Faculty & Staff Profiles
Susan Ellis played for UNC’s legendary women’s soccer team for four seasons and won four national championships, an impressive accomplishment that becomes downright jaw-dropping when you discover Ellis didn’t set foot on a soccer field until her senior year in high school.
Ellis loved sports and began swimming on an AAU team when she was in elementary school in Chapel Hill. She picked up tennis, basketball and track in middle school and competed in all four sports when she was at Chapel Hill High School.
“It wasn’t until my senior year in high school — track and soccer were at the same time — that one of my friends said, why don’t you play soccer? Mr. Griffin was the soccer coach and he was my English teacher, and we all thought he was cute. So I said okay, I’ll try soccer. … It was a good fit for me. It came very natural. It has a lot of basketball terminologies, and that’s what Mr. Griffin would sort of relate to me.”
While soccer was not always a part of life for Ellis, who came to Durham Academy in 2004 as a Middle School physical education teacher, varsity girls soccer coach and girls tennis coach, she had known since elementary school that she wanted to teach PE and coach.
Ellis was headed to Springfield College in Massachusetts after high school — she had been accepted there in January of her senior year — because Springfield had one of the country’s most prestigious physical education programs.
“Ever since I was in the third grade, I wanted to be a physical education teacher. I had a teacher, Settle Womble, who taught me elementary PE, was the advisor of the safety patrol and coached basketball at the high school. I just worshipped her. I decided in third grade I wanted to be just like her. What she brought to me — I wasn’t great at school — she made me feel successful at what I did in a PE environment. At one point I sort of teetered at teaching special education, but I just kept going back to the influence that Mrs. Womble had on me. I knew that’s what I wanted to be.”
And then, “this little soccer thing happened.”
A team made up of players from Ellis’ high school team and freshmen from the UNC team competed in a state tournament and a regional tournament, coached by her high school coach and Anson Dorrance and Bill Palladino of UNC. “They saw me play and saw I had a lot of raw talent. I certainly wasn’t the best out there. There were kids that had been playing soccer basically all their lives, but I was fast and I was tough, qualities they admired, so they asked me if I wanted to come to Carolina.”
Ellis grew up close enough to campus to ride her bike to UNC athletic events, and was such a dyed-in-the-wool Tar Heel fan that she “cried when Carolina would lose in anything.” She was the middle of five children — an older brother and sister and two younger sisters, all born within eight years of each other — whose dad would joke “we could go anywhere we wanted for college, but the only place he was going to pay for was Carolina.” But she didn’t jump at the offer to play soccer at UNC.
“We had this big conversation and my parents said it’s your choice, you can go where you want. I remember I came down, my dad was having breakfast, and he said, have you decided where you want to go? I said, yeah, I think I’m going to go to Springfield. He was like, er, wrong choice. Finally, I was like OK, OK, and I certainly thank him every year.”
Carolina women’s soccer played its initial season in fall 1979, and Ellis joined the team in 1980.
“People ask if I got a scholarship. I got something better — an admission letter that said I could attend Carolina. I would not have gotten in on my own. Soccer helped me. I did receive a scholarship after my freshman year. I just didn’t go in with a scholarship, I earned one. I had a great education there. At that point, they had a physical education program [in which] you could get a degree within the education department. I red-shirted one year so I took an extra semester and graduated in winter 1984. We won four national championships.”
December wasn’t a good time to find a teaching job, so Ellis spent December to June in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, working as a ski lift operator, cleaning condominiums and skiing every day. Her parents wanted to know when she was going to interview for a job she went to school for, so she took the national teachers exam and moved home to look for a teaching job.
“I remember going through the interview process, and no one wanted to hire a first-year teacher. I kept putting my name out there and thought my résumé looked pretty good. I was passionate. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Things clicked for Ellis in August when a UNC teammate called from Texas to wish her a happy birthday. They were catching up on each other’s lives when Ellis reported that she was looking for a teaching job but that no one wanted to hire a first-year teacher. “She said, oh my god, we have a job down here in Dallas. A teacher just quit August 1.” Ellis’s teammate put in a word for her, and the school flew her down for an interview.
“They were desperate, I was kind of desperate. It was a Catholic school and I’m not Catholic, but they wanted me and I said yes. … I was hardly making any money, but that was OK because I was doing what I loved. And I did become Mrs. Womble. In Dallas I coached, I was the advisor of the safety patrol and I taught PE.”
She drove from Chapel Hill to Dallas “in my little Subaru. I love to sew — I had my sewing machine, my TV and a trunk of clothes. I had a great experience at St. Monica. I will always be so grateful. They hired me when no one else would give me a chance.”
Ellis spent 16 years in Texas, teaching PE at St. Monica and Christ The King elementary schools and coaching soccer and tennis at Ursuline, an all-girls Catholic high school where her teams won 14 state soccer championships and also state tennis championships. For a few years, she also coached swimming, “but that was hard because I was coaching swimming in the morning. Soccer at that time was in the winter, so I was coaching two sports and teaching.”
She was nearly lured away from teaching when a UNC teammate, Marcia McDermott, called to offer her a job as assistant soccer coach at Arkansas. “I looked at that but just loved teaching PE … My passion was coaching little kids. That’s what gave me energy. Then, Marcia went to Northwestern in Chicago, called me again, and offered me a job as her assistant. I went and looked at it. Again, my gut was I just loved doing what I do. I didn’t love Dallas because it was so far away from my family, but I was there for so long and I loved what I did in Dallas and I loved the little community I had there.”
