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From player to coach: The man behind Duke's first championship

<p>Head coach John Kerr was the consensus National Player of the Year in 1986, leading Duke to its first championship in any sport.</p>

Head coach John Kerr was the consensus National Player of the Year in 1986, leading Duke to its first championship in any sport.

Around a single playing field, new bleachers, permanent restrooms, a modern-day scoreboard and a field house have all sprouted up. Even the name has changed.

But there is something that has also stayed the same—the presence of John Kerr.

“It brings up so many different memories at different times when I’m out there,” the Duke head coach said. “It’s a thrill to be honest.”

In 1986, the Blue Devils won their first national championship in any sport when they won the men's soccer title. Kerr led the way as the best player in the country, with long locks of blonde hair and a knack for finding the back of the net.

He was tabbed as the best player in the country by almost every outlet that had an award for it. The forward collected the Hermann Trophy and earned National Player of the Year honors from the Missouri Athletic Club, the ISAA and Soccer America.

“I got myself in the best shape of my life,” Kerr said. “I was ready to rock.”

Many thought Duke men’s basketball would be the first team to win a national title at the school. The Blue Devils reached the national championship in the springs of 1964, 1978 and 1986, but fell short in all three contests.

After Duke lost on the hardwood in 1986, the burden fell to Kerr and his teammates. The Blue Devils had just lost Hermann Trophy winner Tom Kain to graduation, but Kerr was ready to fill his shoes.

“I was walking off the field in 1985 and I watched Tommy Kain walk ahead of me,” Kerr said. “I kind of made a pact with myself that I’m going to walk off the field with a national championship.”

Two coaches with a long history

Another prominent head coach was in attendance throughout the 1986 season—Robbie Church, who in the past 15 years has led Duke women’s soccer to six Elite Eights and two national championship games.

Church grew up in North Carolina going to Duke football and basketball games with his uncle as one of the few Blue Devil fans in the state, he said. The former ACC Coach of the Year took a head coaching job at East Carolina, where he also worked part-time flipping pizzas to make up for the $1,500 salary.

Perhaps his best learning opportunity came in 1984, when he joined Duke men’s soccer as a volunteer assistant. Church worked at Durham Sporting Goods in the mornings, then took care of the field, helped with drills and did whatever else was asked of him.

“I was a gopher,” he said. “That’s the first time I kind of got exposed to how important the whole group was.”

Church said he could already see leadership potential in Kerr, then a sophomore.

“John was a real professional,” Church said. “[He] was a really good teammate.”

From rivals to classmates

Kerr grew up outside of Washington. His father, John Kerr Sr., played professionally alongside Pelé with the New York Cosmos and is credited as one the leaders who made soccer more popular around the nation’s capital.

The younger Kerr liked to play other sports, too. He would play tennis frequently with future classmate and All-American Duke men’s basketball star Tommy Amaker, whose mom was also Kerr’s guidance counselor in middle school.

Then there was basketball, which brought Amaker and Kerr head on. The two faced each other routinely on the court in high school for rival programs, and they faced off one last time in the state playoffs as seniors.

Kerr on Amaker, one-on-one defense.

Didn’t matter.

“Second half, he took over—scored 35 points on me,” Kerr said. “I said, ‘Come on, let’s go on the soccer field, Tommy.’ He said, ‘No, no. You’ve got that one.’”

Searching for another title

A high school All-American, Kerr made an impact right away as a college player with nine goals during his freshman season. He starred as a sophomore and junior before peaking during Duke’s 1986 NCAA tournament run, when he matched his 1985 season total with 14 assists and scored 15 goals after finishing with 11 as a junior. 

The season was the peak of Blue Devil men’s soccer. Kerr became the fourth Hermann Trophy winner in five years from Duke, a feat no other school has accomplished. Head coach John Rennie built what Church referred to as a “dynasty,” with an appearance in the 1982 national championship game that resulted in a 2-1 loss against Indiana in eight overtimes.

Fast-forwarding to today reveals a program that is very much different—Duke has not made the NCAA tournament since 2011 and will likely miss it again with a 4-5-2 record and 1-3-1 mark in the ACC with five games remaining.

Kerr became head coach in 2008 after spending nine seasons at Harvard, where he took the team to three NCAA tournaments and recruited Amaker as the school’s head men’s basketball coach. Kerr continued his success with the Blue Devils after taking over for a retired Rennie, as Duke made NCAA tournament appearances in each of his first four years.

“The goals never change at Duke,” Kerr said. “Whatever sport, [they are] to try to win ACC championships and try to win national championships.”

Something has changed at Duke, though, even with Kerr and Church back together working from the same office building and congratulating each other on each others’ wins. Rennie also attends the games like he used to, though he is usually in the new Kennedy Tower press box.

Church no longer has a mustache, one that he was photographed with at the annual Duke summer soccer program for several years in the 1980s.

“I wouldn’t say it was big, I would say it was a little cheesy,” he said.

For both of them, it’s the same field, the same goals and same school they’ve grown up knowing so close to their hearts.

That, along with experiencing both the highs and more recent lows, makes Kerr the embodiment of Duke men’s soccer.

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