"He Was Exactly What I Needed When I Was Eighteen Years Old"
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"He Was Exactly What I Needed When I Was Eighteen Years Old"

What was Saban like? “I always say the same thing. He was exactly what I needed when I was eighteen years old.”
"He Was Exactly What I Needed When I Was Eighteen Years Old"

The best coaching jobs right now are not in the SEC, Big 10, or Big 12. They are in Division III. Division I college athletics are a mess. If you want to know what is wrong with the landscape of Division I sports look at the University of Arkansas. Since 2020, the Arkansas Razorbacks football program has been led by Sam Pittman. Prior to Pittman, the university gave former head coach Chad Morris less than two seasons to prove himself in the toughest conference in college football before firing him. Before Morris, they had hired and eventually fired Brett Bielema. Since the firing of Bielema, the university has been on the hook to pay Bielema over $320,000 a month. That's not a misprint. Bielema receives a payment of $320,000 each month. We could also use Auburn or Texas or Iowa as examples of everything that is wrong with Division I college athletics. Auburn decided to pay Guz Malzahn $21 million to not coach their team. The University of Iowa receives at least $55 million each year from the Big Ten Network yet the cut four varsity sports to deal with the economic fallout caused by COVID-19. As somoene who once dreamed of coaching big-time college athletics, that dream is dead. I see a new dream, coaching at world-class institutions who compete at the NCAA Division III level. Goodbye Oregon Ducks. Hello Stevens Ducks.

I played Division III athletics. I coached fastpitch softball at two different Division III institutions who competed for national championships. I know what good Division III programs look like. My wife, Kari, is the best coach in the household. She played Division I volleyball and has spent 18 seasons coaching volleyball for one of the top club volleyball programs in the country. Part of me wishes my wife would coach college volleyball. College volleyball needs coaches like her. But television revenue has ruined Division I athletics. To coach volleyball in the SEC or Pac 12 no longer feels like a dream job.

I often refer to her as the Nick Saban of volleyball. Kari won two national championships and coached numerous club teams that finished in the top 10 nationally. She trained something like 80 players who went on to play at the college level.  Recruiting is the lifeblood of college volleyball whether you coach the Stevens Ducks or the Oregon Ducks, and Kari's high level of success and long tenure at the club level are a huge positive if she ever decided to coach the college game. Unfortunately for us, when the Stevens Institute of Technology and Colby College were hiring new head volleyball coaches, Kari was 39 weeks pregnant. As much as I would love to support the Ducks or Mules, the timing was not right. So this started as a thought experiment. If Kari coached college volleyball in the future, where would the best jobs be?

I am convinced that the purest form of college athletics and the best coaching jobs are at places like Stevens and Colby College. They are both elite academic institutions that have shown a commitment to athletic excellence as well. There are bad Division III jobs out there. But you also have world class institutions, like Colby and Carleton and Emory and so many more, that compete at the Division III level. I believe that the next generation of college coaches should look beyond the coveted Power 5 Conferences and dream of coaching at Tufts not Texas, Wash U not KU.

These kinds of decisions aren't ninety-nine to one. They're fifty-two to forty-eight.

When Nick Saban left the NFL to take the Head Football Coach position at Alabama, he took a $1 million per year pay cut. For Saban, it wasn’t about the money. If you remember the situation, Saban was in his second year as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Alabama fired Mike Shula and pursued Saban, who won a national championship at LSU. Saban did his best to deny the rumors and keep his NFL team focused. In retrospect, he would say it was one of the toughest decisions he ever made. He was extremely loyal to his players, and he genuinely liked Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. On the other hand, Saban knew he wanted to return to the college game, and Alabama was on a very short list of programs that could get Saban to leave the NFL. He stayed up two nights in a row- all night- worrying about what to do. Saban of course took the Alabama job. He later said, “People don’t realize that these kinds of decisions aren’t ninety-nine to one. They’re fifty-two to forty-eight.” How do you decide when it’s 52:48? How do you decide when there are personal and professional implications. Five national championships later, it looks like the decision turned out well.

Colby College and the Stevens Institute of Technology are on a very short list of head coaching jobs that could get Kari Raymond to leave Northern Lights. She teaches high school math in a very good school district in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and coaches one of the top teams at Lights. There is a very short list of college coaching jobs we would ever consider. Auburn and Arkansas are definitely not on the list. The idea of coaching at the college level and training athletes for four years is compelling. There is no doubt that you can have a tremendous impact on a club volleyball player’s life in the course of coaching her for 8 months. But imagine if you coached her for four years.

