The 2019 NCAA Volleyball season is upon us as virtually every collegiate program in the land is preparing for Match #1 this weekend. Tweets flying at record pace, Instagram posts at the airport, the obligatory shot getting on the bus, or the photo of the quiet before the storm at the home gym populate team websites and social media accounts as the excitement builds for first serve. But some of the folks in charge of these squads have seen it before. They've seen it many, many times before. Now, they'll give you the coach speak about how every squad is different and each new team has it's own challenges and yada yada, but nothing gets by veterans as savvy and coy as Sam Houston head coach Brenda Gray and our own Debbie Humphreys.
The collective deans of the Southland coaching ranks, Gray and Humphreys have faced off against each other in numerous battles. Many of these matches have etched permanent memories for players and fans on each side and we'll get another version of SFA/Sam Houston on none other than Halloween night in Shelton Gym later this season. You can bet that tilt will be all treat and very little trick. After all, Humphreys and Gray have already seen just about every trick in the proverbial book.
But as the cycle begins once more, both Gray and Humphreys are interestingly on the verge of the same milestone: 700 Career Division 1 coaching victories. Let that sink in for a minute. Seven Hundred Wins. Start doing the math with the 20-win plateau defining a decent year and you quickly realize how elusive and how much tenure a coach has to amass in order to eclipse such gaudy numbers. Humphreys for years has told me that she doesn't keep up with such things. She's fond of saying things like "if it weren't for SID's and people like you reminding me about it, I'd never even know". I used to call bull on stuff like that, but I've watched her enough to know now that she's telling the truth. The most important match is only the one you are about to play.
Gray, for her part, also doesn't seem too caught up in all the zeroes at the end of her win total. In a recent article in the Huntsville Item she was quoted as saying "This is a new team that gets to make their own history, so to me, we're starting back over at zero." Do these coaches practice saying stuff like that? I mean, that's the most "first interview of the year" stuff I've ever chuckled my way through reading. If they do practice it, they've had plenty of time. Gray enters her 36th year guiding the Bearkats and Humphreys will carry the clipboard for campaign #32.
Despite the neutral quote, I've got to wonder about the convenience of playing a first match in a home tournament against lowly Prairie View A&M. After all, the Bearkats opening tournament is aptly named the "42nd Annual SHSU Invitational". Sheesh. And they say numbers don't matter? Don't believe it.
Gray begins the season with 699 wins. By Friday evening the NCAA D1 coaching ranks will add another 700 match winner to the list. An elusive tally? You bet. When the Bearkats polish off Prairie View, Gray will become only the 26th coach in history at the Division 1 level with 700 victories. Gray had a shot at getting to 700 during last years' Southland Conference Tournament, but a semifinal loss to Central Arkansas (that I had the privilege to call) thwarted that plan. Still, the resume is clearly impressive and anyone who knows SLC Volleyball history can confirm that more years than not, Gray gets her club in the mix of things at the top of the Southland standings.
I'll share two memories of Coach Gray that really gave me a ton of confidence as a volleyball enthusiast, writer and broadcaster. In 2010, the second year for my blog, the 'Jacks were preparing to play Sam Houston in Huntsville. I wasn't doing radio at that time, but during that era "court-side chat rooms" were one way to engage fans who wanted to follow along with the match. Anyone who knows me is aware that I am obsessive in my preparations and so I was watching a few of Gray's recently taped interviews to see what I could learn. At one point she shockingly broke off from answering a question and said "that's interesting.... there's a guy over at Stephen F. Austin named Greg who just addressed that in a post he wrote.... if you aren't reading his stuff, you really should, it's pretty good." I about lost my lunch. Brenda Gray had just confirmed a) that she could tell me apart from the dust ball that was gathering over in the corner of the gym and b) that she actually read and paid attention to something I said or wrote. I had made the big time. I felt like the kid in the middle school lunch room that the popular crowd had just acknowledged for the first time. Pure validation, but I probably didn't deserve it.
