Brandon Rosenthal made a promise shortly after he took over the ailing women’s volleyball program at Nashville’s Lipscomb University in 2003. The then 25-year-old graduate assistant, who had less than two years of coaching experience, vowed his players would win the Atlantic Sun Championship in his fifth year as head coach of the Lady Bisons.
But could someone so young and inexperienced achieve such a lofty goal? Could someone who never played collegiate volleyball reach that milestone? Could anyone—even the most experienced coach—transform a program that had won only six games in its past three seasons into a volleyball powerhouse?
Rosenthal and his “dogged determination” found a way. He and the Lady Bisons captured their first A-Sun Championship title in 2007, and his scrappy teams have continued to wow the collegiate volleyball community, on and off the court, since that banner year.
Consider just a few of the accomplishments Lipscomb’s volleyball teams have achieved under Rosenthal’s leadership in the past few seasons:
- Four A-Sun Championship titles (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011)
- Four NCAA Tournament Appearances (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011)
- A-Sun Player of the Year four times (Alex Kelly, 2008 and 2009; Stephanie “Jake” Pease, 2010; Katie Rose, 2011)
- Two A-Sun All-Academic Players (Caitlin Dotson, 2011; Katie Rose, 2011)
- One A-Sun Scholar-Athlete of the Year (Caitlin Dotson, 2012)
• • •
The story of how this Pepperdine University theater major turned a program that went 0-30 in the 2001-02 season into a budding volleyball dynasty has inspired, impressed, and even intimidated players and coaches across the country.
“What Brandon has done is truly remarkable,” said Steve Potts, the former athletic director at Lipscomb who hired Rosenthal. “If you look at where Brandon started [when he took over the program] it’s one of the most remarkable athletic stories I’ve been around.”
Lipscomb’s head softball coach Kristin Ryman, a former volleyball standout for the Lady Bisons, agreed.
“He’s done a phenomenal job of creating a culture of winning,” said Ryman, who played during Rosenthal’s first season as head coach. She was also his first graduate assistant coach. “To build that level of success in such a short time is unheard of, and it speaks to the type of coach he is and of his passion.”
Rosenthal inherited a program that had struggled since 2000 when it made the gigantic leap from playing in the NAIA to NCAA Division I.
“It absolutely was a huge jump,” said Potts, who is now the athletic director at Pepperdine. “Going from NAIA to Division I is really like starting all over.”
But Rosenthal welcomed the challenge. He knew the odds were stacked against him and his players. He’d reviewed Lipscomb’s record books. The Lady Bisons were a competitive NAIA team, but now they were in the big leagues – and facing much tougher teams.
• • •
Rosenthal spent a season and a half as a graduate assistant coach for Lipscomb shortly after the team made the transition to DI. He’d seen the Lady Bisons fight to scratch out just four wins in the 2002-03 season and finish the year with a dismal .161 winning percentage.
But Rosenthal had a plan to turn the program around. The fiery competitor used the skills he honed while working on his MBA to map out a strategy that would put Lipscomb on the national volleyball map.
“I hate to lose, so I had to do something,” he said. “I approached this [job] as if I was opening a business.”
Rosenthal’s first decision as head coach was to change the style of game played at Lipscomb. He developed a plan of attack that emphasized speed instead of height.
“We knew we would not get those talented tall players,” Rosenthal said. “So we decided to go after athletic kids who could run laterally on the court faster than their opponents.”
Speed, however, wasn’t the only ingredient Rosenthal infused into his winning formula. The California native scoured the country for gritty players who shared his unwavering passion for volleyball and the insatiable desire to win.
“You can’t teach that winning feeling,” he said.
But how did Rosenthal convince his early recruits to play for a school that had such a poor record?
He touted the university and its facilities. He played the Nashville card. “We’re in one of the best cities in the country,” he said. “When people come here and see the campus, which is beautiful, and see the city, they walk away impressed.”
The affable Rosenthal also discussed the opportunities players would have to etch their name in the school’s record book and become part of what he considered “something bigger than themselves.”
“We found kids who wanted to be on the ground floor and help us build a new program,” he said.
Rosenthal laid the foundation for a new era of winning at Lipscomb his first year on the bench. He challenged his players to finish the season with at least one more “W” on their record than the previous year.
“I wanted to show improvement,” he said.
The Lady Bisons exceeded his expectations. The team doubled its number of wins. “We went from four to eight,” said Rosenthal, who finished his inaugural year with an 8-21 record. “It was a long first year, but we were moving in the right direction.”
Rosenthal’s teams kept digging. They posted nine wins during his second season. The team captured 13 wins his third year and jumped a notch to 14 his fourth season.
“Every year we won more games,” Rosenthal said.
Those strides helped the ambitious coach attract more talented players to Lipscomb. Rosenthal, however, had only a limited number of scholarships to offer potential recruits. But he didn’t let those restrictions block his success. He tapped into the lucrative transfer market to find players.
“We tried to find kids who were jaded by bigger schools or didn’t get to play much,” he said.
Rosenthal struck the volleyball jackpot in 2004 with his first transfer – a feisty libero from the University of Tennessee named Ann Mullins.
“She had an immediate impact on our program,” he said of the school’s all-time leader in digs.
Mullins credits Rosenthal for giving her a second chance to play. The Nashville native had suffered what she feared were career-ending stress fractures in both shins during her sophomore year with the Lady Volunteers.
“It was tough to get back on the court,” Mullins said. “I’d decided to leave UT and not play anymore. But Brandon told my dad that I should come to Lipscomb for a visit.”
Rosenthal immediately convinced the stellar athlete to transfer to Lipscomb. “He’s a phenomenal recruiter,” she said. “He knows how to recruit players who fit in the program and the school.”
