NORFOLK, Va. – “The Troubles” is the term used to describe the violent split that began in the late 1960s between Catholics and Protestants in British-ruled Northern Ireland. Given that 3,500 died over three decades, the term seems understated.
It certainly seems so to Alan Dawson. It’s been 43 years since he left his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but he has searing memories of those terrifying days, which finally ended in 1998 with the so-called Good Friday agreement.
“As a kid, I’d known nothing else, so it was normal to me,” he said. “You just tried to survive.”
If you were Protestant, you stayed out of Catholic neighborhoods. If you married outside your faith, you went overseas to hide lest you get a bullet to the head.
Dawson said it’s difficult to believe that followers of Christ hated each other so much.
“But the hate, it was real,” he said.
He was a young boy when Dawson decided that somehow, some way, he had to get out of Belfast. “By the time I was 12, I knew I wouldn’t spend my life in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Fortunately, Dawson was an outstanding football player, or soccer, as we call the sport in America. And soccer got him out of Belfast.
“The game has been so good to me,” Dawson said. “It saved my life.
“It was my meal ticket out of Belfast.”
By the time he was 17, he was playing college soccer at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, and although he would visit Belfast often, his home was now in America.
Soccer has sustained him ever since, including the last 26 seasons as the head men’s coach at Old Dominion.
Dawson, 60, announced last month that his 27th season would be his last at ODU. Dr. Wood Selig, ODU’s director of athletics, named Associate Head Coach Tennant McVea as his replacement.
The Monarchs are unbeaten at 2-0-4 after six games, including five in a row on the road. The Monarchs begin a four-game home stand Tuesday night with VCU at 7 p.m. at the ODU Soccer Complex.
McVea, also from Northern Ireland, has been Dawson’s assistant since 2017, and has been ODU’s primary recruiter in recent years. And while he has an extensive resume, he knows he’ll be filling big shoes.
Dawson has won 259 games in his 26 seasons at ODU, claimed six conference titles, taken his team to 12 NCAA Tournaments and had 11 Major League Soccer draft picks. His 388-198-63 career record ranks him fifth among all Division I active coaches.
Selig said that Dawson is among a handful of coaches ODU has been fortunate to have who are among the best to coach in their respective sports.
“You look at (former men’s basketball coach) Sonny Allen and you know the trailblazer he was,” Selig said. “When you look at Marianne Stanley (women’s basketball), Beth Anders (field hockey) and Wendy Larry (women’s basketball), they were among the best of the best in their respective sports.
Dawson was 12 when he boarded a plane for a life-changing trip to America. He would spend three weeks of his summer in New Jersey. He stayed with a Catholic family (he is Protestant) and he fell in love with all things America, including its religious tolerance.
“I was sitting next to my English teacher when we were flying over New York,” Dawson said. “I asked him, ‘What are all those blue things down there?’ He told me they were swimming pools.
“I shouted to my teammates, ‘Boys, they’ve all got swimming pools.'”
He continued to return to America each summer in Jersey and made a lot of friends, but none as close as one family, whose oldest son Robbie Pontecorvo, is godfather to his daughter.
At age 17 he finally indeed got out of Belfast and enrolled at Lock Haven. He had grown up in working class Belfast and appreciated his partial scholarship more than most of his American teammates.
“We weren’t on full scholarships,” he said. “We all worked during the summer, sometimes at two jobs.”
He played four seasons and got his bachelor’s degree and then caught a break when Lock Haven head coach Michael Parker, an English native, moved to UNC Greensboro as the head coach.
“He took me with him,” Dawson said.
He spent two years there as an assistant coach, and was part of a staff that won a Division III national championship, and earned his Master’s degree.
“My education was all paid for because of the game,” Dawson said.
But his soccer career was just starting. At the age of 23, he was named the head coach at Methodist College and it was apparent from the start, the man can coach.
His first team went 8-6-3, his third team 14-5 and in year four, he took Methodist to the first of six consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
He would finish 129-30-1 in his nine seasons there, including a 21-1-0 record in 1995, when Methodist lost in the Division III national championship game.
“I had a great, great run at Methodist,” he said. “It was Division III and coaches had to do all kinds of things there they don’t have to in Division I. I taught class. We cut the field.
“It was a lot simpler than Division I. I really enjoyed my time there.”
And that’s in no small part because he met his future wife, Mari. She had a boyfriend at the time, but after meeting, Dawson, realized he met his true love.
The story of how they met might have been taken right out of a romance novel.
He was approached one day by a businessman who had brought three Irish players to Fayetteville Academy and asked him if he’d “take them on.” Dawson quickly agreed and they all enrolled at Methodist.
