UT hires soccer coach with a walk down the hall

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tennessee didn’t have to look far for its new women’s soccer coach. And, based on the reaction of the players when Joe Kirt was introduced to the team, Tennessee made the right choice.

Kirt has been on the staff for the Lady Vols soccer program since 2007 and worked with two different head coaches in Angie ‘Ange’ Kelly, who departed for Texas in December 2011, and Brian Pensky, who left last month after getting the top spot at Florida State.

Pensky’s exit last week was unexpected since the contract for the 2021 SEC Coach of the Year had just been extended through January 2027 by UT Athletics Director Danny White. But as I explained to a non-soccer fan, Florida State is the Lady Vols basketball of soccer; you don’t turn down the job.

News of Pensky’s departure broke on social media before it reached all of the Lady Vols staff and team, so the players were blindsided and rattled by the loss of Pensky, who was both respected and well-liked. That happened on a Monday last week. By Friday, White stood before the team in a private meeting to inform the players that a new head coach had been hired.

A video of the announcement posted on social media showed the point of view of the players’ faces, which ranged from stoic to cautious. White talked about casting a “wide net,” talking to candidates all over the country and being “excited about where he landed.”

White noted the opening drew a lot of interest across the country, but he also knew who was about to come through the door of the meeting room.

“It was one of my more enjoyable professional experiences, toying with you guys a little bit,” White said to the players, who assembled this week on Monday for the official press conference and laughed at his remarks. “I was trying to make you believe that we made an external hire – was I successful in that? OK, good. I apologize; I had to do it.”

The video showed Kirt walking into the room and then bedlam. The players stood up, erupted in cheers, ran to hug him and then broke into a rendition of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man.” A coach can’t get a better reception than that.

“Just seeing your reactions, it was a major affirmation that we made the right choice,” White said. “This is a great program with a great culture, and we’re going to continue to support that at a really high level. I’m going to stop talking, and get to the man of the hour, your new head soccer coach, Joe Kirt.”

“Just sheer joy,” Kirt said after he was officially introduced. “We talk about how special they are and how much they make this so enjoyable and rewarding. To be able to continue that with these guys, I could not ask for anything more. The happiness, satisfaction and belief in me and what we are doing and spending it with them has truly been an amazing experience for me, even in my 20 years of coaching.

“They are an amazing group, and they hear it all the time and are tired of us telling them, but it really is a special group. They make everyone who touches this team feel that same way. It is hard to put into words, but I think that video does it justice.”

In 15 seasons on Rocky Top, he has been part of a lot of Tennessee’s success, including two SEC Tournament championships, two SEC Eastern Division championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances. As an assistant – and Kirt was just promoted to associate head coach a few weeks ago, a title he has now shed – he coached the goalkeepers and had significant roles in the development of field players, defense and game strategy and execution.

Tennessee soccer coach Joe Kirt (Photo/UT Athletics)

So, was it a good hire? Unequivocally, yes.

The players clearly wanted Kirt as their head coach, so there won’t be a learning curve of getting to know each other. He already is familiar with the competitiveness of the SEC and has played a lead role in game management. Kirt was instrumental in securing the incoming No. 6-ranked 2022 signing class that will compete this fall. Had Kirt not been hired – and he earned the position – that signing class and the roster likely would have unraveled.

Kirt also said something that hasn’t been heard around soccer since Kelly left, and that’s the use of the term Lady Vols. The news release announcing his hiring used the words. The screen behind him at the presser had the Lady Vols logo. Kirt referred to Lady Vols alumni, as well as Vol Nation and the Vols. Kirt overlapped with the late Pat Summitt and said she would visit his office after a loss and ask what happened.

Kirt, a native of Brookfield, Wisconsin, lives in Knoxville with his wife, Susan, an eighth-grade teacher, and their sons, Landon and Luke.

Jonathan Morgan, an associate head coach, will remain on staff as will Hemant Sharma, an assistant volunteer coach. With Kirt’s promotion, he also will have an open assistant coach position to fill. It was an eventful week for Morgan, whose wife, Emily, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Greer, on April 27.

“Our team’s love and respect for Jon is unquestioned,” Kirt said. “No more evident than the reception he received from them this morning in this very room. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work alongside Jon for six years and will lean on him heavily as we move forward.

“Thank you to Ange Kelly for bringing me to Tennessee and exposing me to all the little things that contribute to winning. And to Brian Pensky, 10 years ago for believing in me and providing me an opportunity to grow under his leadership.

“Tennessee is undoubtedly a special place. I am both honored and humbled to represent the Lady Vols and Volunteers. Joan Cronan and Pat Summitt, who along with so many exceptional staff and athletes, built the Lady Vol brand into an internationally respected entity. They set the bar for competitive excellence at this institution long before I stepped onto campus in 2007. That responsibility now falls on my shoulders, upholding past expectations and to help set a new standard of excellence under Danny’s leadership.”

Let’s repeat that: Joan Cronan and Pat Summitt, who along with so many exceptional staff and athletes, built the Lady Vol brand into an internationally respected entity.

I applauded the hire when it was made with no idea how Kirt felt about the logo, which had disappeared from the soccer program. He gets it. Welcome home, Joe.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. She can be reached at [email protected].

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