It was during a two-month trial with the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit after the conclusion of her college career that the revelation dawned on Marion Cole.
Landing in the professional game – which would continue an on-field career that saw her named the Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year in her home state of Mississippi, succeed in the SEC for the University of Georgia and be called up to U.S. Youth National Team camps – wasn’t what she was looking for.
“I didn’t want to do it for me anymore,” Cole said recently. “I didn’t realize at the time my last year as a college athlete, what was driving me wasn’t our success on the field – because to be honest, we didn’t have that much – but it was how can I be better for my teammates today, how are they depending on me to be a better player, a better teammate. How can I help my coach, who’s only in his second year here at the University, how can I help him understand our program better or help him coach our program better? How can I help him get to the goals that he wants for our program?’
“When you get to that pro level as a female – probably as a male too – but certainly as a female, you have to have the sense that I want to do it for myself and nobody else, because there’s not that sense of team camaraderie, especially when you’re on trial and you’re there to take somebody else’s job. You’re not going to wake up wanting to do it for those girls, you have to wake up and be like, ‘I want to be on trial today because I want to be a professional soccer player for this team, and I want to do it for me and for nobody else,’ and I just didn’t have that drive anymore.”
Sure, there could have been opportunities to go overseas to compete, but at the same time there was just as much reason to stay. There was the close relationship Cole was in with her future husband that she was keen to remain in, and then there were the realities of what professional soccer looked like as she departed Athens in 2016 after scoring 30 goals in 73 appearances for the Bulldogs.
“I had a re-evaluation of my life,” she said. “I want to stay in my relationship – I’m so glad that I did – I want to see what I can accomplish outside of soccer, and that’s kind of where I’m at now. Still kind of figuring that part out.”
I want to see what I can accomplish outside of soccer, and that’s kind of where I’m at now. Still kind of figuring that part out.
There was an inevitability Cole was going to be an athlete. Her parents had both been athletes themselves, so when she put on a pair of soccer cleats for the first time aged three it was the start of numerous forays through different sports as she grew up in Madison, Mississippi.
“My parents were the type where we were at least going to try everything,” said Cole. “I think the only sport that I did not try was tennis, but I played soccer, I played basketball, I ran track, I played softball, I did literally everything growing up, and for a long time, soccer has one of the earliest ‘you can play at this age.’ I started playing in a rec league and I was playing up an age even then and just continued on.
“I think my parents liked that my shin guards and my shorts touched one another because I was so short, or they thought I was pretty quick and that would be a good thing. To be honest, I don’t know why they kept me playing, I think sometimes parents can just see you enjoy it, and by the time I turned around I was eight or nine years old and really starting to understand the game and love it.”
Soccer wasn’t the only sport Cole competed in regularly. She also ran track and played basketball too, her coaches in those sports believing the underlying elements of what a soccer player can bring athletically gave her a chance to succeed in their sports.
“I had a group of about four or five teammates that we played soccer together, we were on a basketball team together, a couple of us ran track together,” said Cole. “All of our coaches said the same thing for the sports other than soccer, it was ‘hey, soccer’s a really athletic sport, we think athletes can translate into any sport, so why don’t you come try this, or why don’t you run this event?’ A lot of the success that we had in other sports was just because people equated soccer players with being these great athletes that had that kind of innate talent.”
The promise Cole showed on the soccer field, though, was undeniable. A self-described “five-foot-nothing”, her dynamism as an attacking player saw her rise through the Region III Olympic Development Program and earn the chance to go to Boca Raton, Florida for her first camp when she was in eighth grade.
What awaited was the start of the next progression of her on-field career.
“You just saw college coaches lined up, two-deep on the sideline,” said Cole. “Seeing the amount of college coaches there it was like, ‘whoa, we knew you were good,’ but it’s crazy to see it translate into all of these coaches are here to watch all of us play. After that, it became pretty obvious that this was going to be my ticket to the next level.”
If the scene awaiting Cole in Boca Raton was eye-opening, the same can be said for her arrival for an unofficial weekend visit at the University of Georgia that followed.
“We drove everywhere, and we got [to Athens] at 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night,” said Cole. “We were driving into downtown, staying at a hotel there, and my dad’s just seeing girls not much older than me out, and he’s freaking out, because Athens – if you’ve never been – is quite the scene. My first welcome into Athens was college kids being college kids, so I don’t know what was coming out of my dad’s mouth, he was kind of laughing, kind of worried.”
