Former UNCG soccer player and distinguished head coach E.J. O’Keeffe was officially welcomed as the new UNCG Men’s Soccer head coach in a press conference last Wednesday.
O’Keeffe, who previously led High Point University to an NCAA Tournament bid in 2018, was joined behind the podium by Athletic Director Kim Record and spoke before an audience that included team members, journalists and the head coach of every sport on campus.
O’Keeffe will inherit a team that was projected to win the SoCon in many preseason polls last season, but finished a mediocre 8-9-2 record after falling to Furman in the SoCon Tournament Final. Following the loss, UNCG opted to not renew former head coach Justin Maullin’s contract.
After a two-month search, UNCG now has found their man in O’Keeffe. Born and raised in Greensboro and a graduate of the Class of 2010, O’Keeffe is a Spartan through and through—and happens to be one of the most coveted young coaches in all of college soccer.
Prior to taking the job at UNCG, O’Keeffe spent the last four seasons as the High Point University Panthers’ head coach. He was twice-named the Big South Coach of the Year,led the Panthers to an appearance in the aforementioned 2018 NCAA Tournament and elevated HPU’s program to national prominence. UNCG, which AD Record described as a “soccer school”, is no stranger to that same national prominence and will look for a return to glory under O’Keeffe.
“When we built a profile for the type of individual we wanted as the next men’s soccer coach, there were many similar attributes with each individual and group I talked to,” AD Record said at the presser. “Relentless recruiter, respected in the profession, cares about academics, good communicator… Now, I will share with you that high on Chancellor [Frank] Gilliam’s list… was, quote, ‘Kim, find us a winner,’ unquote.”
Undeniably, O’Keeffe is the winner that UNCG has been searching for. A former team captain, O’Keeffe led the Spartans to a berth in the 2008 Sweet 16 and was named All-SoCon the same year. After proving himself a fantastic head coach and elite recruiter at High Point, he will now get a shot at his alma mater.
The hire was praised at a national level. “E.J. is one of the best young coaches in America,” Wake Forest Men’s Soccer Bobby Muuss said of the hiring. “He is a tireless worker and recruiter that cares greatly for his players. What he has accomplished in his time at High Point is incredible. I know he will bring that same success back to his alma mater.”
For O’Keeffe, he couldn’t be happier being at the helm of a program he once led as a player. Now that he enters into the program as a coach, he recognizes there is much to do if UNCG aims to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to get to work, and I’m excited about that. We have student-athletes that can help us… This is a program of excellence and that’s the expectation, from Chancellor Gilliam on downwards, with Kim [Record] and everyone else here. There is a rich tradition of excellence here.”
Still, rebuilding a program doesn’t happen overnight. After the disappointing outcome to the 2018 season, the rebuilding process will have to start from the ground up—and that begins with recruiting.
“The lifeline of any elite program is recruiting,” O’Keeffe said. “That’s a not a knock on [current players] at all… we have some very influential players in the program right now. But we’ve just got to recruit, and we’ve got to bring talented players in, both as soccer players and, just as importantly, as people that are academically applied and serious about getting their degree. And that’s one thing we’ll do. That’s one thing I love to do.”
UNCG Men’s Soccer’s 2019 season will begin in August.