Just Go Win a National Championship

Matson can’t pinpoint exactly when the coaching bug first bit her. She mentions rumors of legendary UNC coach Karen Shelton’s impending retirement. Her own love of Chapel Hill. Not wanting to get a real job. No convincing answer to Why not? (Photo: AP Photos/Aaron Beard ’99)

On this first day of December, Erin Matson ’22 is heading north on Interstate 95 with her boyfriend and her cappuccino. She’s in a rental car. At 23, Matson isn’t even technically old enough to rent this car. She has to pay for extra insurance, but Matson has always found a way of overcoming her youth.

Matson is driving. Naturally. The greatest field hockey player in UNC history (heck, American history) has been driving and driving and driving for as long as she can remember. She likes to drive. Craves the control. Her control issues are something she lampooned the first time I ever met her during an interview back when she was a freshman at UNC, so many national championships ago. Something she still wrestled with this season as she stepped over that narrow yet imposing white line from player to coach.

This drive is finally a chance to relax … theoretically. “I haven’t decompressed at all since we won the championship,” Matson says. “There’s always something to plan, phone calls and texts and emails to respond to. My to-do list never gets shorter.” Matson is driving toward a weekend vacation in Maryland. It sounds imposed. When pressed, she admits it is mostly her parents’ idea.

It’s been 12 days since Matson’s Tar Heels won the NCAA field hockey title. Twelve days since America remembered how much it had celebrated, debated and hated when Matson was hired last winter to be the youngest Division I coach in the country and suddenly started paying attention again when it all ended like a Disney script with UNC’s 11th national championship.

Matson concedes she wishes that script featured a sexier origin story, but she can’t pinpoint exactly when the coaching bug first bit her. She mentions rumors of legendary UNC coach Karen Shelton’s impending retirement. Her own love of Chapel Hill. Not wanting to get a real job. No convincing answer to Why not? She says that just the initial thought of it left her choked up, which happens a lot with Matson.

From the driver’s seat, she dishes on everything from managing a player’s crisis of confidence during the national final, to managing her blossoming brand, to managing the myriad doubters — all rapid fire, the way she’d knock out 40 pulls in 30 seconds in her basement as a 9 year old.

It’s a gumbo of brash, humble, proud and lots of emotions in between that reminds me of last year when, after winning her fourth national title as a player, Matson struck the iconic Michael Jordan pose raising four fingers with a cigar clenched in her teeth, yet still described her game-winning goal as “lucky.”

Her mind then swerves to another story about a recent text conversation with an older (aren’t they all?) coach and how she signed off by texting: “Let’s catch up when the dust settles.” The coach texted back: “The dust never settles.”

Barreling down I-95, Erin Matson cackled at how much she still has to learn.

The athletic director

“Go win the national championship,” said UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, reminiscing from his office in early December. “That’s what I told Erin back in the summer of 2022. ‘Go win the national championship, and then we’ll talk.’ ” That’s a hell of a job requirement for an aspiring coach. A natty. A fourth natty. Erin Matson treated winning that natty as if he’d asked her to fill out some paperwork. Done. Now can we talk about the job?

Who does that? It felt silly, but I asked Cunningham if he’d ever had a current student-athlete arrange a meeting in his office to discuss becoming the team’s head coach. Cunningham assumed the question was rhetorical. In veteran AD-speak, he summed up the idea as “nontraditional.”

“I knew Erin had an interest in coaching, but I was thinking she’d play in the Olympics and then get on the coaching path as an assistant,” Cunningham said. “I believed Erin would be a good head coach; I just didn’t think it would be tomorrow.”

Cunningham didn’t know Matson that well yet, so he wanted to make sure she understood that even with UNC’s dazzling field hockey pedigree, being a successor doesn’t guarantee success. About a month later, he walked into the UNC football office and found Matson grilling Mack Brown about what he wished he knew before his first coaching job. Cunningham thought to himself, “Huh, she’s serious about this!” For the first time he can recall, he began to think in terms of “maybe.”

When Shelton retired on Dec. 7, 2022, the UNC AD conceded that his predisposition was to hire a head coach who had been, well, a head coach. Matson had experience running clinics and camps, but she had never been a coach of anything. Nowhere. Never. “Of course, I was concerned about taking a former teammate and asking her to be the coach,” Cunningham said. “How are those players, their parents and our recruits going to buy into a 23-year-old coach? I also knew that Erin has a maturity way beyond her years and a charisma that attracts people to her vision.”

Cunningham kept reminding himself that every head coach has to be a first-time head coach at some point. Why not now? On Jan. 31, 2023, he slid a contract across his desk. Matson glanced at it — for effect — and took the job. Her first job ever. She barely escaped the office before tears flowed, confessing she was on an emotional teeter-totter between Holy crap, I pulled this off! and It’s time to get to work!

“As much as I wanted head coaching experience, Erin laid out her plans for the preseason, the season, the offseason, her recruiting, her staff, and she was so incredibly prepared,” Cunningham said. “And then she admitted where she lacked knowledge and experience. That made an impression. I think her self-awareness was the tipping point.”