The concept of Power 5 schools is threatening to ruin all of Division I athletics. The ridiculous amount of television revenue going to Power 5 schools creates an uneven playing field. Even Billy Beane would struggle to compete. Coaching salaries have skyrocketed and the concept of student-athlete is laughable. In a nutshell, Division III athletics and West Point and the Naval Academy might be the purest remaining forms of college athletics. What would convince us to leave a good high school teaching position and a club coaching position at Northern Lights? To start, a world-class institution that competes at the Division III level. That's why openings at Stevens and Colby College caught my eye. But as I finish this writing project, we now have a one month old future volleyball player. The timing is definitely not right to think about coaching jobs for us. Let's just say packing up household goods, selling a home, and moving to Hoboken, New Jersey is not high on the priority list right now. Nevertheless, the timing has never been better for coaches to realize that the greatest jobs in the world are at the Division III level.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I married the Nick Saban of volleyball. In terms of teaching the game and developing players, my wife reminds me of Saban. They both are outstanding teachers. They both develop players. And they are both highly organized. They have a plan for everything. When it comes to strategy, Kari, like Saban, will make the opponent play left-handed, make them do what they don't want to do. I have watched this playout on multiple teams of all levels over the last 20 years. She is the Nick Saban of volleyball. Kari played Division I volleyball in the Missouri Valley Conference. She started at middle blocker for four years, graduated with a degree in mathematics, and went straight into the world of coaching and teaching. And my life became a volleyball life.

She should be on the short list of every athletic director in the country. But Kari loves teaching high school math and Northern Lights is her volleyball family. She played there. She has coached there for close to two decades. But as a husband, I have tried to encourage her to consider coaching at the college level. Eighteen years of coaching experience for one of the top club volleyball programs in the nation. Two national championships. Three Top 5 finishes. Three additional Top 10 finishes. Twenty years of teaching high school mathematics, and she’s also coached high school volleyball for 14 years, in three different states, with three stints as a head varsity coach. Kari trained over 80 players who went on to play at NAIA, Division III, Division II, and Division I schools, including schools from every Power 5 Conference.

If you sat watching her club teams through the years, you sat with the likes of Kevin Hambly, Mary Wise, Hugh McCutcheon, and Kelly Sheffield recruiting her players. For six years she served as a lead coach at Northern Lights, planning and leading the training for an entire age division. During a two year run when Kari led the 15-year-old age division, she led the 15s program to two national titles, two runner-up finishes, and two fifth place finishes throughout the 15-year-old age division. As a former middle blocker, Kari has a special knack for training middles. For years she led the positional training at Lights for middles at various age levels. After watching one of Kari’s middles multiple times, Florida Head Volleyball Coach Mary Wise said it was the best middle footwork she had ever seen for a 15-year-old. Keep in mind, Mary Wise has been a head coach at the Division I level for 34 years.

Speaking of Mary Wise, college volleyball needs more female coaches. Why is women's volleyball dominated by male head coaches? Kari and I once spent a couple of days with the University of Washington coaching staff. They showed us around campus. We watched the first practices of the season. They let us pepper them with questions and pretty much hang out for the first few days of preseason. Associate Head Coach Leslie Gabriel spent two hours showing us the athletic facilities and taking us on a tour of campus. While cruising around UW's amazing campus, she told Kari that college volleyball needs more strong women in the coaching profession. I don’t know if Kari ever considered coaching college volleyball until that moment.

I always dreamed of coaching at the college level. My first dream involved coaching college football. Later, I dreamed of coaching fastpitch softball at the college level. Kari only dreamed of being a high school teacher and coach. For years, I believed she should coach college volleyball. I see the way she develops players in 8 months and think about the impact she could have over four years. But the world of college athletics has been turned upside down- even in the last 10-15 years. Is coaching at the college level even something to aspire to anymore?

The Michigan Football team started the 2020 season 1-2. Articles popped up all over the internet about candidates to replace Jim Harbaugh. Wasn’t he the savior of the program just a few short years ago. He was a star quarterback at Michigan, a 14-year veteran in the NFL, and a head coach in the NFL who left to come back to his school. Doesn’t he deserve better. Maybe Michigan won't be able to compete with Ohio State. They can still produce an excellent football program. What is going on in big-time college athletics?

Volleyball is not immune. Coaching salaries keep climbing higher and higher at the Power 5 schools. For football that means $9 million a year. For volleyball that means $400,000 a year. In both examples, coaching salaries are out-of-control. And with that comes the pressure to win now. Maybe Chris Petersen left at the right time? Sports Journalist Bruce Feldman once asked Chris Petersen if coaching was still as much fun as it was in his early days as an assistant at UC Davis. Petersen said, no. Not even close. And this was back in Petersen’s Boise State days. He coached football at Boise State and the University of Washington, and I would argue that he coached with a Division III philosophy. He developed players. He believed in academic excellence. Every facet of the program showed that they wanted to build great young men and not just great football players. The focus of the staff was that players who came through their program would be “Built For Life.” Maybe we need more institutions and more head coaches that realize that the role of college athletics is secondary.