That initial introduction aside, Georgia felt like a natural fit for Cole. The campus was close enough to her family for them to come to games and for her to return home in case of emergency, but far enough that she could strike out on her own and find her independence. There was a good relationship with the Bulldogs’ coach at the time, Steve Holeman, who had previously coached one of Cole’s cousins while he was at Ole Miss.
And then there were the facilities on offer at the Turner Soccer Complex.
“It’s kind of away from the stadium,” said Cole. “You have your own seclusion of soccer fields and a practice facility, and it was just, to see the resources a D-1 university has, it was absolutely shocking to me and my family, to see how much money they invest in their student-athletes and how much they want you to use their resources to be the best you can be, the amount of resources that were at your disposal, it was crazy.”
At the same time, though, the best advice Cole received – and one she now gives to those looking to follow in her footsteps into college soccer – was to make sure soccer wasn’t the be-all and end-all when it came to her final decision.
It was more than just the soccer program, I had fallen in love with that school and that place.
“The next question [my parents] asked me was, ‘where would you want to go to school if you got hurt and could never play again?’” said Cole. “You don’t want to be miserable when you’re rehabbing, just going to a school as a student, and Athens was the place that came into my mind. I would be so happy there as a normal student if that was in my future.
“That was how I made my decision, it was more than just the soccer program, I had fallen in love with that school and that place. To be able to go to a school that you love the athletic department, and you love that you get to go [on scholarship], but you love the school, and you love the town, I think that’s a pretty rare college experience and something people don’t always get.”
There wouldn’t be much time on the sidelines for Cole, however. From her freshman year, she was a key figure in the Bulldogs lineup. Earning SEC All-Freshman Team honors prior to two All-League honors – including a First Team selection in her senior seasons – Cole continued to succeed on the field.
An SEC All-Conference First Team selection as a senior, Marion Cole scored 30 goals in 73 games for the University of Georgia during her collegiate career.
But in addition to that, her quick integration into the starting lineup meant her first experience at Georgia gave was as valuable off the field as it was on.
“It’s leadership,” she said. “It’s how do you communicate across different levels of experience, how do you do that in a quick manner, and all of those things that you don’t realize are life skills until you graduate and then you’re like, ‘oh, this actually helped me because I remember when I was having this conversation with a teammate.’
“I wanted to be able to go to a school that I loved, but it meant a lot to be able to go to a school I loved and could be as invested in the program as I was, and have it invested in me as much, it was a unique experience for sure.”
If there’s anything Cole has learned, it’s that finding out what you don’t like is as valuable as finding out what you do, and what you’re good at.
That applied to both trying swimming as a youngster – “I think I had one time I tried to make a flip turn and I didn’t make it, and after that I was like, ‘I’m over it, I’m over it.’” – to her first experience after returning from her trial with the Spirit.
While she was still training with a thought of attempting to make it as a professional overseas, there was still the need to enter the workforce. It didn’t go well.
“I ended up getting a job as a marketing director at a local dentist’s office,” said Cole. “Once I got in that office space, I was like, ‘No. This is not it. I’m not ready for a real job. I don’t know if I want to play soccer anymore or not, but I know this office space is not it for me.’”
It was then that the connections she had made as a player at Georgia would pay off in finding a new path in the game. Reconnecting with the Bulldogs Director of Promotions Brenton Shiver and Deputy Athletic Director Stephanie Ransom – herself a former Bulldogs standout – brought Cole back to Athens.
“We just got to chatting about, what do you like, what are you good at?” said Cole. “And one thing they all kept telling me was, ‘you were great in any of these interviews you did as an athlete, you were a natural on camera.’ I was like, ‘yes, but I didn’t go to school for that, and I don’t know how I could do that now.’ They basically brought me in for a trial run on the ESPN+ broadcasts. I did one game in the booth as a color analyst and absolutely fell in love with it. I was like, I hadn’t felt that kind of a joy and a spark for something since playing.”
Cole spent the next year enrolled for her Master’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communications, stepping into a different world than the one she’d known on the field. In addition to classwork, she was also given a front-row seat on the production side as Rick Freeman – the university’s Senior Broadcast Engineer – and Mike Bilbow – the Assistant Athletic Director for Digital Production – helped guide Cole into the world of broadcast television.
“They both helped me figure out my reality and my career path and what that might look like,” said Cole. “They just invested in me in the year that I was here doing my graduate assistantship and made me realize, you can do this, and you can have a really fun career.”
Since her graduation, Cole has continued to hone her skills while using her experience to bring the game to newcomers and longtime fans alike. That has meant at times going against the intuitive way she could approach the game as a player and tailoring her in-game analysis for the audience she’s working for.