Second, the following year in 2011, the Bearkats rode a four game conference winning streak into the SLC Tournament in Conway, Arkansas. Sam Houston had outlasted UTSA during that streak and then matched up with the Roadrunners again in the second round of the conference tournament. But, this time SHSU lost a hard-fought first set and never recovered. UTSA swept the Bearkats and finished their season. I was seated at the secondary media table doing my "chat" thing and after the loss, the Bearkat squad came and briefly sat in the stands to watch the next game before travelling home. Gray sidled up to me at the media table and began to talk about the loss very openly. Surprised already that she was even conversational after that match and that she had picked me to talk to about it, she then proceeds to lean in to the conversation and asks me "What do you think happened? Look at my team over there. They are all so down and dejected. What happened?" Like I had an answer to that!? I gave her a line of "media speech" mimicking all the "coach speech" I had heard before and hoped that pacified her in the moment. Brenda Gray was asking ME for my opinion? What universe had I been transported to? Again, pure validation.
Now, she probably doesn't remember either of those two short moments in time, but as you can tell, I clearly do. That's what I've always enjoyed about Coach Gray. A rival for sure, but she's repeatedly engaging, respectful, makes players available and is able to compete while still encouraging learners like me. Sure, I'd rather us beat Sam Houston that just about anyone, but respect is respect, and she's got mine.
Humphreys enters the 2019 season at 694 wins for her career. She'll be coach number 27 at the D1 level to reach the 700 club. Apply whatever formula you want to our pre-conference tournament schedule, but at some point in September we'll have our own celebration of the nice round number. It will give Debbie another chance to tell us she didn't see it coming until I or Charlie Hurley, our volleyball SID, told her she was at 699 the day before.
Humphreys, of course, doesn't need a pair of vignettes told about her relating to my volleyball work. Humphreys is single handedly responsible for me even having an opportunity in this game. Most of what I know originally comes from talking with or watching her. I've ask her countless interview questions and paid attention to thousands of phrases, listened to hundreds of times that she has addressed the team or a player in practice or in a match. I've tried to basically hang on her words because I knew I could have no better local teacher than someone of her caliber. The fact that I get to type in this space is due to her. The fact that I worked public address for our club starting back in 2006 was due to her request. The blog, Internet radio, ESPN, opportunities with the conference, access to players and coaches and everything that comes with it is all because of Debbie Humphreys. Selfishly, I hope win #700 doesn't come while the club is in Illinois. I want to add another item to the long list of accomplishments that I was there to witness. But alas, it's not about me.
I am blessed to have worked with SFA Volleyball for 14 seasons and every time Humphreys says to me "OK, I'll tell you this off the record...." I think to myself how lucky I am to be trusted. I don't take that for granted.
To even have the chance to "talk the game" with standouts like Gray and Humphreys is memorable for me. But as you gear up for what should be another exciting season for Ladyjack and Bearkat volleyball, do me this favor: Whatever side you fall on, think deeply about the impact of Brenda Gray and Debbie Humphreys. Think deeply about how many lives they have impacted and how much wisdom they have imparted. Think about how many relationships that they have helped to coalesce. Think about how many people they have taught. Think about your own personal definition of "success" and then realize that no matter what it is -Gray and Humphreys have met your criteria for using the word.
Keep climbing the list below Coach Gray and Coach Humphreys... thanks for the memories and keep 'em coming.
Division 1 Winningest Active Coaches Entering 2019 Season
1. Russ Rose, Penn St. (1272)
2. Mary Wise, Florida (931)
3. Karen Chisum, Texas State (895)
4. Chris Poole, Florida St. (824)
5. Joe Sagula, North Carolina (802)
6. Barry Goldberg, American (750)
7. Tom Hilbert, Colorado State (735)
8. Carolyn Condit, Miami (OH) (732)
9. John Cook, Nebraska (721)
10. Brenda Gray, Sam Houston (699)
11. Debbie Humphreys, SFA (694)