I followed Nick Saban’s coaching career since he was a position coach for the NFL’s Houston Oilers. For someone who grew up wanting to coach, Saban was one of the people I idolized long before I even met my wife in 1999. A few years into my marriage, I realized that my life had become a volleyball life. Personal days are now used to travel to Denver for the Colorado Crossroads National Qualifier. They are used for major tournaments in Omaha and national qualifier events in Minneapolis. I can’t tell you much about the NFL or Division I softball, but I can tell you the top club volleyball programs in the country. In our office, a large clear canister sits full of medals. National Championship medals. Medals from winning National Qualifiers. Medals from smaller, regional tournaments. Medals won in the Open Division- the highest level of play in club volleyball.  While medals and championships look nice on the resume, our office also tells the other part of the story. Pictures, team photos, and posters hang on the wall. I see faces of players who have developed into Big 12 players, Big Ten players, ACC players, Division II players, and successful law school students. I see faces of young women who walk taller and have more confidence because of their playing experience. Players who grew and developed their game. Players whose lives have been positively impacted because they had Kari as their coach.

“He was exactly what I needed when I was eighteen years old.”

Diana Taurasi said she was in the WNBA for about two minutes before everybody started to ask the same question: What was Coach Auriemma like? She said it was the first thing everybody wanted to know. The first thing every volleyball player wanted to know was what was Kari like? The high school players sought out Ellie before the season even began. Ellie had played for Kari twice. They asked if she yelled a lot. They wanted to know what Kari was like as a coach. Ellie said Kari was the best coach she ever had.

Kari has coached some great players in the club volleyball world. When she took her teaching position in the Lakeville School District, through back channels, they told her she wouldn’t get the job unless she coached volleyball. I hate to break the news to people, but most high school volleyball programs are a joke. Even in a state with great high school volleyball, I could maybe find 2 or 3 programs who do things the right way. Lakeville did not need a varsity coach. So here is my two-time national champion wife, coaching JV volleyball in order to snag what appeared like a good teaching gig. It was like having Nick Saban coach the defense on your JV football squad.

The level of play doesn't matter. If you are a coach, you coach. You teach. Kari coached her JV team. She ran efficient practices. She taught the fundamentals in an efficient and effective manner. She developed players in all aspects of their game. Even in a short two months, players grew, they developed, they got better. She coached JV, then 9A in order to not be in violation of state high school rules with some kids she coached at the club level. And then back for two more years of JV. Four years of Nick Saban training your defensive players in the lower levels of your high school football program. Because of the one year at 9A, she had the chance to coach two girls for three seasons in a row. They will be varsity players next year, but she coached them as 8th graders on the 9A team, and then on the JV squad as freshmen and sophomores. At the end of their run together, Ellie sent Kari a text. She thanked her for being her coach. She said she felt blessed to have Kari as a coach for three years.

Volleyball, like any sport, can be a great thing to keep high school kids busy and from doing the other kinds of things high school kids do. Ellie needed volleyball. It kept her busy, kept her around a solid group of teammates, and it meant she had another positive adult in her life. And she was a pretty decent player. Kari was the exact coach Ellie needed as a 14- and 15-year-old girl.

Like Diana Taurasi, all of Saban’s players get asked the same question. What was Saban like? One former player told the story of what it’s like to go on to the NFL. He said people always ask him, “What was Saban like?” They don’t ask about the national championships. They ask about Saban. “And I mean it’s everyone who asks me that,” he said. “Teammates, NFL coaches, and even people who don’t know anything about football.” What was Saban like? “I always say the same thing," he said. “He was exactly what I needed when I was eighteen years old.”

What would it take for me to consider selling a house in Minnesota and moving to Hoboken, New Jersey or Waterville, Maine. Like Saban, we also have a very short list of colleges that would be a good fit for us. If Saban is right, we will all have tough life decisions. Anyone who has lived long enough knows that to be true. Some decisions aren’t 99 to 1. Some are 52 to 48. If athletic directors have a short list of candidates, perhaps coaches should do the same. But right now, Kari is grateful to have another group of 14-year-old club volleyball players to prepare to compete at the 14 Open level. We have a future 6'3" left-handed setter we are raising, and it's not the right time to think about coaching at the college level. But whoever gets the head volleyball coach position at Stevens or Colby College, you have a job that I wouldn't trade for Auburn, Texas, or Arkansas. Indeed, the best college coaching jobs are at places like Stevens and Colby College- Ducks and Mules and a world-class education.

Thanks for reading. This is Part One of a multi-part series on the landscape of coaching college athletics in 2021. It's a story of D3, it's a story of club volleyball, it's a story of men coaching women, it's a look at all that's good about college athletics and warning against the greed and hubris threatening college athletics.  If you enjoyed this post, read Part Two called "I'm Going To Show You How To Live."

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