Cunningham recognized that Matson knew field hockey as well as anybody in this galaxy, but he also hired her because she knew what she didn’t know.

From the driver’s seat, Erin Matson ’22 dishes on everything from managing a player’s crisis of confidence during the national final, to managing her blossoming brand, to managing the myriad doubters — all rapid fire, the way she’d knock out 40 pulls in 30 seconds in her basement as a 9 year old.

The teammate

Playing for the Tar Heels last season, Romea Riccardo ’23 was older than her coach. Let that sink in for a sec. Riccardo was eight months older than her coach. (During Matson’s senior year, she and her teammates referred to Riccardo as mom before last season when she aged into grandma.) “It was a little weird,” said Riccardo, speaking from the Chapel Hill apartment where she was once roommates with her future coach. “Last season I liked to tease Erin that I’m older, so why should I have to listen to her?”

Riccardo and Matson grew up 15 miles apart in Pennsylvania and played field hockey together for half their lives. Riccardo says she suspected something might be up in fall 2022 when Matson, an inveterate planner who was on the doorstep of her graduation, wasn’t sending out job applications. Hmmm. Then in the final week of January, Matson left the Tar Heel player group chats without explanation. “Erin had told me she’d interviewed for the job, but I just didn’t know if they’d hire her because she was so young,” Riccardo said. “Would they really give the job to someone who’d partied with us a month earlier?”

When Riccardo and her teammates were summoned to the team’s video room on Jan. 31, Riccardo still wasn’t sure. Then Cunningham and Matson walked in. “I know this is unique,” Matson told her new team. “I know this might be hard for some of you, but we’re going to do this together.”

Among the first player questions was: “Do we have to call you ‘Coach’?” Matson recognized the awkwardness of the situation, and all season long the Tar Heels, young and old, called their rookie coach by her first name.

Matson got the job at 9:30 a.m. Met with her team at 7 p.m. Practice started two days later. She quickly modernized everything from training drills to office furniture. What had been wood is now glass and fuzzy pillows. Relationships changed, too. Matson had to move, and “mom” stopped cooking dinners for her. “Erin is disciplined,” Riccardo said. “I knew that she would still love nothing more than to gossip with us before practice, but she couldn’t anymore.”

Matson’s proximity in age, however, did allow her a unique perspective to read the room. “What’s made her a good coach is that she understands how today’s college kids really need a balance,” Riccardo said. “There were some practices where she was all up in our faces, and there were others when we were playing frisbee.”

Riccardo’s instinct is to protect Matson, filtering her quotes just like a mother would. But she did reveal a story about a day last season when Matson made a rare foray into a team scrimmage after a loss to Virginia. Riccardo had injured her thumb, so she was umpiring that game and felt Matson’s familiar wrath when she called a foul against her coach. “Erin brought the fire back that we’d been missing for a couple of games,” Riccardo said. “I believe that was the turning point to our season.” (UNC never lost again.)

During that scrimmage, Matson scored a goal that only she could. “I turned to my teammates and said, “ ‘She’s baaaaaack,’ ” Riccardo recalled. “Erin gave me her Erin stare and said, ‘Did you think I ever left?’ ”

The coach

Coach Matson spoke to the UNC Board of Trustees on Nov. 9. “The past year has been a whirlwind,” she told the Review, “and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Once the whistle blows, I surrender control, and all I have to lean on is our preparation.”
(Photo: Jon Gardiner ’98)

“It” first revealed itself to me on the afternoon of March 27, 2019. I brought my UNC journalism class to Karen Shelton Stadium to report a feature story and asked Shelton to choose any player on her roster for my class to interview. She picked a freshman named Erin Matson. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of her. Five minutes in, I’d already decided that I wanted to write Matson’s story, too. (“They Don’t Have an Answer for Her,” May/June 2020, Review.)

“That was her ‘it’ factor,” Shelton recalled when we spoke recently about that day. “Erin has ‘it.’ She’s the best all-around player, person, communicator that I had in my 42 years as coach. That’s what I told Bubba when he was making his decision. When somebody has it, you need to recognize it, because it doesn’t come along that often, and if you don’t embrace it, you might regret losing it.”

Shelton phoned me a few days after the national championship match. From Florida, which is fitting. The former coach has been keeping her distance from the stadium that bears her name for a while now. She said she’d only attended two or three Tar Heel practices all season, but she’d provided an ear for Matson whenever she needed one. They talked a good bit, mostly questions about logistics that are new to Matson: scheduling, juggling scholarship offers, what hotel to stay at in Louisville. Rarely Xs and Os.

Shelton acknowledged what’s been obvious for a long time, even from the bleachers, that Matson has been a coach on the field since Day 1. She described Matson as a fascinating combination of “passionate” and “methodical,” two adjectives that rarely find their way into the same sentence. She also revealed that for a while when Matson first arrived in Chapel Hill in 2018, her passion nearly ate her method alive. Shelton recalls how as a freshman, Matson would speak out in team huddles, something freshmen don’t do. “She already had incredibly high standards, but over time Erin learned to be a little more subtle and effective handling people in different ways,” Shelton said. “Later on in her career, younger teammates who might be too intimidated to come to the coaching staff would go to Erin.”

