There are two things that can happen as an exceptional coach moves into the last third of his career. He can get stuck by refusing to adapt or he can make some seemingly small but significant adjustments that allow him to become an even better coach.
Most of us get stuck. We don’t alter our vision of how to recruit, train or play. We push down harder on the unique talent that allowed us to become a good coach in the first place without addressing changes in technique, in the culture, in the size of athlete it takes to compete.
When this happens frustration can turn to anger and we began explaining our predicament in terms outside our control. Our lack of success or progress is framed by the conference we’re in, the lack of a BCS football team, the kids that aren’t coachable, the lack of minorities in our community, or the focus of the athletic department is on women’s basketball.
Whether or not a coach has the courage and will to adapt will determine if he spends his final seasons talking about kids he coached ten years ago while dumping camp money into a SEP IRA, or putting himself in position to be as uncomfortable as he was when he was a developing coach. If he chooses the later he may discover that a behavior or philosophy that once was beneficial may be at the heart of why he is stuck today.
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There are 329 NCAA Division I volleyball programs. If we assume (albeit incorrectly) that each team has equal resources, talent, leadership, strength of schedule and coaching, the odds of winning the national championship in any given year would be one 1 in 329.
The odds of the same team winning four consecutive national championships are 1 in 11,716,114,081. Just for the fun of it lets say that out loud: One in eleven billion, seven hundred and sixteen million, one hundred and fourteen thousand, and eighty-one.
Of course division 1 volleyball, is not played on a level playing field. In thirty years of NCAA women’s volleyball tournament competition only ten schools have won a national championship. In some years there are only a handful of teams that have a realistic chance to compete for the title.
As the 2010 season began most people outside the Big 10 conference believed that Penn State, with the graduation of All American setter Alisha Glass and National Player of the Year Megan Hodge, (both currently playing with the US National Team), plus a preseason injury to sophomore outside hitter Darcy Dorton, would probably not allow Penn State to contend with preseason favorites Stanford, Nebraska and Florida.
Big Ten coaches had a different point of view. They were focusing on Penn State’s returning All Americans, senior right side player Blair Brown and senior middle blocker Arielle Wilson, as well as superb floor defenders Alyssa D’Erico and Cathy Quilico. They also knew that Penn State would be defending its three consecutive titles with Russ Rose, the best head coach in women’s volleyball while hosting the a Regional Championship in Happy Valley. They made this observation while crossing forefingers in front of their chests.
While the Lions were training a former defensive specialist, 5’6” sophomore Kristin Carpenter to become the starting setter in a 5-1 system, Stanford, Nebraska and Florida, all decided to run a two setter offenses that can be as problematic as a turboprop; they both have too many moving parts. 6-2s struggle to maintain a rhythm, are vulnerable to back row attack and the setters in a 6-2 system can have about the same opportunity for leadership as the pusher in a two-man bobsled.
Stanford, Nebraska and Florida all lost in Regional Tournaments to teams (USC, Washington and Purdue) that ran simpler 5-1 systems. The winning teams also made fewer errors, and on that particular night outplayed their higher ranked opponents.
In the meantime Penn State was hosting a regional championship in Rec Hall on the Penn State campus that did not feature a team that was on anyone but the NCAA Division 1 Volleyball Committee’s short list for an appearance in Kansas City.
In the past two years the committee has gotten the right teams into the tournament but seems to have lacked the intuitive intelligence or leadership to place the strongest teams in different brackets. Penn State defeated a game but overmatched Duke squad 3 to 1 in the Regional Finals, the first the Blue Devils had ever competed in, and moved on to Kansas City.
As the Final Four approached, Cal appeared to be playing the best volleyball in the country. The Golden Bears defeated the Golden Gophers of Minnesota 3-0 in the semifinals of the Seattle Regional before dismantling Washington with a .364 hitting percentage in the finals on the Huskies home court.
USC, who had upset Stanford in the Dayton Regional, had enough young talent to compete with anyone, but had the unenviable task of trying to beat a great conference opponent for the third time in the same year. That dynamic helped the Trojans in Dayton but shifted to Cal’s favor in Kansas City.
Cal defeated USC in the second semifinal 3-0 as junior outside hitter Tarah Murray with 23 kills and senior setter Carli Lloyd both made strong cases for player of the year honors. Murray had 78 kills in three matches with USC this year against a team who beat the Bears twice and has one of the best tactical coaches in the country in Mick Haley.