“If I’m going to compare myself to [Greenville Triumph SC Head Coach] John Harkes, I know absolutely nothing about the game of soccer compared to someone of that caliber, but compared to your average Joe, a lot of what I know about the game, you forget that it’s second nature and people don’t understand that,” said Cole.
After competing for the University of Georgia on the field, Cole began her broadcast career calling Bulldogs games for the college as she took a new path in the game. | Photo courtesy Marion Cole
“There are people who watch Georgia all the time because they’re Georgia fans, not because they’re fans of tennis, or swimming, or golf, or soccer, but because they’re fans of the Georgia Bulldogs and they’ll watch anything Georgia Bulldogs.
“Then you go to Vista and you have USL Championship games and you know the viewers are going to be diehard heavy, then you can elevate your broadcast a little bit. It totally depends on what outlet you’re working for, who your audience is, for sure.”
But what may be most important for Cole – both in front of the camera and as she moves further into the sports business world – is to understand and bring the confidence she had as a player into her current work.
“We try so hard to be polite and nice and sometimes there’s a place for that, and there’s always a place for professionalism, but sometimes you just have to own the fact that you’re a woman in sports and that’s a good thing,” said Cole. “Just own it, and most of the time if you own the fact that you’re a woman in sports, no-one else is going to think twice about it.
“Never once have I come into a room with confidence as a woman in sports and have someone question that confidence, most of the time that confidence is picked up by everyone in the room and they think, ‘yeah, she belongs here.’ Sometimes we think too much about it, so own the fact that you’re a woman in sports, own the fact that you’re a journalist with no real background in journalism and you’re learning as you go, know that you don’t have it all figured out yet and you’re going to need to ask for help, so not only own the fact that you’re a woman in sports, but own it all.”
So not only own the fact that you’re a woman in sports own it all.
Nowadays, most of Cole’s work happens about 95 miles north of Athens in Greenville, South Carolina. As the Media & Community Relations Manager for USL League One’s Greenville Triumph SC, Cole arrived midway through the club’s inaugural season in 2019 and has received a close-up view of the success John Harkes’ side has achieved on the field over its first two campaigns.
What working for the Triumph has also given Cole is the ability to shape her own role – and a potential future path in the broadcasting world.
“This was a brand-new position, it was a position that when [Triumph Vice Chairman and Chief Brand Officer] Doug [Erwin] was talking to me about it, we could cultivate it in whatever way we see fit,” said Cole. “Now, originally, did I think they were planning for this position to have on-camera features and stuff like that? Absolutely not, but because it was a brand-new position and because I kind of made it known that my ultimate goal is to be a broadcaster, he was like, ‘we’ll kind of build this as we go.’”
As the Media & Community Relations Manager for Greenville Triumph SC, Cole takes a hands-on role in documenting the growing history of the young League One club. | Photo courtesy Greenville Triumph SC
Cole’s duties now range from on-camera host for the club’s digital content, to managing the club’s website and producing online content as well as the nuts and bolts of media and matchday guides for local media and broadcast staff. The flexibility of her role is one that’s shared by numerous members of the Triumph staff, each of whom wears multiple hats in the running of a successful League One club.
While the daily grind can be a tough one – as anyone whose worked in sports can attest – the atmosphere the Triumph have cultivated allowing its staff to find means for fulfillment has been a major plus.
“Sports can get very heavy, very quickly,” said Cole. “You can very quickly get into that headspace of, ‘I’m just trying to stay afloat,’ and sometimes that happens with any job, and there are going to be parts of seasons where that happens inevitably, but part of getting out of that headspace and having that renewed energy to do what you do every day with a smile on your face is that ability to do what fulfills you.”
For Cole, that fulfillment in Greenville – which only recently celebrated the third anniversary of its launch – has come from the ability to branch out into new areas and work toward the goals she has for the future.
“Obviously, we all have official duties we need to get done for the club to run, but because it’s a brand-new club we can all go into our own personal strengths and build out our own unique role,” said Cole.
“I get to have my hand in all these different things that I wouldn’t be able to do at a club that has been around since MLS started, so I’m thankful that I’ve been able to be part of such a young organization. Because of that I’ve gotten to cultivate my own professional experience in a way that, ‘I feel like I need more practice at this, I’m going to ask Doug if I can take this responsibility on.’
“It’s been very professionally fulfilling and very much, wherever I go next, I’m going to look back at this position knowing that I’m prepared to do my next job because of the experiences they’ve allowed me to have here.”
It’s been very professionally fulfilling and very much, wherever I go next, I’m going to look back at this position knowing that I’m prepared to do my next job because of the experiences they’ve allowed me to have here.