Editor's note: Building highly successful athletics programs requires many facets. In this "Auburn Builds Champions" series, we will profile eight Auburn Athletics coaches and support staff members and their keys to success. In part four, soccer coach Karen Hoppa discusses the importance of creating a winning culture by recruiting character.
By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Talent, important as it is, is not at the top of Auburn soccer coach Karen Hoppa's list when it comes to evaluating prospective Tigers.
"In building our program at Auburn, we've found that culture is more important than anything else," Hoppa said. "It's a hard thing to create for sure but we have found the No. 1 way to create a good family culture within our program is to recruit character."
In her 20th season at Auburn, Hoppa has led the Tigers to seven SEC Western Division championships, a Southeastern Conference regular season title and an SEC Tournament championship.
"I think you do win with character," Hoppa said. "When you have great players who are selfish, they'll hurt the program sometimes more than help. I find our best years and our most successful years have been the years with the best team chemistry. With these players, they want to want to fight for the girl next to them. When you have good people, they want that.
"You have a good group of seniors, everybody wants to win to send the seniors out on the right way. People will play better when they're playing for something bigger than themselves."
On the recruiting trail, Hoppa backs up her belief that character wins.
"Somebody may be a great soccer player, but we found out any potential red flags in their character, on the field or off the field, and we won't recruit them," she said.
"It will be the first question we ask club coaches: what kind of person is she? That, to us, is more important than anything else because if we have a program full of good, quality people who come from good families and good values, that creates a really positive culture."
'I hired the right people'
The same principle applies when Hoppa assembles her staff.
"It's the same thing in the hiring process, that's the first thing I want is character," she said. "Somebody who's going to fit into the Auburn family and fit into the culture and add in a positive way to the culture of our program. I want good people."
James Armstrong, in his sixth season at Auburn, serves as associate head coach while Ben Madsen enters his seventh season as an assistant coach. Former Auburn soccer captain Sammy Towne handles logistics as director of soccer operations.
"You don't get a better group of people," Hoppa said. "Obviously, they're also great at what they do."
You don't get a better group of people. Obviously, they're also great at what they do
-- Karen Hoppa
After a quarter-century as a collegiate head coach, Hoppa's coaching tree incudes former Auburn assistants who have gone on to lead programs in the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, where Keidane McAlpine led Southern California to the 2016 national championship.
"I have had some unbelievable coaches," Hoppa said. "Everybody thinks when I have a position open that I train people to become these great head coaches. I don't think I trained them, I think I hired the right people.
"I take a lot of pride in what my former players are doing but also what my former staff members are doing. There's a little sense of pride when I watch them win, or watch Keidane's team celebrating the national championship. I played a little tiny, small role in that, and helped impact their players a little bit as well."
Hoppa credits Auburn's staff and administrative support, as well, including athletic trainer Melanie Lynn, strength and conditioning coach Megan Young, and executive associate athletics director Meredith Jenkins.
"It's not just our players and our staff but it's everybody around us," she said. "Everybody who touches the athletes supports that culture.
"I can call Meredith with anything and she solves our problems so we can spend more time focusing on the athletes. That role that she plays is massive. She's always there to be behind the scenes and help our program."
For Hoppa, the payoff occurs in three places: on the pitch winning games, at Auburn Arena watching student-athletes graduate, and seeing them succeed in their careers.
"You look at the success of our former student athletes in their professional lives and what they're doing," she said. "We have doctors and lawyers and accountants and teachers and they bring so much that they've learned as a student-athlete here at Auburn into their professional careers. I think that's credit to the character and the type of people we've had in this program."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer
Auburn Builds Champions Series
Part 1: Auburn Builds Champions: Staffing key to Auburn baseball success
Part 2: Auburn Builds Champions: Greg Williams vision to 'plant a seed for a tree you'll never shade under' has produced four equestrian national championships
Part 3: Auburn Builds Champions: Soccer's Karen Hoppa develops winning culture