Aug. 31, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
If you think you've had a long day, don't even ask how Lady Vols assistant coach Keeley Dowling spent last Monday.
Two days after her professional soccer team, Sky Blue FC, won the Women's Professional Soccer championship and a day removed from flying cross-country to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, Dowling jumped behind the wheel of her car and starting driving South.
Some 10 ½ hours later Dowling, a three-time Lady Vols All-American, arrived in Knoxville to begin her second season as an assistant soccer coach at Tennessee. And despite the whirlwind 48 hours following Sky Blue's championship run, Dowling barely missed a beat.
"You don't even know she's gone," says UT coach Angela Kelly.
Turns out Dowling never leaves Tennessee for long.
After finishing her career in 2004 as the most-decorated soccer player in school history, she returned in 2005 as a student assistant coach. She also played professionally in the United Soccer League and in Sweden, as well as logging time with U.S. women's national team.
But in 2007 Dowling was back in Knoxville, where she trained, as an interim assistant coach while Jen Laughridge Grubb was on maternity leave.
"She was a great assistant coach, and she realized that there's one thing more important than coaching soccer, and it's family and having a baby," Kelly said. "It was very sweet. She said she didn't want to compromise her family and her child, but she also respected and cared so much for the program that she didn't want to compromise not giving everything to the program."
So Kelly began a search for Laughridge Grubb's replacement only to find the best fit was already in Knoxville.
"We interviewed some great candidates," Kelley said. "Not even (being) biased, Keeley was the best fit for the position.
"She learned so much. Everything's she's gained from every single coach -- and they've all been different -- that's knowledge she can bring back here. It's not like she's played for me and that's it. She's a wealth of knowledge. She can bring a different perspective from me and (assistant) Joe (Kirt) as we talk as a staff. It's been wonderful."
Same goes for Dowling.
"Studying the game and being coached by different coaches is going to give you that extra benefit," says Dowling, who was a four-time All-SEC selection and two-time SEC defensive player of the year at Tennessee. "I'm constantly learning. As a coach, you're always learning. When you're playing and you're a coach, you always look at things from a player perspective and also look at it from a coaching perspective as well."
That perspective came back into focus last week when she returned to Knoxville.
When Dowling arrived for the team's pre-practice film session on Tuesday, she was welcomed back with open arms -- and a proposal.
One of UT's captains got down on a knee, presented Dowling with last year's SEC tournament championship ring and asked for Dowling's commitment to this year's team.
"It was cute, and the team had a good laugh there," Kelly said. "It was just a special thing.
"These young ladies that are playing at the University of Tennessee now have a role model that they've watched playing on TV, (and) no other team in this country has an assistant coach who just won a world championship that is training them."
Dowling is committed to playing professionally as long as she can. And her commitment to the Lady Vols, well, that was never in doubt.
"Obviously I'm very passionate about the game, and I wanted to continue playing for as long as I can," she said. "When you enjoy something so much, you just want to give back to younger players and teach them the game. At this level, it's more than about the game. It's really about the game of life and making good decisions and becoming a strong woman in the world."
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