The end of Aaron Rodgers’ college soccer career arrived in unexpected — some might say devastating — fashion in 1994.
Rodgers was expected to be North Texas’ starting goalkeeper for his senior season. Only there wasn’t a season — not after UNT cut one of its more successful programs due to gender equity considerations.
“One of the toughest things I have had to deal with in my life was not getting to play my senior year,” Rodgers said.
When the former UNT standout looked back on that tough time this week, he could see how that ending also was the starting point for a rise in the coaching ranks that reached new heights in December when he was named the head coach at Ohio.
Rodgers, a 1996 UNT graduate, spent one season as John Hedlund’s only assistant during the inaugural season for the women’s soccer program that replaced the men’s team in the Mean Green sports lineup.
Instead of playing for Hedlund, who had been set to take over the men’s program from legendary coach Richard Lowe, Rodgers spent the year helping lay the foundation for one of UNT’s most consistent programs. Hedlund started the women’s program from scratch after the men’s team was cut and — with the help of Rodgers — led the Mean Green to an 11-6-1 record in 1995.
Hedlund has been at it ever since and posted 18 straight winning seasons while leading UNT to the NCAA tournament three times. The third of those NCAA berths came last season.
“I really liked playing for coach Hedlund,” Rodgers said. “He’s a good coach and communicator. He did a good job of instructing and encouraging his players. He’s intense. His competitiveness was evident on and off the field. The roots of my coaching style came from being around him as a player and then as a coach.”
Those lessons helped Rodgers as he followed a long, winding journey to join Hedlund in the ranks of Division I head coaches. Rodgers left UNT after coaching with Hedlund for one season to join the staff at South Alabama, a move Rodgers said he made in order to grow as a person and coach.
Rodgers made several stops in a variety of fields over the ensuing years, serving as director of a youth club and working in medical sales and as an assistant coach. He worked with goalkeepers at Alabama, Florida and Kentucky, where he spent four seasons before taking over at Ohio.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Rodgers said. “It’s been fun, but I don’t know if it’s something I would want to do over. Medical sales taught me a lot about the business world. A big part of coaching is getting people to buy in to what you say. Sales is the same way.”
Hedlund always thought his former assistant might make a good head coach. The two ran into each other from time to time over the years at club events where they were recruiting for their respective programs.
“Aaron was a good goalkeeper,” Hedlund said. “He read the game and led defenses well. He had the attributes to be a good coach. That is why I brought him on as my goalkeeper coach.
“I had some big schools call me about him when they were looking for a goalkeeper coach. They’re hard to find.”
Rodgers will have his first chance to put the lessons he learned from Hedlund into practice as a head coach as he tries to rebuild Ohio’s program. The Bobcats have posted just two winning campaigns in their last 10 seasons and are coming off an 8-10-1 finish.
Rodgers has not spoken with Hedlund since he took the job but plans to get back in touch some time in the near future.
“I consider John a friend and somewhat of a mentor,” Rodgers said.
That friendship grew when Hedlund gave Rodgers his start in coaching after UNT cut its men’s soccer program. Most of UNT’s players transferred to other schools, but Rodgers didn’t have many options as a senior with just one year left to play.
Hedlund’s old goalkeeper stayed on, helped build UNT’s women’s program and took the first step toward becoming a head coach, a goal he’s finally reached at Ohio.
“It’s good to see,” Hedlund said. “He has paid his dues at some bigger places. I’m going to follow him and hope he does well.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870.