By Amy Farnum Patronis
It’s been 30 years since Laura Neugebauer-Groff starred for the University of Texas volleyball team in the early 1980s.
“You could get by with someone like me — who was barely 5-11 — as your middle blocker,” Neugebauer-Groff quipped.
Since then, college volleyball has changed. The game is different, the kids are different. The talent pool is getting larger and the parity between programs is inching closer.
Neugebauer-Groff, now a veteran head coach at UTSA, has adjusted well to all the changes in the sport. But what hasn’t changed much since her playing days at UT is her competitive drive — something that now fuels her successful coaching career.
Earlier this season, she earned her 500th career victory as a collegiate head coach — a pretty stellar accomplishment and something only a few dozen coaches have accomplished in NCAA history.
A former All-American at UT, Neugebauer-Groff led the Longhorns to four consecutive Southwest Conference championships (1982-1985) under then-head coach Mick Haley.
Teamed with her sister, Sharon Neugebauer, on the front line for part of her career, Neugebauer-Groff helped lay the foundation for Texas to become a perennial national power in the sport.
But as college volleyball has matured, it has become different than Neugebauer-Groff’s glory days at UT. Today, the game is bigger, more powerful, more specialized.
“When we played, you were a more complete player,” she said. “There were more all-around players because we had to serve and dig to win a point. Now, you have all the defensive specialists in the back row who are there to pass and these big guns on the front row who are there to hit.
“I think there was a lot more emphasis on ball control back then whereas now your big hitters don’t necessarily have to be the best ball handlers.”
Two years after graduating from Texas, Neugebauer-Groff coached a few years of high school volleyball in Texas, and then went to Texas A&M as an assistant coach, before taking the head job at St. Mary’s (Texas) in 1993 in her hometown of San Antonio. Then an NAIA school, St. Mary’s transitioned to NCAA Division II during Neugebauer-Groff’s tenure.
In 2002, she remained in San Antonio, but switched schools, moving to UTSA where she is coaching her 14th season. In 22 seasons as a head coach, she has compiled a 501-246 record and is one of the winningest active Division I coaches in the nation with a .671 winning percentage.
Fran Flory, a former teammate at UT and the head coach at LSU, remembers Neugebauer-Groff’s intensity well.
“Laura would compete for anything,” Flory said. “She played hard every practice. She didn’t take a rep off. She was very single-minded and volleyball was super important, and she studied super hard to make sure her grades were good. She was a really dedicated student-athlete — she wasn’t out doing silly stuff. She was driven and she stayed on track and I think that’s what she expects of her kids.”
As a player, it really bothered Neugebauer-Groff that other players weren’t training as hard as she did.
“It was school and volleyball,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “I was so focused and so intense. It took me a while to realize there is more to life than that. I think as a coach you realize you can’t do it for them. They have to grow up and learn how to balance it all in all areas of their lives, because when they get out in the real world that’s what they have to do.”
It was Haley — who is now in his 15th season at USC — who helped her gain a little perspective while she was a player.
“Mick Haley used to tell me ‘Everybody can’t be perfect like you,’” Neugebauer-Groff said. “‘They can’t be the person who practices all the time or studies all the time or works out all the time — you have to respect them for who they are.’
“It was really great advice and it is the same thing as a coach. They have to want it, and sometimes it’s hard if you want it more than they do.”
Neugebauer-Groff says being one of eight children — having to battle for food and attention in a houseful of kids — definitely played a part in developing that mindset.
“It’s been a blessing to have those character traits, but it took me a while to realize that everybody doesn’t have the same thoughts,” she said.
But her players definitely respect all she has accomplished in sport and appreciate that their coach is trying to make them better players and better people.
“Alongside the competition, she definitely instills character and integrity and to always give it our all in all we do,” said Shelby Williams, a freshman defensive specialist at UTSA. “She wants us to be successful women once we graduate from the program.”
Over the years, Neugebauer-Groff admits she has softened a bit — at least with her players.
“You learn to calm down,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “When I first started coaching it was like I was playing every point. I wanted to get on the court on show them how it’s done. I’m still demanding — I demand perfection — but at the same time I’ve eased up.”
Where she hasn’t loosened up is in building the UTSA volleyball program. While there has been the pull of bigger, better jobs, there are two reasons Neugebauer-Groff has stayed put. First, her family is from San Antonio and she has deep roots in the city. And, second, she is bound and determined to develop a program at UTSA.
“I want to put UTSA volleyball on the map,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “Being a school without the resources of schools like Texas and being able to build a program without the big names — that’s been really cool.”
Slowly, but surely, she has seen that dream come to fruition. She’s posted five consecutive 20-win seasons, won two consecutive Conference USA regular season titles and advanced to the NCAA postseason in two of the last four years.
“I think she makes her kids better on and off the court,” Flory said. “She’s one of those special people in volleyball.”
But it hasn’t been easy at a non-power-five conference school.
“When I first started here — when we’d be watching a player — some of my coaching friends would say ‘You can’t get them.’ I would say, ‘Don’t tell me that, because you know me and don’t tell me I can’t do something.’ I think that in itself was a challenge.”
When she recruits, Neugebauer-Groff dares players to come to UTSA and help them be a Top 25 program.
“First it was the Top 100, then it was the Top 50,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “We’ve been there for a while. Now, we tell kids, ‘would you rather go there and sit on the bench, or come here and help us reach our goal?’ The foundation is here and we need players to build on that.”
Every little bit helps. Wins against Texas A&M last season and Oregon this year turned some heads. Four years ago, UTSA added a football team, which has helped with name recognition.
“It’s been a lot of work recruiting and convincing kids this is the right place for them,” Neugebauer-Groff said.
That work hopes to pay off this weekend when UTSA (12-5, 3-0 C-USA) visits No. 23 Western Kentucky (17-2) on Friday, Oct. 9, in a meeting the top two teams in the Conference USA standings.