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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Dozen In Charge

As we close in on 40 days until the first serve of 2010, there are a dozen people scattered around the conference (11, actually) who are working tirelessly to create schedules for fall workouts and who each hope this year will be "their year" to hoist the tournament trophy over head. Ultimately, the players are the ones who dig, set, serve, block and kill their way to success, but orchestrating it all are the respective head coaches around the league.

I penned a fair number of words last year about Debbie Humphreys as she approached her 500th career victory- and rightly so - that was a major accomplishment that places her in a select group. Today's subject is to begin to go around the league and introduce or reacquaint - as the case may be - you to the people who have volleyball head coaching jobs in the Southland Conference.

The coaches can rather easily be broken up into three groups - the legends, the veterans of the conference and the next generation of coaches in the SLC. A few of these next generation coaches have spent quite a bit of time coaching in junior college ranks, but for the purpose of this series of posts, we are considering wins, accomplishments and tenure only associated with the Southland and Division I volleyball.

I am going to do this in three installments, all appearing over the course of this week. Today's entry focuses on the big three in the SLC. These three coaches' accomplishments cast a shadow the others just can't enter at this point in their careers. Indeed, no other mid-major conference in the nation can boast of three active 500 game winners. If you want to talk volleyball coaching in this conference, then you clearly, clearly talk of these three first.

As we go through the three part series, I will also share a small "behind the mic" recollection about each of those that aren't rookies. I hear some VERY interesting things sitting as close as I do to the visiting bench at home games. This isn't a tell-all, but rather just a set of personal observations I've accumulated the last several years. Don't read too much into it, my observations suffer from both the small sample curse and the fact that I only see opposing coaches when they are on the road and generally not coaching in front of a home crowd.

The Legends

Karen Chisum, Texas State
Some time early in the season, possibly even at the Bobcats' first tournament way up in New York, Chisum will earn her 700th career victory at Texas State. She is currently 7th among active NCAA DI coaches in wins and she is about to enter her amazing 31st season as the ring leader of the Bobcats. Possibly the two others listed below will eventually catch her win total, but they've got a lot of volleyball left to coach if they indeed accomplish all that Chisum has. To me, she seems to do a fantastic job of having her girls ready to play night in and night out. It's hard not to respect someone who has won 6 regular season SLC titles, 6 SLC tourney championships and seven appearances in the NCAA tournament.

When I first became interested in SFA Volleyball, it seemed as though UT-Arlington was the constant thorn in our side. Clearly, now that "honor" belongs to Chisum and Texas State. Certainly a love-to-hate club among SFA fans, players and folks like me, the truth is Chisum runs a top notch program which seems to always be in the mix come crunch time. I love the way Chisum schedules and clearly she does a good job recruiting as evidenced by their website boasting of a national top 50 recruiting class coming in. Scary. One way or another, to win the conference title or tournament, your just gonna have to deal with Texas State. That's all the respect Chisum probably wants. It is well earned.

Chisum has always appeared all-business to me at game time. Despite her focused manner, she is generally one of the visiting coaches who takes the time to say hello to the press table and engage in small chit-chat. I've never seen her get really out of control at Johnson Coliseum. Her coaching demeanor - at least to me - has always seemed a little more level than others from around the conference - even to the point of taking on the air of knowing she's going to get her club to bring it. Some might call it an air of confidence or use other words leaning more pretentious. I don't know about that. I just see 697 career wins and I think that speaks enough.

Brenda Gray, Sam Houston State
Gray has coached 26 seasons at Sam Houston and is another member of the 500-win club as she enters 2010 with 542 wins to her credit. I'll bet that Gray is a master communicator with her players because I think she could strike up a conversation with a flagpole. I was pleasantly shocked during the 2009 SLC Tournament in San Antonio when Gray walked right up to me - starting talking to me like we had been friends for years - telling me that she was an avid reader of this space and then launching into strategy of how to get the most out of her club in the tourney. She was candid, funny and genuinely interesting to talk to.

I've never really held any animosity towards Sam Houston Volleyball...not the way I do against Texas State or Lamar, but I can recall a few matches against Sam through the years that just ripped your heart out. Gray's pretty fiery. I've seen her rip players pretty good during timeouts, but toward that end, I asked Gray specifically in San Antonio about curbing star Carli Kolbe's well documented emotional outbursts. Gray told me she actually likes it when Kolbe gets all bent out of shape and that she doesn't particularly try and reign her in. Instead, she says Kolbe plays best when she's got a chip on her shoulder. Her communication to me that day was very convincing that she knew the makeup of her club well. Almost three decades as the leader of SHSU Volleyball and 500+ wins tells me I should listen more and ask fewer questions when conversing with Gray.

Gray always chats it up with those of us at the table. She seems like a real outgoing type of coach. I'll admit, she's one of my favorites from around the conference. Of course, maybe that has to do with the fact that she's a reader of the blog.

Debbie Humphreys, SFA
I'm not sure there is a lot I could say in a post like this that I haven't said already about Humphreys. I'll remind you she has 508 wins and enters her 23rd season in charge here at SFA. One of the things I've always liked about Humphreys is that she isn't afraid to turn around and ask the home crowd to get a little rowdy. In case you didn't know: Debbie is smart, real smart. I will say that I have witnessed and heard things that will not be recounted here that convince me beyond any doubt that she is a person of integrity. As a university professor I am tuned in to academic issues by nature. I can honestly say Humphreys is looking to recruit athletes that have a fair amount of grey matter between the ears. She is one of the people who makes working at SFA a pleasure for me.

While I am sure her former athletes could tell a more complete story, I will add this: Knowing what I know about Humphreys, I could not imagine a high school recruit not wanting to play for her and play here at SFA. I just hope I have the fortunate fate of learning more volleyball from talking to her in time to come.

Finally, she treats the support staff like me with respect. All I really do is yell names really loud and tell people to stand up for the National Anthem. She always finds time for interviews - win or lose - she always passes around the high fives to players and support staff alike and I get invited to numerous things I probably have no real business attending. Why? Because she sees every little part of the "family" as important. I don't intend on forgetting that any time soon.

Guess what? Player profiles start this week too! Leading off will be high jumper and middle blocker extraordinaire Carrie Hahn. Leading up to the season, I will profile each of the returning athletes (Carrie IS a returning athlete!) with their own interview and post. Like last year, I will do a joint interview of all the freshmen once they get on campus.

Look for Carrie's interview here in a few days!!

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