While the next individual to lead the University of Virginia football team out of the Scott Stadium tunnel on horseback has never performed the role, she’s a longtime observer of the man who did it almost flawlessly for 21 seasons.
Julie Caruccio and Kim Kirschnick have a lot in common. They’re both Charlottesville natives, horse professionals and share a deep passion for UVA.
Caruccio calls Kirschnick a “mentor” and a “dear friend.” And when Kirschnick reflects on his heyday as a polo player, the memories include Caruccio.
“She would take care of my polo ponies,” Kirschnick said, “exercising them and riding them.”
Their relationship is crucial as, starting with the Wahoos’ season-opener with the University of Richmond on Sept. 3, it’ll be Caruccio leading the team onto the field as the new mounted Cavalier, succeeding Kirschnick, who held the position for more than two decades before retiring after last football season.
Plenty qualified as someone who’s been in the horse industry her whole life, Caruccio is honored to the be the first to ride Sabre after Kirschnick.
It’s a full-circle accomplishment.
“Kim’s taught me a lot about horsemanship,” said Caruccio, who has two degrees from UVA and has worked at her alma mater in some capacity since 2003. “He’s taught me what little I know about polo.
“This is about carrying on a legacy that he has established, the seriousness with which he took it and then the professionalism that he brought to it. Without that component, I don’t know if I would have thrown my hat in this particular ring.”
When Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Torrey Ball was tasked with leading the search for Kirschnick’s successor, he stacked a committee with people full of institutional knowledge.
After all, Ball, who has worked in college athletics since 2011, was only hired at UVA last August and admits to have ridden horses only three times in his life.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘If you don’t know something, you need smarter people in the building,’” Ball said.
That meant bringing in a team that included Kirschnick, among others – including the Virginia cheer coach and band director.
“I did it for 21 years,” Kirschnick said. “I had a pretty good clean run of it. The horse gets Sundays and Mondays off. We ride it Tuesday and Wednesday. I go to band practice Thursday, I got to the stadium Friday evening and then all day Saturday for the game.
“So, I started looking at the résumés and wondered, ‘Who can make this work?’”
Ball and company’s goal was to find not only the best rider, but someone who could commit the time and resources necessary to fulfill all the responsibilities.
Virginia Football – For All Virginia
Video: Virginia Football – For All Virginia
Virginia Football – For All Virginia
The job’s posting included the following: “Interested candidates must be able to commit to all seven games in 2022 and will need a support staff of at least five individuals to assist on game days. Ideally, this support staff is consistent from game to game.
“In addition to game day responsibilities, the Cavalier and horse should be available for a band practice session each home week and a stadium walk-through the evening before each home game.”
Caruccio has long understood the assignment. Her daughter, Evalina, was part of Kirschnick’s Scott Stadium support staff last fall, where she groomed the horse and “got to know the ins and outs” and how the process works, Caruccio said.
Caruccio, who was the interim dean of students last year and is now the University’s assistant vice president for research on the student experience, boards horses at her home in Albemarle County. In the past, she’s trained horses, taught riding lessons and has run barns. She was a member of UVA’s riding team as an undergraduate in the early 1990s.
Her résumé, naturally, demanded attention.
“The thing I was looking at was confidence in the fact that they can do this very safely,” Ball said, “and they had a circle around them who could really stick with them to make sure they – and the horse – are safe by all means necessary.
“We were really looking for the best rider. I didn’t care if it was Jimmy from Timbuktu who is a cowboy. I didn’t care who it was. I just wanted the person to be safe as possible. When it got down to our last couple of candidates, I think Julie stood out.”
Caruccio is the first female in school history to have the mounted Cavalier job on a full-time basis. When the tradition rotated among members of the club polo team until Kirschnick took over in 2000, at least two women – Bess Worrall and Kerry McDaniel – were on horseback for a few games in the early ’90s.
“I’m excited to represent women at the University in this new way,” Caruccio said. “I really love this place. I have two degrees from here, I work here. It’s such a special place, and football is a huge part of that.
“I’ve been connected to the University long enough that I’ve been around when we’ve been really good in football and maybe years that were not as successful, but people still showed up.
“So being able to be part of what makes game day unique is really special.”
Caruccio, the daughter of a University history professor, grew up around Grounds. Aside from a decade away following her undergrad years, she’s always called Charlottesville home.
Kirschnick, a product of the Fry’s Spring neighborhood, can relate.
“Living here, growing up here, loving UVA, it’s like the completion of the circle,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more. If you like horses and you love UVA, you couldn’t ask for a better job.”
While Caruccio will wear the costume – cape, feathered wide-brimmed hat and sword all included – this fall, Kirschnick will still have a presence, as he’s agreed to help in several areas of the transition.
For example, Caruccio will be riding Kirschnick’s horse.
“Big Daddy,” who goes by “Sabre” on game days, was the last of three horses Kirschnick rode as the mounted Cavalier. He lives on Kirschnick’s farm and is no stranger to Caruccio. They’ve ridden together before and will ramp up that partnership as the first game nears.
“We know what he does and doesn’t like,” Caruccio said of Big Daddy. “He doesn’t mind the band, [but] doesn’t totally love the flags. So it’s knowing those kinds of things and making sure we’re in really close communications with the professionals who are leading those areas.”
Added Kirschnick: “I’m going to help her the first couple of games. She’s going to be just fine.”
Reality is setting in for Caruccio as she’s already anticipating the nerves that come with leading a live animal on a sprint while 90-some football players chase behind and tens of thousands of fans cheer in the stadium.
To combat the butterflies, though, she’s going to rely on an instinct she developed as young girl around the local polo fields.
She’s going to trust Kirschnick.
“We’re going to practice really hard,” Caruccio said, “and we’re going to have our plan and we’re going to execute on that.”