Former All-American Paul Cairney has high hopes for the UNCW women’s soccer program by Venita Jenkins
goaltending Paul Cairney ’93, ’95M originally planned on being a mainstay of a college campus after graduation – as a faculty member. Prior to instructing players how to perfect a stopover or a scissor kick on the field, Cairney thought he’d be teaching college-level English. An unexpected opportunity set him on a different path, and for the past two decades he has built the UNCW women’s soccer program into a Colonial Athletic Conference contender. The program, established in 1994, began with a limited scholarship and recruiting budget and a small coaching staff. Despite the challenges, the women’s team has appeared in CAA Championship title games in six of the last 10 seasons and won its first conference championship in 2009. In 2015, the Seahawks had a record 15 wins and won their first NCAA tournament game. With the team’s success came numerous accolades for Cairney, including three Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year awards and being named the 2015 National Soccer Coaches Association of America Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year. In August 2016, he achieved another milestone: his 200th career win. “From 1994 until today, I have enjoyed every minute of this journey,” said Cairney. “It’s not a job. It is, simply, a passion.” Cairney has been a constant figure for Seahawk soccer since his days as an undergraduate. He came to the university in the summer of 1988, traveling to the U.S. from his native Scotland to work UNCW’s summer soccer camps. Cairney was a defender on the UNCW men’s soccer team from 1989 to 1993, serving as two-time team captain and earning All-Colonial Athletic Association recognition. He also found success in the classroom. Cairney received several academic honors, including CoSIDA/GTE Academic All-American in 1993, the Chancellor’s Cup for Academic and Athletic Excellence and the Alumni Achievement Award for Academic Excellence. He graduated with the highest grade point average in his class. Cairney served as an assistant coach of both the men’s and women’s soccer teams while pursuing his master’s degree and became head coach in 1996. He says some of his most important lessons have taken place “on the pitch,” where he learned to be more patient and give his players a voice.
“When I first started coaching, it was more of a top-down approach, because that was the way I was coached,” Cairney recalled. “But once the players feel they are a part of the process, it can really help team chemistry.” Current assistant coach Megan Novak ’11, who played for UNCW from 2007 to 2011, described Cairney as a leader who is committed to making each student-athlete a better player and a better person. “Each day, I learn something new from him,” she said. “He really makes me think like a head coach. One of his most famous lines is, ‘If I weren’t here, what would you do?’” “I have had the privilege to work with some wonderful people and soccer players in the past 21 years,” he noted. “And ultimately this is what makes this so exciting: the players.”