After over 15 years, and a lot of mileage, I’m heading back to NCAA Division I volleyball!
Last week I was offered, and accepted, the Assistant Coach position at Radford University. The school is located in the wedge of Virginia between North Carolina and West Virginia. The city of Radford is definitely a small one, with a 2020 population of only about 16,000. It’s not some completely middle-of-nowhere place, though. Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, is only about 30 minutes away.
There are about 11k students at the university, with around 10k of them undergraduates. That makes it about 8 times as big as Medaille, where I’ve been the last two years. It’s about double the size of my prior two NCAA coaching stops, Midwestern State and Brown, though less than half the size of Exeter, where I coached in England.
Radford Volleyball competes in the Big South conference. High Point, Winthrop, and Campbell respectively won the conference tournament and represented the Big South in the NCAA tournament the last three seasons, so people might know those names among the conference membership.
Radford had a difficult last couple seasons. They went 3-13 in the 2020 season (Spring 2021), playing a conference-only schedule. Then it was 6-22 in 2021, with a 4-12 mark in the Big South. The program got a new head coach in February 2019, a month before everything shut down. An administrator observed to me that the players really struggled with the covid situation. On top of that, you had a new coach unable to work with the team in that early part of her tenure. Obviously, not a good combo.
From 2011 to 2018, though, Radford was one of the top programs in the conference. They won the regular season three times and the conference tournament twice. There was only one season during that span when they didn’t at least make the tournament final. In fact, if you go back to the start of the Big South in 1986, Radford has either won or shared the regular season title 9 times, won the tournament 6 times, and was runner-up 7 times.
In other words, it’s is a program with a tradition of success.
This move actually came about quite suddenly. From the time I heard about the opportunity to the time I accepted the offer was only about two weeks. This is not the time of year there tends to be a lot of movement in Division I (though this jobs cycle has definitely been an unusual one!), so I wasn’t expecting something like this to come about. If anything, I thought it would more likely be after the women’s season ahead where I might see something develop.
In terms of why leave Medaille after only 2 years, it comes down to one simple fact. I ain’t gettin’ any younger. I’m not a 20-something with potentially many years of coaching ahead to work into a really good position. I’ve got the kind of experience, knowledge, contacts, etc. that type of person will eventually acquire. The Medaille job – as much as it offers its own set of coaching challenges – is not one where I can really put all of the resources I have available to me to work. The longer I stayed there, the harder it would have gotten for me to make a move to a position where I could.
Why assistant coach?
I’ll admit, I did apply for a number of head coaching vacancies in this last cycle. The majority were in Division II, though there were a few in Division I as well. I only applied for one Division III position, as my intention was to only move if it was for a demonstrably better situation than I was in at Medaille, and I didn’t see that in most cases. Didn’t get any traction from any of them, however, even ones where I felt I had a strong case for at least consideration.
You may wonder why I’d go for an assistant position at this point in my career. It’s a fair question. There’s two main ways I look at it.
First, I don’t have an ego about being in charge. To me it’s about being in a good situation where I know I’m making a contribution to the program’s success. I don’t need to be the head coach for that to be the case.
Second, in some ways you can accomplish more as an assistant than you can as a head coach. The HC needs to oversee everything while the AC can have a more narrow focus in certain areas. In doing so, the AC can actually make a very big contribution. An example of this is when I planned and organized the MSU trip to Buenos Aires. Once we decided to go, the HC actually had little to do with pulling it all together. She left it to me.
All that said, it had to be the right kind of situation. I only applied for three AC jobs (all Division I) because those were the only ones I thought would be a good fit, and that I might have a shot at.
Naturally, during the interview process I was asked this question multiple times.
One reason is that I like having new experiences. I’ve never lived in a place like Radford – small city, more rural area, a bit of elevation (2000’+). And there’s actually a connection to my ancestry. The Radford mascot is the Highlander, which hearkens back to the settling of the Appalachians by a lot of Scottish immigrants. The university even hosts a festival each year to celebrate that heritage. A good chunk of my mother’s ancestry is Scottish, a number of whom lived in the region (though mainly North Carolina).
Another key reason is that I like being part of building/re-building a program. It’s what I went to Midwestern to do, and obviously is something I needed to take on at Medaille as well. Radford, as I outlined above, has a history of success in volleyball. So I’m heading into a situation where not only is there a need to make the program better, the history indicates there’s a good chance to do exactly that. We just need to do things the right way.
Not about Medaille
It’s important for me to say here that this move has nothing to do with any ill feelings toward Medaille. I was especially looking forward to continuing to build the women’s team back up after it was so gutted by departures during and after the 2020-21 academic year, largely as an aftereffect of losing that season to covid. You may recall from my coaching log entries, we ended last season with just seven healthy(ish) bodies. It was going to be nice coaching a full squad this year – and moving into a new conference with less travel (no more 8+ hours of bus time to and from to play a single match). I’ll definitely be sad to miss out on that experience.
It’s always tough to leave a place where you put in a lot of time, effort, and emotion, though.
What’s to come
There’s not really a lot for me to talking about with regards to the Radford team at this point. The one thing I can say for sure is that there will be a lot of getting to know each other! Only 6 players will be back from last season’s team. The 15 newcomers are are about equally split between freshmen recruits and transfers.
The one thing that looks likely from our early conversations is that I’ll be in charge of the setters. One is a JUCO transfer junior who is German. The other two are freshmen. That’ll be interesting!
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