The Davidson Team That Changed College Soccer
Three decades ago, soccer coach Charlie Slagle had an idea: Make a charming college town north of Charlotte the permanent home of the NCAA men’s soccer championship. He didn’t fully realize that dream—but he did enough to alter the course of college soccer
When he enrolled at Davidson College in 1970, Charlie Slagle was a football player. He soon switched to another kind of football, protecting the goal for the men’s soccer Wildcats, and developed a passion for his adopted sport. By the time he graduated in 1974, Slagle had earned all-Southern Conference honors, and he still holds the program record for saves in a season.
Six years later, Slagle’s alma mater hired him as the head coach. At various times in his career, Slagle coached women’s basketball, baseball, and golf, too. But the soccer pitch was where his soul was. He coached for 21 seasons, won three conference regular-season titles and two tournament championships, and compiled a record of 209-202-31. He is the longest-tenured and winningest coach in the 66-year history of the program.
Yet when people in and around Davidson—the town, not just the school—remember Slagle, their minds tend to drift back 30 years to 1992, when Davidson College hosted what’s now called the College Cup for the first of three consecutive years. The College Cup is to college soccer what the Final Four is to college basketball: the two national semifinal games and championship match. More important, it’s an event, a weekend that brings a measure of recognition and dollars to its host city or town.
At least, it is now. Three decades ago, college soccer was something a few notches shy of an afterthought. The final four games were typically played in December; the quadruple-overtime 1989 championship game, at Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, unspooled before fewer than 4,000 fans over 150 agonizing minutes in bitter cold—and ended in a 1-1 tie. (NCAA rules allowed for co-champions at the time.) The games moved to Tampa for the next two seasons. Attendance did not improve.
Slagle had attended the championship matches in Tampa and seen for himself how moribund they were. He thought the games should be played in a picturesque small town with easy access to a growing urban area, in a state where soccer was beginning to catch on and that offered December weather that wouldn’t inflict frostbite on fans. Slagle happened to know a place like that.
“Our hosting of the tournament was the brainchild of Charlie Slagle, without a doubt. It was Charlie’s idea from the very beginning, and he had the vision and energy to do it,” says Scott Applegate, Davidson’s senior assistant director of athletics, who’s worked in the athletics department since 1989. “It was a little bit of a radical idea at the time—we’re a very small school and a pretty small town, although we were next to Charlotte. But Charlotte certainly wasn’t as big as it is now.”
With the help of two other Davidson alumni in the athletics department, Slagle successfully sold his idea to the NCAA, which agreed—for a while—that Davidson was a great place for the soccer championship. By 1995, when the games moved to a bigger venue, college soccer had come into its own.
For that matter, so had Davidson and its soccer program. In 1992, one of Slagle’s visions—final four games on the Davidson campus—ran right into another: his team playing in them.
Slagle flew to Kansas City in February 1992 to make his case to the NCAA. A pair of allies went with him: Terry Holland, Davidson Class of ’64, the former men’s basketball coach who’d returned as athletic director after 17 seasons at Virginia; and Pat Millen, Davidson Class of ’86, hired in 1990 as director of athletics marketing.
It was a nearly ideal three-man team for the job, NCAA administrator Tom Jacobs would say later: Slagle, a keen and bright soccer mind and evangelist for his idea; Holland, experienced, widely respected, and connected after his long stint at Virginia; and Millen, a young and enthusiastic promoter of his school and athletic department. Millen recalls that after they walked out of the building, Holland predicted that Davidson had it—before its competitors, Richmond and Tampa, had even made their presentations.
It didn’t take long for the NCAA to decide. The following week, the organization announced that Davidson would host the 1992 and 1993 championships. “Perhaps there’s too many things available to the consumer in the Tampa market,” said Jim Dyer, the selection committee chairman. The excitement already building among business and civic leaders and fans in the Lake Norman area helped the case, too.
A happy Slagle foresaw what was to come. “I honestly believe the support in this area will be tremendous,” he said at the time. “To tell the truth, I hope it goes so well the next two years that Davidson will be too small to host it after that.”
