Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reflections on Debbie Humphreys and 500 Career Victories

If you want to read a good one or two page biographical sketch of Ladyjack Volleyball head coach Debbie Humphreys all you really need to do is pick up a media guide. That's not what I am going to try and do here. See, Volleyball Sports Information Director Ben Rikard puts together the media guide each year and it always contains a sketch of Humphreys - and its always well done. You can flip to pages 18 and 19 of this years guide to read up. What follows is more of a personal reflection of my association with Coach Humphreys.

Debbie Crown played volleyball at Texas Tech from 1982 until 1985 and if you poke around on the Tech athletics' website you'll still see her name a few times. For instance, who knew that she has the 11th best tally in school history for career solo blocks? Its right there on the website. Now, I didn't find any playing day pictures, so I can't pass those along, but you probably also should know that the then-named Crown was 2nd team All-Southwest Conference in her senior year in 1985. In researching all that fun stuff, it hit me momentarily that I might have actually SEEN Debbie Crown play college volleyball. But, I began at Baylor in 1987 as a freshman and Crown finished her playing days in 1985 - despite being a graduate assistant for the Red Raiders in 1986. Baylor played volleyball in a rinky-dink place called Marrs McLean Gym during those days - it appears I missed by a year or two actually seeing coach play during our college days.

The now-named Humphreys began coaching at SFA in 1988. Check this out, though: SFA - under Humphreys - played at Baylor in 1989 and again in my senior year in 1991. Could I have seen this matches? Maybe. I didn't attend a whole lot of volleyball games as a student, but I did go to some. Who knows? Maybe I was in the stands rooting against her one of those two nights in Waco. Baylor won both times via a sweep, but I doubt Humphreys remembers. After all, she's got 501 reasons now to forget.

I came to SFA in 1997 and when volleyball season began in late August of '97, Debbie Humphreys had 197 career victories. The club was fresh off a first place finish in the Southland - for a third time in a row. I found that impressive, but not as much as the fact that two of the best students I had in an introductory statistics class were on Humphreys' squad. Late in that season, I went to my first SFA Volleyball game - mainly at the urging of these student-athletes. I can't remember who we played, but we won. We didn't lose a conference game at home that year and in fact, the club got on a long run of wins at the end of the conference slate and marched all the way to the NCAA's - losing to Texas - in the first round. That was it. I was a fan now.

After a few years regularly attending games, I started bringing my then toddler son, Jacob, to the matches. He'd love running around on the court chasing balls after the games and the girls loved playing with him post-match. He'd dive around on our living room carpet pretending to dig balls saying that he was playing like "Joci and Marisa" - referring to Joci Shaw and Marisa Dorcheus, two of the players at that time. Jacob has since forgotten those days, but I still keep up with Joci and Marisa. It was during this time that I actually met Coach Humphreys. I had several other volleyball players in my classes through the years and without exception they were strong students and always light-years more mature than the average student I taught. I wrote Debbie an e-mail to this effect a couple times and I kept coming to matches.

From win number 197 at the end of 1996 until #500 the other night court side against UTSA, I've seen most of those home wins - and a few of the road ones as well. Through the years, I'd have the occasional chance to talk to Debbie after matches and get to know some of the girls on the team - either by teaching them in class - or just becoming acquaintances by "hanging around" other fans and/or parents at matches.

During all this time, I became more and more impressed with Humphreys. Her in-game demeanor, the way she dealt with both winning and losing, the things I heard from the girls themselves - they all resonated that she was a winner. I loved how she wasn't - and still isn't - afraid from encouraging the crowd to get into the match and get loud at just the right moment. I guess I watched her mannerisms from afar more than she or others realized. Now all coaches have their moments, but Debbie has always seemed to be the utmost professional. I'm positive she's chewed the butt off of many a player that needed it, but not once can I remember her being demeaning of anyone out in the open. That's rare to say about coaches. Most of them are downright disrespectful to people at times and they just chalk it up to being a coach and needing to have the authority. That's not what I've seen out of Debbie.

After a few years of being a "regular' at Johnson Coliseum, I began to see how SFA Volleyball as an "institution" functioned. It really was - is - a little family. The coaches, the players, the parents, the boosters, the athletics' department staff and assorted others that were devoted to the team - they all acted like a little family. It was genuine. They enjoyed each others' company. I was amazed by this. For the most part, that sense of togetherness has been created by Humphreys - after all, she's the intersection of it all. She's the only constant member of that family. Players have come and gone - so have coaches, and parents, and fans. But, Debbie just keeps cultivating a sense of unity. It's impossible to be around it and not respect it. Plus, as a faculty member, when you see all of that and then year after year you become aware that Volleyball ranks high on the academic achievement lists put out by the athletic office, it just solidifies your admiration.