The first semifinal with Penn State and Texas was the one that drew everyone’s attention. As one coach observed, “Texas had been a ‘friggin’ light show for the second half of the Big Twelve Season.” Head Coach Jerritt Elliot said it was the best chemistry of any team he had ever coached. All American Juliann Faucette’s bad girl routine of the previous two years had evolved into solid leadership. The Longhorns had overwhelmed Big Twelve Conference Champion Nebraska in their final conference meeting with a quick tempo offense that made the Huskers 6-2 look like they were playing Mintonette.
In the Regional Final the Longhorns overcame an inspired Purdue University team that had taken out top seed Florida in the semifinal and might have persevered in the Final if the Boilers senior setter and inspirational leader Jaclyn Hart had not succumbed to injury toward the end of the first game.
It was about halfway through the semifinal match between Texas and Penn State that 12,000 people suddenly realized, Oh “s&*t” they’re going to do it again, as the Penn State skated to a 25-13, 25-13, 25-22 victory with freshman left side hitter Deja McClendon making her Final Four debut with
eleven kills, no errors, and a .733 attack percentage.
Almost everyone outside of State College, Pa., was hoping for a Cal victory in the final and there was reason for hope. Cal had the best setter in the tournament, and prior to the finals the most effective left side player in the tournament in Tarah Murrey.
Cal’s head coach, Rich Feller, is one of those coaches who has adapted in his twelve year tenure at Cal where he has surrounded himself with talented assistants Chris Bigelow and Sam Crossen and developed one of the top programs in the Pac Ten. Taking a team that was not ranked higher than fifth in a Pac 10 preseason poll to the Finals helped earn Feller the AVCA National Coach of the Year Award.
But no one has adapted more in the later half of this decade than Penn State’s Russ Rose. In 2001, just three years after a National Championship the Lions, suffered a rare early exit from the NCAA tournament losing to Temple 3-1. Some recruiting mistakes, health issues, and perhaps coaching fatigue had the Lions on the verge of being stuck.
For years Penn State’s best teams had featured two aircraft carriers, a setter and three role players. No one likes to coach the over achiever more than Rose, hence a Penn State roster that looks like a mixture of international quarter milers with a club soccer team.
At some point Rose decided he liked competing for national championships more than he liked kids with headbands in the front row. Now, everyone at the net has national team size. Rose, more than any other women’s coach has adapted the simplicity of the men’s game to the Nittany Lions M.O. The outside sets are deceptively quick, and each attacker focuses on one primary attack. It is an offense built on efficiency and tempo and it works in part because of the ball handling skills of Penn State’s liberos and defensive specialists.
Coach Rose has always had the right kids in the right position. He has always trained defense, pursuit and covering as well as anyone in the game. His players have always been low error with a great understanding of how Penn State wins. He doesn’t get in his players way and he doesn’t put undue expectations on them with hype. He also doesn’t create a dependency where they are looking for an emotional handout after each point. He has done all these things throughout his career but for the past four years he is doing it with a different breed of cat and at a twenty first century pace.
Known for sarcasm that can approach cynicism, Russ Rose would be a great guy to have in the foxhole next to you unless you were about to die. He wouldn’t tell you what you want to hear. But the sarcasm is softer now and is overshadowed by the simplicity and consistency of his message. Oregon head coach Jim Moore when asked what Russ does best, said, “He has the ability to tell his truth to his players without them rolling their eyes.”
There is a saying among coaches that we need to have our athletes train like women, with great focus and attention to detail, but compete like men. When it counted the most Penn State played without fear and Cal played as if it was not sure if it could win, leading to a fourth consecutive national championship for the Penn State Nittany Lions, 25-20, 27-25, 25-20. McClendon, Brown, and Wilson combined for 46 kills, and McClendon won her first NCAA Finals MVP award.
There are hundreds of reasons that Penn State has achieved its remarkable record in the past four years. The Penn State campus is located less than a day’s drive from more than a third of this country’s population. Inconsistent support for volleyball on the East Coast has helped Penn State mine some of the extraordinary talent that has graced State College in recent years where the nearest volleyball program that has reached a National Championship match is over eight hundred miles away. Hosting a regional helps, upsets help, and the lack of a dominant team all played parts in Penn States 2010 National Championship. But make no mistake; Penn State’s Russ Rose, a coach in full who is decidedly not stuck, played the largest part.