Ambitious Beyond Belief
11 min read

Ambitious Beyond Belief

"You know, it’s not a very good job." What does he know. I’ll be at Oklahoma in five years, the Chicago Bears in seven.
Ambitious Beyond Belief

I spent way too many hours researching Division III volleyball programs. No, this is not for my daughter. We aren’t sure if she will be a Pac 12 setter or a six-rotation outside hitter. She’s only two months old. But my research of Division III volleyball programs was for my wife. How could I talk my wife into coaching at the Division III level?

I googled everything: Best liberal arts colleges in the country, Division III schools ranked by endowment, best colleges in the state of Connecticut or Massachusetts. I could tell you all about the academics and the volleyball at Colby College, Carleton, Middlebury, Luther College, and Bryn Mahr, but how could I talk Kari into trading in club volleyball and teaching high school math for coaching college volleyball. What would make her want to leave Minnesota and her club volleyball experience and head off to a new challenge?

I played football at the Division III level. I use the term "played" loosely. I was on the team. Four years of difficult practices and way too much time on the scout team. I seldom saw the field. In addition to my playing days in D3, I also coached at two Division III schools. You could say, I'm a Division III guy. Meanwhile, my wife received a full-ride to play Division I volleyball. Division III is new to her.

My fascination with Division III volleyball comes from the fact that I am appalled when I look at the landscape of Division I athletics. This is my third post in looking at the landscape of coaching college athletics and my pursuit of answering a simple question- Could it be that the best college coaching jobs in 2021 are at Division III schools? If there is an underlying theme to every post , it's that money and greed have ruined Division I athletics. Television contracts and revenue share agreements from league-owned networks have ruined college sports. Back in the late 1980s Bo Schembechler talked about how college football had become big business. He would hate to see Division I sports in 2020. Coaches follow the money and conferences care only about television revenue. It's ruining the sports we love and the profession we felt called to. I believe the best volleyball coaching positions today are at Tufts not Texas, Colby not Clemson, Wash U not KU.

It’s no longer just Division I football and men’s basketball that reap financial rewards. Thanks to the Big Ten Network, member schools have been rolling in the cash. Each school receives around$55 million annually, and the revenue share piece-of-the-pie gets bigger each year. The arms race in the SEC and Big Ten is in full swing. Athletic departments keep building new facilities- newer and bigger weight rooms, academic support services center, and practice facilities. New facilities that house the football program are designed with smoothie bars, gaming areas, rec rooms, and places for players to get a haircut. Coaching staffs are expanding and salaries are skyrocketing.

When Louisville had an opening for Head Football Coach, everyone thought Jeff Brohm would leave Purdue and rebuild the Louisville program. Brohm played quarterback at Louisville. His younger brother also starred at quarterback at Louisville. His family has deep ties to the area. Bear Bryant said Mama called when asked why he left Texas A&M for Alabama. Mama called but Brohm stayed put. No ACC school can compare with the financial resources of the Big Ten. He might have stayed for all the right reasons and Louisville made an excellent hire in Scott Satterfield, but right now no one can compete with the resources available to SEC and Big Ten schools. As coaches, we seem to be making all of our decisions based solely on who can offer more money and unlimited resources.

At some point we must agree that things have gotten out of control. Does a major Division I volleyball coach need to make over $400,000 a year? It’s not just the Big Ten. You see it everywhere. You see it in all sports. The Oregon Ducks were a fixture at the Women’s College World Series. They had the deepest pitching staff in the country, and they had talent returning all-around. Mike White had built one of the best programs in the country. “Contrary to popular belief,” Andy Staples wrote for The Athletic, “Nike founder Phil Knight does not simply stroke a check every time the Ducks need something.” But they still had above average resources and facilities. This was still a premier job. For Division I softball, they competed in the best conference in the country. For recruiting, you sit right on top of California. If I was the Head Softball Coach at Oregon, I would never leave. Sometimes, the right decision is to stay. But when the University of Texas offered Mike White $505,000 a year to coach softball, he left.

It reminds me of something I heard best-selling author Michael Lewis say to a group of business students at Cal Berkeley. He talked about something that happens in Major League Baseball at the end of every season. A player making $5 million a year will leave a team he loves, in a community that his wife loves and where his children are in school, and he will uproot them all for $8 million a year. Lewis said, “The mindless response to the most money is crazy. It’s not a recipe for a happy life.”

I’ll be at Oklahoma in five years, the Chicago Bears in seven.