At the end of the 2001 season, I felt like I was let into the family in a very, very small way. One day, near the end of the semester a few of the girls showed up at my office door. I hardly recognized them out of uniform and hair-down rather than pinned up like on game days. I did a double-take and then managed to ask them why they had come by. They wanted to give me a signed team ball - the club had decided that it wanted to thank a few folks for being regulars at the matches and thought that I might like a memento of the season. I still have that volleyball - signatures in sharpie faded from the sun and all - still proudly sitting on my office shelf. A random act of kindness - but one that created additional loyalty. It takes leadership to cultivate an organization that thinks like that and again... Humphreys is at the center of that leadership.

During the early 2000's I'd often wish that there was some way that I could "help" SFA Volleyball. We play in this huge, impressive 7,200 seat arena, but only a few hundred fans come to games. Ladyjack Volleyball was - and in some ways still is - the best kept athletics' secret on campus. It just seemed like more people ought to be into this. It just seemed like if more people would give volleyball a chance, they'd get hooked like I did. I didn't know of anything tangible I could do to help Coach Humphreys or the volleyball program, so I just decided I'd keep coming - and yelling - I was a pretty vocal fan. And, I'd keep trying to get other faculty and students to come to games - sometimes successfully, but most of the time not.

All during that time, the wins kept piling up...300 career wins in 2001 and then up to 400 in 2005. Across these years, I'd see Coach Humphreys at matches, our kids would swim at the same times during the summer at the SFA pool, and I'd continue to watch and read about all-SLC players and witness outstanding student-athletes in the classroom and see high team GPA's reported by the athletics office. I even became committed enough to go to a few road games here and there....usually to Waco, when they'd play my alma matter or to UT-Arlington, near where I had family.

Then came 2006. SFA brought baseball back and I was pumped...and fortunate... to land the public address job at Jaycees Field. I knew Sports Information Director James Dixon from church and he knew I had interest in doing PA. At first, it looked like the job would go to a student, but he backed out and James called me one afternoon to say that they would "try me out" for the non-conference games. Of course, they had no idea if I was any good at this or not - in their minds, I might tank and they needed an out in case I stunk up the joint. I'm still doing that gig, so I guess either I stink and no one else wants to do it, or I actually do a decent job at times. I don't really care which one is the truth. I'm just glad they let me show up.

One day during that first season, Debbie brought a prospective recruit out to the ballpark. Later in the season, then Baseball Sports Information Director Laida Sanchez - who also handled Volleyball - let me know that Debbie had inquired about who did the PA for baseball because she thought it was well done. I can still remember that day in the press box at Jaycees Field. I was trying not to look too interested. Inside, I was hoping Laida was about to say that Volleyball needed PA help. She did.

See, all that year, I had wondered whether or not there would be a chance to tell the right people at the right time in the right way that I'd love the opportunity to do PA for Volleyball. I had really been looking for a way that I could help Humphreys and the program. By this time, I was an SFA Volleyball junkie and I needed a fix. Laida didn't know that I wanted that job. Through the years, I had heard students on the PA stumble over names in lifeless ways and apathetically announce points without being descriptive. I'm sure there were some good ones in there, but generally, the team deserved a little better. Now, I ain't sittin' here telling you that I do a great job every time out - anyone who heard me last week against UTSA probably thinks I was the second coming of death - but look, I WANTED to do this. And, still WANT to do this. I knew I would enjoy it and pour a lot into it.

That day at Jaycees Field, I told Laida I would "think about it", but I knew damn well I was gonna say yes - as long as my family would support it, and they did.

These last four years, I've been able to see Humphreys from a different angle and my impression of her as a coach and as a person has only been enhanced. I will forever be grateful that I began my formal association with the team in 2006 - arguably THE most successful season in Ladyjack Volleyball history. My first season was during the famous conference win-streak and I announced the game on October 27, 2007 when it all came to an end. I still see Ashley Todd serving in my nightmares.

How much can Humphreys' legacy grow? She is in the Top 30 among active Division I coaches with 501 career victories and to steal from the media guide: four time SLC coach of the year, guided team to 10 SLC tourneys out of the last 15 seasons, 59 all-SLC selections coached, six conference players of the year, five freshman of the year, the first four ever SLC liberos of the year and two setters of the year in the Southland.


How many more matches can Humphreys win? Who knows. That depends on so many things - some of which only Humphreys knows. All we can do is some simple math and wonder. During her tenure here, her teams have averaged right at 23 wins a year (which is astounding when you think about it). If you were paying attention earlier and factor in the admittance that this here blogger is 40 years old, then you could probably roughly deduce Humphreys' age. So, quick and dirty math... 23 wins per year for 10 more years puts her at just over 700 career wins. Projecting 23 wins across fifteen more seasons elevates the projected total to around 830. And, if health and desire permit...what if Humphreys coached 20 more seasons at SFA? I know...that's getting way out there...but if the past indicates the future the projected total would rise to over 940 wins. Amazing to just think about, huh?

Some perspective...only eight coaches in the HISTORY of college volleyball have won over 800 matches. I hope I am there....on the mic... to see it happen. For now, enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. The honor of 500 career victories is well deserved. In time, just about everything associated with SFA Volleyball will have Humphreys name attached to it. We are watching a legend.