Slagle, wrote Tom Sorensen in The Charlotte Observer, “marketed the tournament the way the World Wrestling Federation markets WrestleMania.” Davidson sent more than 10,000 letters about the upcoming event to college, high school, and youth soccer coaches; alumni; and friends of soccer. The university widened its field and added a new scoreboard, lights, auxiliary stands, and an expanded press box to Richardson Stadium. Davidson began to sell its 5,350 tickets in July—and sold out by late August. The athletic department responded by adding 3,000 temporary seats to the stadium.
“The thing that kind of sticks out in my mind is how everybody rallied around it,” Applegate says. “I like to say we’re a small school that thinks big, and that was a time when we first started thinking that we could pull this off. I just remember a lot of people stepping up in the community and on campus to do whatever we needed to get it done. It was a rallying point for everyone.”
Momentum seemed to build for everything except Slagle’s team. The 1991 team struggled to an 8-10-2 record after its star, senior forward Rob Ukrop, broke a leg. Ukrop healed up and, granted an extra year of eligibility, returned for the ’92 season. It began Sept. 5 as if it’d be a repeat of ’91: Davidson lost 4-2 at Wake Forest.
Two days later, though, the Wildcats beat 10th-ranked North Carolina 4-3 in overtime. What remains the greatest season in Davidson men’s soccer history had left the launchpad. The team had two legitimate stars: Ukrop, who led the nation in goals that year with an astonishing 31 in 27 games, and Alex Deegan, a 5-foot-8 sophomore goalie just beginning a college career that in many ways matched his coach’s 20 years earlier. No one else stood out, not at first. Applegate, a team trainer, saw all of it up close.
“We were a team that had really jelled,” he says. “We had a lot of guys that nobody else wanted, and we just had the right guys in the right spots, and everybody was pulling for everybody.”
The Wildcats roared into NCAA Tournament play in mid-November with an overall record of 16 wins, four losses, three ties, seven overtime games, a five-game winning streak, and a Southern Conference championship. A town already juiced to host the final four games went even crazier for soccer. Yet not many thought the Wildcats could play for a national championship in front of their home crowd. The program had never made it that far. It had never made the NCAA Tournament before.
But on Nov. 15 at UNC Charlotte, Davidson beat the 49ers, a longtime nemesis, in an overtime penalty shootout. A week later, the Wildcats beat Coastal Carolina, again in a penalty shootout. A week after that, Davidson faced yet another opponent from the Carolinas: N.C. State. The winner would advance to the final four.
The teams ground through 117 minutes without settling matters—or scoring. Finally, 12 minutes into sudden-death overtime, Matt Spear—the senior team captain who’d later succeed Slagle and coach the Wildcats for 18 seasons—took a free kick from the corner on the Wolfpack’s end of the field. The kick landed in front of the goal and caromed off a Wildcat, then off the butt of a State player. Then it was loose. Rob Ukrop—who else?—flashed in and, with a flick of his right leg, sent the ball into the net.
This was more than even Slagle could have imagined. In the lead-up to the semifinal matches—Duke against defending champion Virginia in the first game, Davidson versus San Diego in the second—organizers for Christmas in Davidson rescheduled the annual event to coincide with the championship. On game day, Friday, Dec. 4, thousands of fans flocked to the town of 4,000. Buses shuttled people to Main Street from parking lots off Interstate 77. Davidson athletes and community volunteers directed fans, answered questions, and served as tour guides. Members of the football and baseball teams directed traffic. SAE fraternity members stationed at the Village Green helped people on and off the shuttle buses, and KA brothers painted big red paws on the road from Exit 30 off I-77 to Main Street and around campus.
Virginia easily dispatched Duke, 3-0, in the first game. Before the second, in front of more than 8,000 fans on a chilly, gray afternoon, Slagle captured the significance of a moment he, more than anyone, had created.
