Robbie Church (57) had spent two seasons as head coach of the women’s soccer program at Vanderbilt University when Bill Hempen, his equivalent at Duke University between 1988 and 2001, called him to offer the possibility to get his dream job. “It was the end of May or the early days of June 2001. I was at my house in Franklin, Tennessee. Bill called me and said he received a job offer as soccer coach from Colorado State University. So he asked me if I was interested in taking his position at Duke.”
Church has been a big Blue Devils fan since he was a little kid. In 1960, when he was just three years old, his aunt and uncle used to take him to Duke to watch basketball and football games. Later, Church went to school in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his family is from. He was the only Duke fan back then for all of his classmates supported the UNC Tar Heels. Church started thinking about becoming a soccer coach sometime between his junior and senior year (1980-1981) at Pfeiffer College. He played soccer (a four-year starter, MVP and his team’s leading scorer as a senior) and ran cross-country in college. But he was not fast. “I realized that I was too slow so I wasn’t going to be a professional player. I wanted a real job but I also wanted something where I could were sweats and shorts and t-shirts. I only have one suit and a tie right now. Being a soccer coach just came as a natural fit.”
After graduating from Pfeiffer College, Church worked as a head soccer coach at East Carolina University (1982-1984.) His special connection with Duke University and his interest in becoming a soccer coach overlapped one year later, when Church worked as John Rennie’s assistant coach for Duke men’s soccer team for one season. So when Hempen asked Church whether he was interested in becoming Duke’s head coach –“I thought of you to substitute me and want to suggest your name to Chris Kennedy, our Sports Supervisor. But first I need to know if you’re interested,”– the then Vanderbilt head coach didn’t think it twice. Besides the bond Church already had with Duke, he and his wife –whose family is from High Point, NC– wanted to bring their two children to North Carolina where their grandparents lived. “Although I loved Nashville and Vanderbilt, we wanted our kids to be surrounded by their family.” Hempen didn’t actually have much saying in the final decision but Rennie, the head coach of Duke men’s soccer team between 1980 and 2007, did. Since Church knew both the university and its soccer program very well, he was the perfect candidate to substitute Hempen. His dream came true.
When Church left Vanderbilt, his assistant coach Billy Lesesne interviewed to assume the head coach position. Church told Lesesne that if he didn’t get the job at Vanderbilt, Duke would have a place for him in his staff. “Unfortunately, Billy didn’t get the job, but he came with us. So everything worked out well.” Lesesne remembers that he was going to a recruitment event for Vanderbilt in Wilmington with Church when he visited Duke for the first time. “I just saw this place and found it so impressive that I decided to accept Robbie’s offer.”