Kelly Amonte Hiller’s office in Patten Gym on the Northwestern campus is casual and spare. There are few plaques and photos on the wall. Her manner is similarly unprepossessing: simple, straightforward, even modest.
A visitor would be hard pressed to guess that Ms. Hiller is one of the winningest coaches in American sports, a legend in college lacrosse. Her Wildcat teams have won the women’s lacrosse national championship seven times since 2005. Her overall record is a phenomenal 196 wins and only 30 losses.
In 2011 ESPN magazine recognized her as one of the nation’s top recruiters and last year the Big Ten Network named her one of the top coaches in conference history.
To what does she attribute her success?
“We push the players to create a winning culture,” she said. “That means hard work, discipline and believing in yourself.”
For Ms. Hiller, hard work and discipline come naturally. She grew up near Boston in a close-knit family that stressed athletics. (Her brother, Tony, played right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1993 to 2002.) At University of Maryland she starred on two national championship lacrosse teams and ended her career the school’s all-time leader in scoring. After graduating she played on three U.S national teams.
After coaching part-time at Brown University and University of Massachusetts, she was recruited to Northwestern in 2000 by former athletic director Rick Taylor.
Though women’s lacrosse was only a club program at the time, she saw a lot of potential. The first step was to elevate it to a varsity sport, which she did the next season. By 2003 she managed a respectable 8-8 record. The next season was the big breakthrough: 15-3 and her first national championship. It was also the first time a college team not on the east coast, where the game is popular, had won a college title. In 2005 she achieved a perfect season, going 21-0 to win her second national championship. Another perfect season followed in 2009.
As the team has grown more and more successful, the challenge and pressure increase. “It’s easier to climb than to stay on top,” Ms. Hiller admits. “If you let up, someone will be breathing down your neck. So you have to stay motivated.”
Her boss, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, agrees. “How do you improve a championship program? It’s harder to maintain than to achieve.” He says the secret of her success is that she is a terrific motivator, is highly organized and has “an unbelievable work ethic.”
To help sustain her winning record, she embraces new ideas. The team has incorporated yoga and boxing into its training program and mixes up daily practices with a variety of innovative drills. “You have to find ways to root out complacency,” she says.
Midfielder Taylor Thornton, a senior from Texas in her fourth year on the team and one of the nation’s top players, says Ms. Hiller is “dedicated and passionate about coaching. We learn to work hard and play through adversity. These are not just good game skills – they’re good life lessons.”
Mr. Phillips says Coach Hiller is a “quintessential role model” for young women. “I have two little girls, and that’s how you want them to grow up. We’re blessed to have her as part of our Northwestern family.”
Ms. Hiller says she has grown to love Evanston, and believes the city feels the same way about the team. “People have wrapped their arms around the program. They realize what we’re giving to the community.
It’s very gratifying.”
The Wildcats women’s lacrosse team embarks on its 2013 season Feb. 8 against University of Massachusetts and plays its first home game on the lakefront campus March 6 versus Boston College.
Information and tickets are available by calling 888-GO-PURPLE (888-467-8775).