One stayed with Mari’s father, an Army veteran who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam.
“I got an invite to dinner at Mari’s house with the boys,” he said. “Eventually one weekend she came home with her boyfriend.”
She was in college and had come home to visit. She was standing on a hill, with her boyfriend, when Dawson first saw her and was instantly smitten. When they made eye contact it lingered and then she looked back at him again.
“I told the boys, ‘Introduce me to her,'” he said.
They quickly fell in love and dated just six months before they got married.
“She wanted the same things I wanted,” he said. “Family and kids. She’s tough, because she grew up in a military family and has been around.”
They already had three children in 1995 – Alec, Garrick and Ellesse – when they decided it was time for the entire family to take a big gamble.
There wasn’t much more Dawson could do at the Division III level and without Division I experience, he wasn’t moving up. He applied for the open job at ODU in 1995 and didn’t get an interview.
So, with Mari’s blessing, he left a full-time job at Methodist for a part-time gig at the University of North Carolina, where he made about one fourth of what he made as a head coach.
“I had a wife and three young kids and decided to take a job that paid $16,000 and had no benefits,” he said. “And Mari was all for it. She supported me all the way.
“We knew there was no other way that I could move up to Division I.”
The gamble worked. After finishing 3-17 in 1996, ODU granted him an interview and he was hired by then Athletic Director Jim Jarrett. It didn’t hurt that Joe Pereira, whom he had met at Methodist, was the ODU women’s coach and spoke highly of him.
“I’ve known Joe since I was 23 and we’re still very close,” Dawson said. “He’s my best friend.”
Again, it was apparent early on that the man can coach. In his first season the Monarchs upset Virginia and finished 7-9-1. Two years later, ODU was 15-4.
He would lead ODU on a wild ride for 26 seasons in which the Monarchs often went toe to toe with Power Five schools.
In 2002, the Monarchs qualified for their first NCAA Tournament under Dawson and in 2003, defeated N.C State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after being ranked as high as second nationally.
In 2005, ODU upended nationally ranked Virginia, Davidson and N.C. State.
In 2006, the Monarchs advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, losing to eventual champion UC Santa Barbara, and in 2007, won the CAA title and again advanced to the Sweet 16.
In 2010, the Monarchs upset No. 2 UNC at the ODU Soccer Complex and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where the Monarchs then upset defending national champion Virginia.
In 2014 and 2017 the Monarchs won Conference USA championships. Although the Monarchs have struggled in recent years, ODU upset 20th-ranked Campbell and won at No. 4 Marshall last season with a team that largely returned intact this fall.
Belfast has change immensely since Dawson was a child, for good and ill.
Catholics and Protestants get along much better and inter marriage between the faiths is even accepted. Paramilitary groups are no longer assassinating people.
But not all change has been good. Since the paramilitary groups stood down, drug use and homelessness have become rampant.
“The police had no authority,” Dawson said of his childhood. “It was the paramilitaries that you had to answer to.
“If you messed with a kid or broke into someone’s house, they dealt with you. You weren’t going to court. You were getting a bullet in your knee.
“The police, they can’t handle all of the problems now.”
There has been a huge demographic shift in Northern Ireland, where there are now more Catholics than Protestants. And it is Catholics who desire for a union with the Republic of Ireland. Dawson said that will eventually happen.
“The younger generation who never grew up in the Troubles, I hope they can handle a transition like that in a non-conflicting way,” he said.
Although he often visits Belfast, Norfolk and ODU are now his home. He and Mari raised their children in Larchmont, which he calls a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ neighborhood. Now that their children are grown, Alan and Mari live in downtown Norfolk.
When he came to ODU, he assumed that at some point he would take a Power Five job.
Dawson said eventually that UNC reached out to him about returning to Chapel Hill as head coach.
“It wasn’t an ideal time for my family,” he said. “My daughter was in high school. l so I turned them down. I told Wood that I’m going to stay, and he fought for me and got our program some things that we didn’t have before.”
Family and his Protestant faith have always been important to Dawson and his spiritual nature is well known to his friends.
There is a photograph of the 2001 soccer team on the top floor of the World Trade Center just three days before the towers were destroyed by terrorists. He said the many faces he saw that day still haunt him 22 years later.
“To be at the top of those towers on Saturday and then see them hit and come down on Tuesday, it was a very difficult thing,” he said. “I remember talking to my team about it. They were devastated because they couldn’t fathom. They saw faces, people taking tickets, selling concessions, who we knew were likely dead.”
ODU hosted the Stihl Soccer Classic that week, but given the tragedy, two teams opted out. One team called and said they wanted to play – Rutgers, which is located not far from New York City in New Jersey.
