Bill Hempen sat in a Boulder eatery late Wednesday afternoon with tears in his eyes trying to explain what led him to resign from his position as University of Colorado women's soccer coach earlier in the day.

A succinct answer eluded him, but maybe it's unrealistic to expect such an explanation from a man who has simply realized he is ready for the next challenge in his life, whatever that might be. He said there were times he thought he would finish his career in Boulder.

This much was obvious. Hempen didn't seem to be at peace leaving the sport he loves or a man with visions dancing in his head of digging his toes in the sand with an umbrella in his drink. He still wants to coach soccer, when and where are left to be decided.

Hempen, one of the 15 winningest women's soccer coaches in NCAA Division I history, loves coaching, loves the game and loves his players, which made his sudden decision to leave Colorado after 11 seasons a major surprise to most who follow his program.

It wasn't quite Bill McCartney announcing his retirement on the day his star running back essentially won the Heisman Trophy back in 1994 or Ceal Barry deciding to hang up her whistle and leave the basketball court in 2005, but it's probably in the top three when it comes to the history of surprise exits at CU.

"I talked a lot with my family, with the team and with the administration and after all of those conversations I decided there were a lot of expectations and it was time to move on," Hempen said wiping away a solitary tear. "This was very difficult for me."

Hempen's program struggled this season, its first in the Pac-12 Conference, probably the toughest women's soccer league in the nation top to bottom. The Buffs finished the season 4-13-2 overall and 1-9-1 in the league.

It was the third consecutive losing record and a steep fall from the glory days of the 15-year-old program Hempen is largely responsible for building.

"Although I feel confident in my time here that we have made great strides in making Colorado soccer a nationally recognized program, the jump to the Pac-12 was a significant increase in competition," Hempen said in a news release from the school. "I believe recruiting was on the upswing to be able to get the program to the level to challenge in the Pac-12, but it might just be the time for someone else to take the reins."

Possible candidates to replace Hempen at CU could include Wyoming head coach Danny Sanchez, Stanford assistant coach Jay Cooney and Texas A&M assistant coach Lori Stephenson.

The Buffs had never produced a winning record when Hempen took over in 2001 after 13 years at Duke, where he built the Blue Devils into a national powerhouse. Just two years into his tenure with the Buffs, Hempen led Colorado to a Big 12 Conference title and earned the Coach of the Year award in the conference.

"I'm disappointed. I'm kind of shocked to be honest," said Hempen's longtime assistant coach Paul Hogan, who was named head coach at Coastal Carolina earlier this year. "Bill's built the program and I'm sad to see him go. I know what it means to him. It stinks. It's not a good thing."

Hogan and former star player Nikki Marshall seemed to indicate there were issues within this year's team that might have played a part in Hempen's departure. Marshall's younger sister Shaye was a junior on this season's team. Numerous current players did not respond to requests for interviews.

Nikki Marshall was named to the search committee that is charged with finding Hempen's successor. She is the only person on the six-member search committee with any experience in the sport.

"I had an incredible experience with Bill and I respect him very much," Marshall said. "I didn't have the same experience that the girls are having there now. All I can really speak to is my experience there, and I had a good experience, and I really respect Bill and his family."

Hogan was asked if Hempen's decision to leave CU was truly his own.

"I know he didn't want to leave CU," Hogan said. "I know he loved being in Boulder, he loved the program that he built and he loved the community. From my perspective, when I talked to Bill during the season, he said, 'We're going to get this thing going. We've got some good recruiting going on, we've changed things up and we've got to work at it, but we're going to get better.' A coach saying that doesn't mean he's going to resign or going to leave. That's probably the hard part, not leaving on your own terms."

Hempen said he understands the wins and losses in recent seasons have created the perception the program is on the decline, but he said he and his assistants have recruited a very good class for 2012 that should help the next coach flourish quickly, assuming all of those recruits still come to Boulder.

Hempen led the Buffs to six NCAA Tournament appearances, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2006. The Buffs were ranked No. 12 in the final poll that season.

Hempen owns every significant coaching record with the CU women's program. The Buffs went 114-88-28 overall during his tenure. They were 51-38-11 (.565) in 10 seasons of Big 12 Conference under his leadership.

Hempen coached three All-Americans at CU-- Fran Munnelly (twice) and Nikki Marshall, who was also named a finalist for National Freshman of the Year in 2006 -- and 25 different players to recognition on Big 12 Conference all-conference teams. Through the end of the 2010 season, 39 of his players had earned academic all-conference honors.

Hempen's career record stands at 276-188-44 in 22 seasons. In 2008, he became just one of 16 active coaches to eclipse the 250-win mark. At the start of this season he was the 15th winningest women's soccer coach in NCAA Division I history.

Earlier this year, Hempen realized a dream of starting the Colorado Cup, a mini-tournament between four of the premier women's soccer programs in the state. The Buffs won the inaugural cup beating Colorado College and Northern Colorado.

"We appreciate the contributions coach Hempen has made to the University of Colorado and our women's soccer program, and wish Bill the best in his future endeavors," athletic director Mike Bohn said. "We will commence a national search for his replacement immediately."

This will be the ninth time Bohn has hired a new head coach for one his sports programs since he was hired in April 2005.