retirement, it closed a storied career at Alta, something few coaches nowadays can even comprehend. Mitchell is the only coach to ever helm an Alta soccer team, both boys and girls.
“Mitchell is a pioneer in the sport of soccer,” Utah High School Athletic Association Executive Director Rob Cuff said. “He is a great ambassador to high school sports. His impact and influence on soccer in Utah will never be forgotten.”
Mitchell grew up in Utah, at a time when soccer wasn’t played very much except for perhaps an obligatory week in high school PE. But he found a love for the sport as a young lad.
“My first introduction to soccer was when I was 12 years old,” Mitchell said. “Some men in my (LDS) ward played in an adult league. They took me out and beat the crap out of me and I loved it.”
He continued to play on club teams and whenever he could find a game. He found a job as a teacher at Indian Hills Middle School after graduating from the University of Utah. A few years later, in 1983, boys soccer finally became a sport at the high school level. Mitchell applied for the coaching position and got the job. When the girls program was added in 1989, Mitchell took the reins of that program as well.
In the end he would have a perfect set: eight state championships on the boys side combined with eight titles with the girls in the fall. Not bad for a man who had never coached prior to taking over the high school program.
“We figured it out as we went,” Mitchell said. “I had a learning curve I had to go through. The first few years were rough.”
But figure it out he did. And along the way he developed a coaching style many other programs would try to emulate.
“He built our soccer program from ground zero to what it is today,” Alta Athletic Director Morgan Brown said. “It has been incredible to watch it grow. One of the things that makes Mitchell special is he does all the little things you hear coaches should do.”
Mitchell’s approach seemed very basic. He built his teams on the principles of hard work, cohesiveness, respect and integrity. He wasn’t just building great soccer players, he wanted them to become great persons off the field as well.
The hard work began on the very first day of practice. Although most of his charges play soccer year-round and are already in decent condition, he made sure they were always ready for Alta soccer. So they ran, and ran, and ran some more.
“He would have us running through the neighborhoods for miles,” said former player Kealia Ohai. “We dreaded the running, but looking back it was what helped us not only become better but grow together. Once you see his total progression of everything he teaches, he is actually a genius. That is why he has so many championships.”
Cohesiveness was a different matter. Soccer is unlike many other high school programs. The football team usually has a feeding program that represents the school and builds the players from a young age. Same with basketball, baseball and other sports.
But soccer players are typically with their club teams year-round until they get to high school. Then, nine months of the year they continue with the club teams.
That gives Mitchell just three months to take rivals from different club teams and bring the unity together. He also needs to change different philosophies the clubs teach and mold them into what is best for Alta.
He accomplished this through many methods, from how the team is introduced to each other to team dinners.
But perhaps the most memorable approach to teaching the athletes about Alta soccer are the letters. Mitchell has former players write letters to the new players, telling of their time at Alta and what it means to put on the Hawk uniform.
“He was a coach that cared not only about soccer but the players individually,” said former player Christian Bain. “He was always making sure we did well with school and with life. He even insisted that we were clean shaven and kept a good appearance. He was involved in our success as a person and a soccer player.”
Alta’s first state title came on the boys side in 1990 and the girls cracked the top spot in 1999. As the titles mounted, the reputation of Alta soccer grew as well.
“I remember before I played at Alta it was seen as a dynasty,” said Ohai. “There were so many championships and everyone knew Mitchell. It was cool to play for him.”
Ohai was the glue of the teams that gave Mitchell four straight state 5A girls titles, a feat never seen in the state before.
“That final year was the first time the championships were held at Rio Tinto Stadium,” Mitchell remembered. “We had already won three in a row and no team had ever done that. We had to go to a shoot-out to win the fourth. They played so well as a team that year.”
Mitchell actually retired from teaching several years ago, but stayed on as the soccer coach. He wanted to continue as long as he felt capable of improving the lives of those around him.
“I have always tried to build a family-like atmosphere with the kids,” Mitchell said. “All of those kids feel like family to me.”
Indeed, they were family. In the years Mitchell coached at Alta there were several times he ended up coaching children of former players.
Retirement wasn’t even on Mitchell’s mind at the start of this year’s season. He had finished the girls fall league and was about midway through the boys season when he decided it was time to step down.
“I let my assistants know, but I wanted to wait until the end of the season to officially announce it,” Mitchell said. “I guess you couldn’t ask for a better ending, with the championship. It was a storybook ending.”
Through 16 championships Mitchell always celebrated by jumping in the air and touching his outstretched toes with his hands in front of his teams. He did it one last time for the 2018 boys champions.
Over the next week before his official announcement, Mitchell thought often of the program he had built. He thought of the many boys and girls that have put on the Alta uniform.
“Anytime a coach puts that much dedication, sacrifice and service into a program, not even he knows how many lives he has impacted,” Cuff said.