“In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to my team,” he said. “Maybe it was the same as Rutgers, because they were impacted. The kids needed to play out some emotion.”
Last season he found a rock that had been painted by Tina Reynolds, grieving mother in Indiana, who lost her daughter, Hayley, in a car accident. Dawson choked up when he realized who had painted the rock and kept it with him all of last season.
Last summer, he left the rock in South Africa for someone else to find.
He’s a big fan of Van Morrison, the soulful rocker from Northern Ireland who is a little older than Dawson, but whose songs often reflect the difficulties they both faced growing up.
“He mentions rivers and areas where I grew up,” Dawson. “We went to the same school.
“He’s older than me, but he’s still touring and he’s actually a very spiritual man. A lot of his music is worshiping god.”
Selig and an ODU booster took Dawson to Ft. Lauderdale a few years ago to watch Van Morrison in concert. “It was tremendous,” he said.
Dawson teared up several times during a recent 90-minute interview, but don’t mistake his sentimentality for softness. He’s tough on his players, and he’s a fan of perhaps the ultimate team of bad boys – the Las Vegas Raiders.
He’s had Raiders’ season tickets since the team was in Los Angeles and he and his son, Garrick, now share the tickets.
“My college roommate, he was the guy who got me stuck on the Raiders,” Dawson said. “In 1980, there was no soccer on TV, so there was nothing to be passionate about.
“So, I needed something to gravitate to, and the Raiders were the bad boys of the NFL. I didn’t know what I was watching but I loved the fans and the nature of the team.”
Later this season, his college roommate and his son, Alec, plan to catch a Raiders game in Sin City.
“Doesn’t matter where the Raiders play,” he said. “The teams are the same and the fans are so loyal.”
In spite of his affinity for American football, it is European football that afforded him the chance to have a great career, and he will always be grateful.
“It is the vehicle that has driven me through life,” he said. “I love the sport of course, but what it’s done for me is beyond belief.”
Yet one of the reason’s he’s stepping aside is because he realizes that there are things he wants to do, beyond coaching soccer, while he is still healthy.
Dawson recently lost his 64-year-old brother, Stanley, to cancer. “He was about to retire,” Dawson said.
He wants to spend time with his wife, who is a successful business woman in her own right. She co-owns the CoreVelo pilates studio and the Dominion Soccer Academy.
Alan and Mari will spend some time traveling to see their three children, who all have successful careers.
Alec, their oldest, got his Master’s degree in designing video games and works in Irvine, California for a gaming company. “The game that he played as a kid, Overwatch, he’s in charge of that game,” Alan Dawson said.
Garrick is a production assistant on tour with Cold Play, for whom he leads their philanthropic efforts. “He’s seeing the world and that’s great,” Alan Dawson said.
Ellesse worked for a fashion company but decided that job bored her, so she went to Florida to take a six-week course on luxury boating and has been chief steward on a luxury yacht for four years.
Her boyfriend recently proposed to her on a safari in South Africa, where the couple plans to wed in March. They work together on a yacht.
Selig watched Dawson’s kids grow up and said they reflect their parents’ values.
“His family is dynamic, generous and giving,” Selig said. “His wife is successful in her own business career. It’s a family of high performers. Each one of their children are so different and so unique.
“That’s part of what makes Alan successful. He understands everyone’s different, and he doesn’t expect the same thing from everyone. He expects maybe the same success, but how you go about it or what you do, matters not as long as you do it well, and you treat people right and you do it the right way.”
Dawson said he realized during the offseason that it was time for him to make room for a younger coach.
“I’ve been a head coach since I was 23. Being a head coach these days requires a lot of energy,” he said.
The NIL and transfer portal, “are not what I signed up for.
“It’s kind of come to the point where I know what I don’t want to do. I’m going to enjoy the heck out of this season and then move on.”
Asked about Dawson’s legacy, Selig said it won’t be just the wins and losses.
“I think, number one, you have to look at all the lives that he impacted in such a positive way,” he said.
“To me, the most important legacy is the impact that he had on hundreds of young men and where they are, who they are and what they’re doing today.
“He also had arguably one of the most successful men’s soccer programs in the country. The past 26 years have been marked by NCAA runs, top 25 rankings, season ending rankings, a program that’s been run cleanly without even a hint of any NCAA infraction.
“He’s attracted diversity to this campus. And he’s had high standards and left an extremely solid foundation for Tennant to build upon.
“So many who came here as young men grew and matured and became successful in part because of Alan Dawson. There is no greater legacy for a coach to have than that.”