The five-foot-seven-inch Mullins played two seasons, from 2005-2007, with the Lady Bisons. “Brandon found ways for me to work out that were less pounding on my legs. Eventually, I healed.”
Mullins became a key player on the team that captured Lipscomb’s first A-Sun Championship title. She also served as a source of inspiration for other top players, from such schools as the University of Alabama and Kansas State, to transfer to Lipscomb.
“She’s the reason other girls came here afterwards,” Rosenthal said. Those players, combined with the spunky high school recruits Rosenthal added to Lipscomb’s volleyball family, brought the Lady Bisons to a whole new level of play.
They solidified the program’s tradition of winning.
• • •
In the past five years, this small but mighty university has posted an impressive 80-8 record in conference play. The Lady Bisons finished the 2009 season 20-0 in the A-Sun – a feat no other team has accomplished in conference history. Rosenthal and his players also defeated rival Belmont University three times that year and ended the season 28-4.
Lipscomb’s record under Rosenthal has dipped in recent years, to a low 18-12 in 2012. But the Lady Bisons remain a daunting force in collegiate volleyball. And they show no signs of letting down their guard.
Lipscomb entered the 2013 season with its trademark level of intensity. By the end of October, the Purple and Gold had battled their way to 16-6. They were ranked first in NCAA DI for kills per set (averaging 15.69) and third in assists (14.59).
But how has Rosenthal developed such a top-notch program – one that hasn’t recorded a losing season since 2006? What’s his secret for success?
“Speed turned this program around,” he said. “And we’re still using speed to win. We’ve been able to get more height, but we’ve found that other teams don’t practice against speed. It makes them uncomfortable. Our speed gets them off their regular game, and then they’re playing our game.”
Other factors have helped Rosenthal transform Lipscomb into a respected and competitive program, according to his colleagues and players.
The biggest one, they said, is Rosenthal himself.
“He makes you feel like you’re part of a family,” said former middle blocker and libero Katie Rose. “When you have that kind of relationship with your teammates, you don’t settle for losing.”
Former middle hitter Alex Kelly said the Lady Bisons have become a dominant force in college volleyball because of the time Rosenthal invests in his players and their future.
“He cares about you on and off the court,” said Kelly, who played at Lipscomb from 2007-10. “I was once stressed out about a paper during college. Brandon told me to bring him the paper and he proofed it for me. He took time for me – something most coaches [don’t] do.”
Rosenthal’s college roommate Branden Higa is convinced his best friend’s tenacious work ethic is the driving force behind Lipscomb’s skyrocketing success.
“He’s just relentless,” said Higa, the head women’s volleyball coach at California Baptist University. “I get calls from him at midnight and he’s just heading home from his office. His program has become successful through plain old grit.”
The former Pepperdine volleyball star also credits the type of players Rosenthal has brought to Lipscomb.
“How does a school like that go from 0-30 to becoming a national contender?” Higa asked. “It’s not speed. It’s heart. He recruits players who have huge hearts and a passion for the game.”
As Rosenthal enters his 11th season with the Lady Bisons, he isn’t about to rest on his laurels.
“I don’t want to sit back and look at the banners,” he said. “I want more. I’m still hungry. I’m starving as a matter of fact.”
The 37-year-old Rosenthal raised his expectations for the team this season. He’s not going to settle for just another bid to the NCAA Tournament. He’s set his sights even higher.
“My new goal is to take this program to the Sweet 16 round,” he said.
Can he reach that pinnacle? Can he make Lipscomb this year’s “Cinderella Team?” No one who’s played for Rosenthal or watched his meteoric rise would be surprised.
“This program has always exceeded itself,” said former player and coaching assistant Samantha Crane. “The Sweet 16 would be a huge milestone, but I wouldn’t put it past his team to get even farther.”
As Mullins said: “The sky’s the limit with Brandon.”
Name: Brandon Rosenthal
Position: Head coach of Lipscomb University women’s volleyball team
Head Coaching Experience: 11 years at Lipscomb
Record (as of Nov. 6, 2013): 200-144
Major Accomplishments: Four A-Sun Championship titles, four NCAA Tournament appearances, 20-0 record in the A-Sun Conference in 2009, 25-match win streak in 2009
Honors: 2009 A-Sun Coach of the Year
Biggest Upset: The 2011 defeat over No. 30-ranked Louisville
Education: Bachelor of Arts in theater from Pepperdine University; MBA from Lipscomb University
Personal: Wife, Kate, and two children
Build traditions: “We base all our traditions around family. We have big family dinners and include the players’ parents. And we don’t allow cell phones at any meals.”
Work hard: “My goal is to outwork our competitors.”
Become a tireless recruiter: “Don’t leave any stone unturned. Answer all emails and calls. Don’t just consider top-rated players. There are a lot of gems out there.”
Set the bar high: “I expect the best from players in everything they do, including playing, practicing, working in the classroom, and giving back to the community.”
Find ways to motivate players: “We play music at practice every day. I decided that if that’s what it takes to get the girls motivated, that’s great. But if we play music, we just have to practice even harder.”
Senior Setter Caitlin Dotson
“I wanted to play for a program that wanted to make a difference. I’m a short [5'8"] setter and I wanted to go to a place where I could play. Brandon put such a positive spin on everything and he sees the potential in every player.”
Former Middle Hitter Alex Kelly
“Brandon made me feel like he really wanted me on his team. His big thing is ‘come and be part of something special.’ That’s why girls go there.”
Former Libero Katie Rose
“Brandon made me feel like I was part of a family. He was so optimistic about where his program was going and so convincing about everything. The biggest thing he does is make you fall in love with the game again.”
Originally published in January 2014