The Corbellis, head coach Laurie and assistant coach John, will be the first to tell you, usually in a humorous way, that coaching together as wife and husband for two decades can be tough. And, yes, they do take it home with them.
“Absolutely,” Laurie said. “We’d like to say that no we don’t, uh-uh, but that’s a lie. It’s our lifeblood. This program is who we are, what we are, what we’ve developed together. Absolutely we try not to talk about it all the time at home. Because mental breaks are necessary no matter who you are, if you coach with your spouse or not.”
“There are a lot of plusses and minuses,” John admitted.
Senior outside hitter Tori Mellinger said most of the time you would never know they’re married, although everyone involved appreciates their sarcastic senses of humor.
“They have differences and it’s kind of funny when they do, but in the end they agree,” Mellinger said. “Someone’s right, someone’s wrong. I enjoy that they’re husband and wife because it’s more like a family. They’re our parents in a way. They’re supportive and caring.”
The Corbellis have been married for 26 years and have sat side-by-side on the Texas A&M bench since 1993, having considerably more success than failure, a lot of give and take and lots of laughs. The tough times together can be challenging, but not nearly as bad, evidently, as coaching against each other.
As talented Texas A&M makes a late-season run to try to clinch the Southeastern Conference Western Division title in its first year in the league, Laurie and John are finishing their 20th year together at Texas A&M. Through the end of October they celebrated 416 victories and agonized over 199 defeats in those two decades. It’s a span that includes 15 trips to the NCAA Tournament, with another almost assuredly to come later this month.
And at least they’re doing it together.
When Laurie was the coach at San Francisco from 1986-89 and then Santa Clara from 1990-92, John was the head coach at San Jose State. Keep in mind, they married in 1986, “If you want to call it that,” she says with a laugh. “It was pretty brutal.”
That’s because San Francisco is about 50 miles from where they were living in San Jose, an awfully tough commute. Santa Clara is just five miles, but in some ways they were worlds apart.
Laurie, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist from Dallas who starred at the University of San Francisco, was head coach at her alma mater from 1986-89. Then, while also playing pro and trying to finish her degree at USF, she took the job at Santa Clara.
“And all I really wanted was to start a family,” said Laurie, whose daughter, Rachel, was born in May of 1991. “I was 33, 34, and when we decided we wanted to start our family we knew we’d better get on the same team. We didn’t know where that would be.”
Their first thoughts were that one or the other would leave their head coaching job to work for the other. But John David Crowe, then the athletic director at Texas A&M, called Laurie, who was coming off back-to-back postseason appearances at Santa Clara.
“They wanted to hire only one head coach but we went in with the understanding that it was our program, John and I as co-head coaches. And I do everything he says.” She stopped and laughed, especially when asked if John does everything she says. “No. Oh, hell, no,” she said, laughing again.
This would be a good time to tell you that the former Laurie Flachmeier was “was raised a Longhorn.
“My folks were raised in Austin, and they bleed orange so if there was any school I thought I might coach at it was the University of Texas. So when Texas A&M came calling, it was kind of strange, a strange feeling, to consider a school that was an ultimate rival of the school I grew up singing the fight song for.”
A&M seemed like the potential long-term stop they were hoping for. “It seemed too perfect to turn down,” Laurie said. “It was well-supported financially, the administration wanted it to grow, and it was three hours from my family.”
It was a no-brainer for A&M to take on both Corbellis. John, who went to the same high school, Punahou, in Hawaii as did Barack Obama, but four years ahead of the future president, was a star player at UC Santa Barbara and then played on the U.S. men’s national team for the 1978-79 seasons. After playing pro he got into coaching, which included being an assistant on that 1984 U.S. women’s team. And for the record, he holds a 3-1 lead in the Corbelli head-to-head coaching matchups while they were in Northern California.
At A&M, they hit the ground running, on the court and off.
Starting in 1993, A&M began a run of 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under the Corbellis. And on June 28, 1994, coincidentally on the Corbellis’ eighth wedding anniversary, Rachel got a little brother, Russell. Also during that time, from 1995-98, the school had its best player, future three-time Olympic libero Stacy Sykora, who wore Laurie Corbelli’s Olympic no. 5 as a tribute to her college coach. And in 1999 and 2001, A&M was a victory away from volleyball’s NCAA final four.