“We cannot worry about the crowd. The crowd’s going to be great,” he said. “Get that ball down the wings, get the ball into the box, get the ball to Rob, run off of him, and just play the best game of your life. All right? … You’ve got to look at the long run: Nobody expected us to be in the final. We’re one 90-minute game—or more—away from doing that.”
As he’d half-predicted, the game against San Diego was another overtime affair. Regulation ended in a 2-all tie. So did the first overtime. Then, with less than three minutes left in the second overtime, sudden death: The Toreros scored off a cross pass. It was over. Two days later, Virginia took its second straight title by beating San Diego 2-0.
In the years since, Davidson has appeared in the tournament only twice—and never gotten close to the College Cup. But Davidson remained the home of the championship round for another two seasons. Virginia won the championship again in 1993, and even without Davidson in the tournament, the weekend’s attendance was 20,854 for the three games—a far cry from Tampa three years before.
Miller Yoho, director of communications and marketing for the Charlotte Sports Foundation, was 6 in 1994 when he and his father traveled the 35 miles from Gastonia to attend one of the final four games. Neither was much of a soccer fan, but Yoho remembers it well.
“It felt significant,” says Yoho, who’s helped organize and promote Charlotte sports showcases like the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. “It was obviously from the eyes of a kid, but it felt like this was a major sport. I remember seeing that stadium and it feeling big but also intimate, if that makes sense—like you’re up close to the players, and you can be a part of it.”
It was a common sentiment. On the day of the 1994 championship match, another victory for the Cavaliers, The Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story that began, “In three years, Davidson College turned the NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament from nothing into something. Having played to empty seats just about everywhere else, the final four has become a hot ticket here.” It went on: “Most soccer people will tell you the setting in this cozy rural community just north of Charlotte is ideal.”
That turned out to be Davidson’s undoing as a host. If the college could host sellouts in tiny Richardson Stadium, why couldn’t college soccer draw enough fans to sell out a bigger one? University of Richmond Stadium had a capacity of nearly 23,000. Richmond hosted the College Cup from 1995 to 1998—and what, to this day, are seven of the 10 largest single-game crowds in NCAA men’s soccer history.
Davidson won the tournament back, sort of, in 1996, when the NCAA accepted a joint Davidson-UNCC bid to host the College Cup in Charlotte, at what was then Ericsson Stadium, in 1999 and 2000. The events drew well by pre-1990s standards but not Richmond’s, and the NFL stadium didn’t lend itself to far smaller college soccer crowds.
Since then, the tournament has shuttled among various sites around the country—Columbus, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri—and never come back to the Charlotte area, much less Davidson. But since 2009, the most common venue has been WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary—and Charlie Slagle is a big reason why. Slagle left Davidson in 2001 for a job as CEO of the Capital Area Soccer League, now NCFC Youth, a Raleigh-based youth soccer nonprofit. In that role, he pushed for Cary, which had already hosted the College Cup twice, as a regular site. The Raleigh suburb has hosted it four times since and will again in December and in 2025.
“Charlie would do anything to grow the game,” Applegate says. “He would go anywhere and speak; he would go anywhere and give advice on how to start a club. He was just soccer’s greatest ambassador.”
In January 2019, Slagle took a job as vice president of community engagement and gameday experience for the professional Richmond Kickers in the new USL League One. On July 1, the 67-year-old collapsed outside of his apartment in Richmond. The club announced his death the next day. Its president and board chairman had known Slagle for a long time.
“He was a terrific man who loved his children, Barry and Amelia, his granddaughter, Clara, and the soccer community at large,” Rob Ukrop said in a statement. “He made an immediate impact on the RVA community by sharing his time and talent running coaching clinics and camps. Most importantly, he was an incredible friend to our staff and a joyful and authentic leader.”
Above the release on the Kickers’ website, the club posted a photo of a grinning Slagle, clad in an Adidas polo shirt, and the words: “Charlie Slagle. Joyful. Authentic. United.”
Jonathan Swann, a 2019 Davidson graduate who now lives in Florida, contributed research. GREG LACOUR is the editor.