The Athletic published a story about former football coach Rick Venturi, which serves as a sobering reminder for coaches everywhere. The article was titled, “Hired To Be Fired: The Life and Times of Rick Venturi.” I consider myself a wealth of college football knowledge, but I didn’t even know who Rick Venturi was. Bob Kravitz writes, “Rick Venturi’s football life has been scarred by some of the worst luck in the history of college and professional football.” As it turns out, Venturi’s record at Northwestern was 1 win, 31 losses, and 1 tie. He went 1-10 as interim head coach of the Colts in 1991, then 1-7 as interim head coach of the Saints in 1996. The 74-year-old now looks back and says he wishes just once he could have coached someplace where he had a level playing field. This was Northwestern before Gary Barnett, Randy Walker, and Pat Fitzgerald. It was a graveyard for football coaches. Venturi said, “I was a rising assistant coach, ambitious beyond belief, hired as the youngest coach in Big Ten history...then the youngest fired.”

Venturi is a coaching lifer, with experience in college and the NFL, and a head coaching record of 3 wins, 48 losses, and 1 tie. Talking about the Northwestern job, Venturi told Bob Kravitz, “I remember my dad saying, ‘You know, it’s not a very good job.’” Venturi thought, "What does he know? I’ll be at Oklahoma in five years, the Chicago Bears in seven."

Ambition, prestige, and money fuel the coaching carousel. Find the right Power 5 school and you can make over $300,000 to coach men's golf. Who would have guessed that the average salary to coach women's gymnastics in the SEC would be over $300,000. When football coaches make $9 million a year and softball coaches make $450,000 a year, we are in danger of having people enter the profession for the wrong reasons. Greed is taking over the profession. We start to look like Wall Street and investment banking instead of the teaching and coaching profession. The incentives are misaligned. Some men’s volleyball player at Pepperdine will take his business degree and decide to coach college volleyball instead. And not the men’s game. The money is in the women’s game. He can go coach college volleyball and dream of some day making $450,000 a year. Do I want him coaching my daughter? For Pat Summitt, it all started with a stipend of $250 a month. She never coached for the money. But the television money has so changed college athletics that I am afraid Division 3 and the service academies are all that remains of college athletics in its purest form. At those schools, athletics are never primary.

My research started with Division III schools with outstanding academic reputations: Carleton, Colby College, Middlebury, Williams, etc. I memorized a list I found online that included 74 of the highest rated academic schools that compete at the Division III level. Somehow, that rabbit hole took me to studying the brackets for the Division III softball playoffs from 2019. I wanted to see what schools excelled at softball. If a school can compete nationally in softball, I don’t see why they can't compete in volleyball, with the right coach in place. I found a list of the the past national champions in softball. The list included the winning school, the runner-up, and the name of the winning head coach.

In my former life, I was fortunate to be a tiny part of two college world series events and five NCAA playoffs. This was back when only 24 teams made the playoffs and six made the college world series. The rules changed after a team I was a part of finished 32-6 and missed the playoffs. Overall, I spent six years with two Division III head coaches who had a huge impact on my coaching philosophy and my life: George Wares and John Tschida. Seven times these two mentors of mine won a Division III national championship.

I hadn’t followed Division III softball for 15 years, or Division I softball for that matter. When I married into the volleyball world, my life evolved into a volleyball life. Jobs, mortgages, and paying bills got in the way of my softball coaching career. Plus, I became keenly aware that my volleyball-coaching wife was the best coach in the house. Softball moved to the back burner.

I looked at postseason brackets and lists of prior national champions to catch-up on my knowledge of Division III softball. Then I see that Tufts won three national titles in a row. I know all about Tufts- the Jumbos. World-class institution and competitive at sports. I love Division III schools like Wash U, Emory, and Tufts. I’m curious about the head coach who led them to all three national titles, Cheryl Milligan. I looked at the Tufts softball website and she’s not there. Did she leave? Where did she go? Why would anyone leave a coaching position at Tufts? Offer my wife the Head Volleyball Coach position at Tufts and the packing will commence, the real estate agent will be called. So, I google Cheryl Milligan. She's now the head softball coach at West Point. It all makes sense. There are only two reasons to leave Tufts, in my opinion, - West Point and the Naval Academy.

In this era where college athletics are out-of-control, we have the United States Military Academy and the Naval Academy where- even for the football players- athletics are not primary. They are secondary. With apologies to the Air Force Academy, the only Division I coaching job I would ever dream of for my volleyball-coaching wife would be at West Point or Annapolis. I found my new hero, Cheryl Milligan. She had one of the most dominant pitchers in Division III history. She won three national titles in a row, and now serves as the Head Coach at Army.