Interestingly, both Corbellis say the kids were a welcome non-volleyball distraction. Now, Rachel, who played club volleyball growing up, is now a student at the University of Texas-San Antonio, while Russell is at Blinn Junior College, right near their home.
“We’re just now trying to learn how to become empty-nesters with the program without the diversion of having kids at home,” Laurie said.
They said that when Rachel was younger, she was the most excited about A&M volleyball. Although John said she was also quick to give a critique. Laurie jumped in and imitated her: “Mom, why did you do this, why did you put so-and-so in. Mom, don’t you know what you’re doing?”
What’s more, “It’s difficult when you lose. The kids feel the stress,” John said. “We had three years in a row (2006-2008) when we didn’t make the playoffs and it was very stressful and surprisingly stressful on the kids.” That’s because the kids thought their parents could get fired and they’d have to move.
A&M got back into the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and advanced to the third round. The Aggies were left out in 2010, but made it to the second round last year. For that matter, in the Corbellis tenure at Texas A&M, when they have made the tournament, the Aggies have always won their first-round match.
This year’s team includes five seniors and five juniors and most observers agree that when the Aggies are hitting on all cylinders they’re quite good and certainly a team you don’t want to meet up with early on in the NCAA Tournament. What’s more, of the 18 players on the roster, all but two are from Texas.
Last year, the SEC admitted Texas A&M and Missouri to the league. It not only gave the SEC a new look, it gave coaches like the Corbellis a new challenge.
“I love it. It’s awesome,” Laurie said. “Personally, change is always nice. I really enjoyed the Big 12. It was incredibly competitive. But honestly it’s kind of nice to have a totally new group of teams to get to know and get to scout and prepare for and new coaching strategies that I can learn from. All those reasons.
“When you’ve been doing something for 26 years and you get to change the whole landscape of what you do, the whole intense four months, it’s neat. We’ve been welcomed beautifully, too.”
Almost every school in the SEC – and for that matter, many in the country – recruit in the volleyball-rich state of Texas. At A&M, the pitch can be pretty easy. College Station is still a relatively small town and A&M is a place steeped in tradition, from the Midnight Yell cheer practice to the 12th Man to quite a few little things that the Corbellis can promote to recruits.
“A&M in general is a tradition-based school to begin with,” Mellinger said, “so it was easier for them to bring in their family style of coaching.”
Said Stephanie Minnerly, a fifth-year senior, “They've taught me everything. They basically molded me like clay. I sure appreciate everything they've done.”
Minnerly is a product of a coaching system that has blended different personalities and methods.
“I like high intensity, fast pace and constantly challenging my players and deriving the enjoyment from seeing them push themselves as hard as they can,” Laurie said. “That’s kind of my pedigree, what I was raised on. John’s style? Much more teaching oriented. Patient with a learning process. Back up a step if we don’t quite have it. He goes through it a little slower and will repeat it. I’ll repeat things but not in a nice way.
“And he’s great at what he does. So finding that blend is the key.”
The bottom line is Laurie is the head coach, although John is listed as the associate head coach. They have another assistant, Steve Greene, in his second year of sitting on one side of Laurie. John sits on the other. They both offer suggestions, but trust that John knows best when to talk to Laurie.
“Twenty years of it I know – well, I think I know – when to give in input,” John said.
“He’s very respectful of the fact that I do have to answer for the program and I have to sit with the boss,” Laurie said. “I’m responsible for it and he gets that. But he has his style and the way he likes to teach and the way he likes to train and the way he likes to talk to the team. He has his style and I have mine, so it’s been a constant blending of our styles that can be really challenging. It’s really fun, especially when we win, and when the team is enjoying themselves and really embracing it all.”
“But those tough times are amplified a little because we’ve both put so much into it and we’ve given and taken from each other. Give to each other, take from each other, and we’ve compromised so much and then to have it feel like a failure after a loss is sometimes just devastating. It’s not fun at all.”
But it’s never something that a victory and a little Corbelli teasing and humor doesn’t fix.