The Tar Heels coach had long been grooming Matson for what might happen. At the end of most huddles during Matson’s senior year, Shelton would make a point to say, “Erin, do you have anything to add?” Matson always added.

Shelton has no patience for BS and isn’t one for false modesty, so I was surprised when the 10-time national champion coach interrupted me mid-question with a determination that the confession she was about to make must appear in this story. “Let me say this, too,” she began. “I’m no Erin Matson. She is really good at this. I wish I was as good. She’s super smart, and her work ethic is second to none. I was kind of a hard-ass. She’s a little more sensitive than me. I’m terrible with emails. She answers every email to the nth degree. What do I know about social media? Her social media skills are off the chart. UNC field hockey is everywhere.”

It’s true. Matson has championed her program from PBS to TikTok. Shelton likes to say Matson is “the Michael Jordan of field hockey,” but Jordan didn’t have to deal with what the Chicago Bulls looked like after he bolted for baseball. “I thought from the start that Erin’s biggest coaching challenge was not having Erin Matson,” Shelton said. “We had talented returning players, but the hardest thing for her was figuring out how to win without her.”

Of course, Shelton couldn’t, shouldn’t, keep her distance from the national title match. She watched it on site as a coach more than a fan, marveling at how her apprentice’s training tweaks had enhanced the passing and defensive skills on which the Tar Heel dynasty has been built. “Our passing was superb,” she said. “There were times when I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really good stuff. Maybe better than we’ve ever done it!’ ”

As the final minutes of a 1–1 game ticked down, Shelton copped to thinking what we all were: It’s time for that Matson Moment, that flash of athletic wizardry mere mortals can’t fathom. But what now? It felt like such a long time since the Tar Heels had needed an understudy to step in for the star.

One goal away from victory in the penalty shootout, Matson turned to Ryleigh Heck, a sophomore with a dash of Matsonian flair for the limelight, and told her, “Just go win a national championship.” It was an inescapable echo of Cunningham’s words to Matson 16 months earlier and, according to Riccardo, exactly what Matson, the player, would have said to herself. Control issues be damned, it was as close to a Matson Moment as a coach can get.

Of course, Heck scored the winner, and eventually Shelton found Matson for a celebratory hug on the field. There was no mushy passing-of-the-torch quip for posterity. The past and future legends of UNC coaching simply joked about how Matson had just been doused with a bucket of ice water, a fate Shelton was always careful to evade on her chilly championship Sundays. A rare rookie mistake for the newbie.

Wrapping up our conversation, I asked Shelton, “What don’t we see? What don’t we know about Erin Matson?” Shelton typically unfurls a tidy reply for everything. Not this time. “I don’t have an answer for that,” Shelton said after a long pause. “Erin’s genuine. What you see is who she is. There’s no phoniness in her. She’s the same Erin she’s always been; she’s just got the office now.”


“I thought from the start that Erin’s biggest coaching challenge was not having Erin Matson,” Shelton said. “We had talented returning players, but the hardest thing for her was figuring out how to win without her.” (Photo: UNC/Jeffrey Camarati)

Fifty miles down the road from when our conversation began, I ask Matson about peace. She flirted with that word during her postgame presser after the national title match, but has she really achieved it? And does she really even want it?

“Sitting at that press conference when I didn’t have to answer a question and the players were soaking up the adulation, that was a flicker of peace for me,” Matson says. “I got a little emotional, but then I snapped right out of it and realized that I’m soaking wet, I’m freezing and hungry and everybody wants a photo, and I was probably sneaking in a few thoughts of my to-do list.”

Referencing her control issues again, Matson can’t help but notice her boyfriend giving her the side-eye from the passenger seat. “The past year has been a whirlwind, and I’ve learned a lot about myself,” she says. “Once the whistle blows, I surrender control, and all I have to lean on is our preparation. I’ve learned that I truly find joy in that. It’s like this beautiful new challenge for me, a new puzzle to figure out how to push my players past what they thought were their limits.”

Matson concedes that she will never totally embrace peace because her personality, her drive, will never allow her to be fully satisfied. So until somebody turns off this newfound spotlight, Matson will keep squeezing the juice out of every publicity hit, including this one, for a higher purpose. To take advantage of some rare momentum for field hockey that lured a record 3,200 souls (half of them in standing room only) to Shelton Stadium on championship Sunday, to watch her overlooked sport, but mostly to see whether the 23-year-old kid could actually pull this off.

The term “fairy tale” comes up a lot with Matson’s story. Not from her. That’s not her style. But others say it enough that it would be easy to forget there were ever haters. Easy to put the doubters in her rearview mirror. But that’s not Matson either.

“It’s funny. I remember right after I was hired there were a couple of tweets saying she’ll never make it, she’s too young to even rent a car,” says Matson, pressing pedal to metal. “Well, look at me now, Tim. Those people can all eat my dust!”

Tim Crothers ’86 is a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated and a lecturer at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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