The Best Move I Never Made

Do you want to be uncommon? Coach not for the money but for the opportunity to impact athletes. John U. Bacon tells the story of legendary Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler turning down Texas A&M. Bo is a legend in college football and at the University of Michigan. He succeeded at a high level and he made a significant impact in the lives of hundreds of players. Bacon tells the story of Schembechler turning down Texas A&M in 1982. Bo declined A&M's offer of $3 million for 10 years, which would have quadrupled his salary, and made him the highest paid coach in the country. Bo said, "Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money. For that reason, I've decided to stay at Michigan."

Know why you coach. Tony Dungy won a Super Bowl, but he also defined success different than most coaches. Dungy talked about significance- the significant difference our lives can make in the lives of others. That's why you coach. You may not share the same faith as Tony Dungy, but I hope you coach because you want to make a positive impact in the lives of others. Dungy wrote, "This significance doesn't show up in win-loss records, long resumes, or the trophies gathering dust on the mantels. It's found in the hearts and lives of those we've come across who are in some way better because of the way we lived."

While at Utah, Rick Majerus turned down Arizona State, Texas, and the NBA to stay at a school that was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. "Everybody told me to take it," Majerus said about the offer to be the Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors. "Nobody would have blamed me had I left Utah. It was difference-making money, and it was the NBA- there aren’t many of those jobs in the world. And it was in San Francisco. But the truth is, I really like my guys. It’s hard for me to tell them that. I’m like a German father: joy through work…never pat you on the back while you’re on the job…save all the hugs for Senior Night. That’s how I am.

"I turned him (Golden State’s owner, Chris Cohan) down, not because I didn’t think I could coach in the pros- I could. I turned him down, not because I didn’t think I would enjoy it. I wasn’t sure about the players. I wasn’t crazy about the constant travel."

Majerus met with Golden State's owner one last time and turned him down. He then called Richie Smith to tell him that he wasn’t taking the job. Richie asked why he turned it down. That’s when Rick read him a pair of letters he had with him. Smith said, “He had a letter from Keith Van Horn’s mom, May. She had written to him to express her appreciation for everything Rick had done with Keith, what a positive influence he had been on her son. Then he read me a letter from Larry Cain. Rick inherited Larry when he took the Utah job. No one took more abuse from Rick than Larry Cain. Larry’s whole goal was to go to medical school. But during his senior year, Larry almost gave up on that dream because of a personal situation. Rick jumped on him just as hard as if Larry had missed a block out. Larry ended up going to medical school and becoming a doctor. He wrote Rick during the Golden State courtship.

“So Rick had these letters and he’s saying, ‘Do you think there’s a player on Golden State who’s going to write this kind of letter?’ That’s what he based the decision on. Not money, but if he could enrich a person’s life.”

My wife may be the Nick Saban of club volleyball, but Division I represents, what Pat Forde called, “The Cruel Side of College Athletes.” Maybe the Nick Saban of volleyball should shoot for Division III. Forde wrote, "College sports has been big business for decades, with a sharp escalation within the last 10 years." Television money has changed the entire landscape of college sports. Perhaps the best coaching jobs in the country are at certain Division III schools. If Kari and Scott Raymond find a world-class institution with a desire to be relevant at the national level in the sport of volleyball, then you might find us draining a fish tank and prepping for a move. I’m not sure how to move 25 African cichlids across the country, but I will look into it. We could set off to make Colby College the best place to play college volleyball in the country.

It doesn’t matter whether you coach the Oregon Ducks or the Stevens Ducks. Make the big time where you are, Frosty Westering once said. I watch Last Chance U on Netflix and I see coaches who want rings. They want notoriety. They want fame and fortune. They want to win, and they want to win now. I don't see coaches who feel called to coach, who seek to enrich lives.

No matter the level, you teach. You develop players. You build a winning culture. You recruit student-athletes that are both great athletes and people of character. You coach them up for four years, but you teach them that there are some things in life more important than volleyball.  At the end of the journey, you see young women who walk with their heads held high. They are assertive. They handle set backs. They show strength in their body language.

As legendary basketball coach Don Meyer once said, "It doesn't matter where you coach. It matters why you coach." It shouldn't matter whether you earn $90,000 a year or $390,000 a year. There are some things more important in this world than money. Develop players. Teach kids to compete. Make a positive impact in the life of every player you coach.  Dick Bennett once said coaching high school was always his favorite because all there was to the job was a love of the game and a love for the kids. Seek to enrich lives. Seek significance not a bigger stage. Who cares about Power 5 conferences and revenue share money when you have the chance to make a difference in the lives of others.

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