Then McDermott called a third time. “Marcia said, ‘I’m the new head coach of the Carolina Courage [a new women’s pro team in North Carolina]. I know you can’t tell me no three times. Come back to where you want to be, North Carolina,’ which was true. I just remember being tortured over the decision, but in the end, I said yes.
“I came back to be a part of the initial women’s pro league, which was called the WSA. This was in 2000 or 2001. The first year, it was bizarre — this high school coach and elementary school PE teacher coming back to be a professional soccer coach.”
The team finished dead last in the league the first year, won the WSA championship the next year, and the league folded in September 2003.
“As a teacher, it’s hard to get a job at the end of September, so I subbed for a year in the Durham public schools and was the Wednesday PE teacher at Forest View [Elementary School]. I was looking for a job. Chapel Hill had an opening, and in Durham the new elementary school, Creekside, was being built. That school was one minute from my house, and the principal said I’d be perfect. Then all of a sudden Joanie Dunlap, a friend who played with me at Carolina, called and said, ‘I’m leaving Durham Academy, would you be interested in this job?’ I said absolutely.”
Ellis loves her job at Durham Academy. She works with very young children in the soccer camp she offers through DA Summer Programs, teaches Middle School girls PE and health, and coaches JV girls tennis in the fall and varsity girls soccer in the spring.
“Kids change and grow up and you get to see that 360 view of them. I see the little ones when they come to my soccer camp in the summer, I teach them here as Middle Schoolers and then I get to see the huge, beautiful flower that they grow up to be. A second-grader who came to my soccer camp is getting ready to play in college next year. They change, and it’s really fun to watch them.”
Teaching and coaching have fulfilled the dream Ellis had as a third-grader.
“All my life, that’s what I wanted to be. It is sort of the connection, the lessons you can teach them. We have a saying in soccer: we want to be the best, what else is there? That daily grind sometimes is not easy to go through. That grind, helping them get through the hard part, the fun part, the easy part, is just what I love about teaching. The connections, the lessons, thinking they aren’t necessarily hearing them, but then they do hear them and they remember.
“Anything they do, just be the best they can be. Be your best. Character matters. Whether it’s being the best on the soccer field or being the best in a little PE class, just be your best self. Those lessons are going to help you grind out the adult stuff.”
The lessons Ellis teaches are ones she learned growing up.
“I learned the competitiveness through my dad. It was maddening to us kids. He would never let us win, even in Monopoly. He would never let us win any game we would play. In tennis, he would never let us win. It just sort of lit a fire in me.”
She credits her mother with teaching her sportsmanship. “I remember one time I was at a swim meet. I tell this story and my mom doesn’t remember it, but I remember it well. I swam and I got out of the pool and I looked at my time and it wasn’t a very good time so I pulled off my cap, threw it down on the ground and was being basically a jerk. I walked up to where everyone was and my mom was picking everything up. I’m thinking what is she doing, I had four more events. She’s not really saying anything and she says, 'Come on, we’re out of here.’ I didn’t talk back to my mom. I really didn’t know why, but I could tell she wasn’t very happy. We got in the car. The swim meet was in Greensboro, we’re driving back, she’s not saying a word. I think we’re in Burlington and she finally says, ‘If I see you get out of the pool and through your cap down like you did today, you will never swim another event, ever. It’s over.’ I knew she would do that.
“So now, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve won or lost, I’m happy. I can be disappointed and I try teach that to my kids. … I’m very intense, and there’s not anyone who wants to win more than I do, but there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it that I learned through my mom.”
When Ellis isn’t teaching and coaching, she loves to spend time with her dachshund, Beck, who’s named after legendary soccer player Franz Beckenbauer, and she loves to hike. “My dream is to go to every national park in the United States. I’ve gone to pretty many, to all the major ones except in Hawaii. I went to two national parks in Alaska last summer, and this summer I’m going back to Maine with my sister to Acadia.”
And she still plays soccer — on an over-30 team in the Durham league and on an over-55 team that will play in a national tournament this summer.
“In a coaching environment, I’m always barking out all sorts of different things to do. … I still play just to keep myself humble, so I don’t forget how difficult it is when I’m screaming at someone, and the wind is blowing, just clear it. I want to have a perspective, it’s not just clear it, it’s harder than just clear it.”
Ellis believes it’s good to put yourself out there, to get out of your comfort zone. She thinks back to when she was coaching professional soccer and would travel all over the country scouting college teams in the off-season.
“I was very uncomfortable and out of my element. It made me become a better person, a better coach. I was 40 years old and I had never gone to the airport, rented a car and gotten somewhere I needed to be. … At first, it scared the daylights out of me to do that. Here it was just me, by myself, before GPS, and I had to look at the map. I felt me doing that, I grew up. I didn’t want to act like, ‘I can’t do this,’ I was an adult. That was something I had never done and would never have done.”
Ellis also credits professional soccer with bringing her back to North Carolina.
“Being a pro coach got me back home and to my family. I had a niece and a nephew here, I was able to watch them in their middle school and high school days. I watched them play sports that they love and I got a better connection with them. And I could be there for my parents, who were getting older. I thank Marcia, the coach who asked me to come. Although the pro team didn’t make it, it got me back to where I needed to be and then to here at Durham Academy.”