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When Do You Leave Coaching?

Assuming that you are not booted out the door, when is it time to leave the coaching profession? There is no right answer. It depends on what has motivated you throughout your career, whether or not you have developed a passion outside the coaching profession, whether or not you have the talent and experience to be successful in another business, whether you can afford to leave, and for some of us, whether or not we can give up an addiction.

Maybe another way to approach the issue to ask when should we consider leaving the coaching profession?

One of the things that complicates thinking about retiring or a changing professions, is that while coaching volleyball in general is not a lucrative profession, if you have coached long enough you probably have reached a point where it can provide a comfortable living when combined with income from camps, clinics and in a few cases endorsements and television revenue.

When I retired from coaching volleyball at Nebraska, I was 53 years old, at the peek of my professional career, with a supportive administration, and a freshmen class that was the one of the best, if not the best in college volleyball. I had a contract that stated I could not be paid less than the women’s basketball coach (who this year will have a base salary of over a half million dollars a year.) What was I thinking?


Several factors weighed into my decision to become a mentor to coaches and leave the coaching profession.

When I began coaching in the early 70’s it would take me less than a month to recover from the season. By 2000 I was barely recovering (physically and mentally) from the stress of the season when pre-season practice began in August. I was battling diverticulitis on an annual basis that became so acute it required surgery in 2002. One of my closest friends, Paul Hammel, also shared the observation when we were fishing last week, that I was a different person during the season. I didn’t ask him what he meant but I’m sure he wasn’t referring to being a more balanced human being.

In 1999, I had seen our oldest daughter Katherine play less than two or three collegiate matches in her first three years as a setter at Colorado State because of conflicts with my coaching responsibilities at Nebraska. In her junior year I left the Nebraska team as it changed planes in Denver on a return trip to Lincoln, and rented a car to drive to Fort Collins, only to discover as I was about to leave the rental car lot, that my driver’s license had expired the day before.  I rented a cab from the Denver airport to Moby gym in Fort Collins in time to get to see her play on a Sunday afternoon before returning on later flight on Sunday evening. Retiring from coaching would give me the opportunity to watch her play several times during her senior year.

In 1998 my long time assistant Cathy Noth left coaching following our appearance in the Final Four in Madison to pursue a family and other interests. It is not that I couldn’t imagine hiring other exceptional coaches, but Cathy had been a great fit for me. Her strengths complimented my weaknesses. I am what Gallup calls a maximizer; someone who is interested in pushing the core of a team to reach it’s potential.

One of Cathy’s strengths is her great sense of inclusiveness. She had the ability to tell me who had done a great job on the “B” side of the net during practice and then I could take that information and interact with and support a player that I might not recognize without Cathy’s insight.

Toward the end of my coaching career I felt that one of the things that separated the great division 1 programs from the good division 1 programs was the talent and accountability of the head assistant coaches. Cathy did not see Nebraska volleyball as Terry’s program but as our program. I did not look forward to the time and energy it takes to develop that level of trust with another assistant coach.

The mindset that dominated my coaching career was my competitiveness, or perhaps more precisely an intense focus of doing everything possible not to lose. I have seen glimpses of this same quality in many of my coaching peers such as Mick Haley, Mary Wise, John Cook, John Dunning, Don Shaw, Dave Shoji, and several other coaches that I haven’t had the opportunity to know personally.  It is not so much a celebration in the joy of winning, as wanting to avoid the anguish that comes from losing. I should note while this trait may have some value in a competitive environment it does not work so well in parenting, mental health or developing a healthy spousal relationship.

There is also what Jung refers to as a shadow side to the intense competiveness that defined my career. It is an equally intense urge to create rather than compete. I find as much pleasure in writing a successful short story or poem as I did in competing with Texas and Stanford. By 2000 I was growing tired of trying to beat people. I wanted to exercise different muscles, and different parts of my brain. I wanted to explore the shadow side of my personality and to do that I would have to leave coaching, not because I didn’t love coaching, but because coaching did not allow me the time and opportunity to explore the components of creativity that I had not been able to focus on.

It was scary. I would be making significantly less money.  I would be giving up something that I knew I could do at a high level. Perhaps most important I would be giving up my identity as the Head coach of Nebraska volleyball for something much less public, with fewer external rewards, and with a destination that I couldn’t even articulate. During my final season as the Head Coach of Nebraska Volleyball in 1999 when I went to bed each night, I grieved what I knew was going to give up. Everything had been set in motion. John Cook was hired to be my associate head coach for a year, and then take over at the end of the season.

In January I would  become a mentor coach for the nineteen sports at Nebraska and help John as he transitioned into the role of head coach. The transition would be smooth because John would have developed relationships with the players, and he would have had a season to reacquaint himself with the culture that surrounds Nebraska Volleyball.

I would conduct roundtables on coaching, work individually on coaching issues with individual coaches, and serve in whatever capacity Director of Athletics, Bill Byrne felt I might be of use. One of the things that I insisted upon was that no head coach or program would report to me. I did not think that it was possible to both mentor and evaluate a program and create any sense of trust. Bill granted me that freedom and I believe that it was critical to the successes that came out of the coaching enhancement program.

It is now twelve years since I have prepared for a season of Nebraska volleyball. I have missed preparing for big matches. I have missed the joy of seeing a player take a risk and work to develop a skill or movement that she didn’t have when she arrived. But I miss those things less and less with each year.

When I left coaching, friendships (even those in the volleyball world) transitioned with me. I am in better physical health and I have the time to daydream, read a book in one day if I want, stand in rivers with a fly rod, and on the best days write something worth reading. It is not a better life but a different life, complete with different challenges, rewards and disappointments.

I am reminded of the words of one of my own mentors, the poet William Stafford who wrote a poem titled, “On Quitting A Small College.” The poem ends with the words:

. . . I miss it now, but face
ahead and go in my own way
toward my own place.



  1. Coach,

    Your session in 2011 was my most memorable one I attended. I run a club w/ 20 teams & a 15k sq ft facility. I’m debating on stepping down from my HS position where our kids won the state title in 2011. It’s hard to step down from a place that took a long time to build (13yrs). In your passage above you mention missing it less & less every year. My question is, do you miss it less & less because your further removed or because over time you’ve lost the love?
    Thank you for this opportunity.

  2. Debbie Ponis-Erickson Debbie Ponis-Erickson

    LOVE THIS…. again, thank you so much for sharing. I can relate in so many ways even though I didn’t coach at the level you have, it is somewhat of a an addition…never thought of it that way before.
    So happy for you and your new normal you’ve found. I think what you are doing now is so needed in our sport/society. So many coaches that need/want a great mentor but hard to find the ones w/ time /willing to give.

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