Kirsten Bernthal Booth has had a remarkable run as the head coach at Creighton.
From 2012, Creighton’s last year in the Missouri Valley, through 2015 in the Big East, the Bluejays went 104-31 in four years, 62-8 in conference play. And then this past season the Bluejays finished 29-7 — 18-0 in the Big East — winning their first three NCAA Tournament matches in five sets each before getting swept by Texas in the regional final.
VolleyballMag.com recognized that success this past December by naming her our national coach of the year.
VolleyballMag.com’s Greg Echlin caught up with Booth last Saturday between recruiting trips during a busy weekend that saw quite a few aspiring college players, competing in a club tournament in Omaha, make on-campus visits to Creighton.
VBM: You’re just a couple of months removed from being named Volleyballmag.com Coach of the Year. Has it sunk in?
KBB: Obviously, it’s the same way you talk to your players. Honors are nice, but we play a team sport. Any honor that I get is a reflection on the team. If you’re around our team at all, you know that our staff is very collaborative. So any award that has my name behind it is something that’s definitely shared. I think, more than that honor, (it’s) reflecting on really a great season with 15 amazing young women. It’s been really fun to reflect on.
VBM: Largely a team made up of youthful players.
KBB: Yeah, we are pretty young. We’re going to miss some key players next year. (Middle) Lauren Smith is a huge loss. (Outside) Jess Bird has been a key cog for three years. (Defensive specialist) Amanda Foje hit a huge serve against Northern Iowa to help us move past the first round. Each team is different. I think we’ve got great talent next year and incoming recruits in the future. But it takes the players right now as we get into January, February and March and their commitment of wanting to do more. I feel like we’ve got a group that works really, really hard. We’ve challenged them. It’s not about working harder. It’s about working smarter, so that’s been our mantra. Continue to work hard, but maybe think of new ways to be better.
VBM: After this interview is over, you’re going to be heading out. Recruiting?
KBB: I’ve been recruiting all day. I’m actually going to watch my daughter’s basketball game.
VBM: This is a big recruiting weekend.
KBB: A huge weekend. I think President’s Day weekend is the biggest weekend of the year. You’ve got places all over the country that have great volleyball and you have to decide where you’re going to send your coaches.
VBM: It seems, for you, you don’t have to go too far to find good volleyball players.
KBB: There is great talent in the Midwest. For sure and that’s been our recruiting philosophy from the get-go. We start in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas. Those types of areas and we expand. We definitely have players from all over the country and I like that. I think they bring a different perspective, maybe different ways that they play and different ideas to life to some degree.
VBM: Since the end of the (NCAA) championship in Columbus, there have been some shocking coaching moves. Those have ripple effects, so I must ask you — given the success you’ve had at Creighton — did you field any calls?
KBB: I’m not going to comment too much on that other than the fact that I love being at Creighton. You approach each year differently, but I’m from Nebraska. My husband has a nice job. We’ve got grandparents 45 minutes away, so I’ll just say that I like to focus on how lucky I am. The grass isn’t necessarily always greener on the other side. This is where I’m excited to be and I have great administrative support. We’ve got some of the best facilities in the country. Our goal is to win a national championship and we feel like we can do it at Creighton.
VBM: It’s interesting that you say the “national championship” because you’re on ground now that the team and the program had never experienced before. After it had all concluded, did you feel like there could have been more?
KBB: When we lost to Texas, I thought they beat us. Do I say that we played our best match? No, but I think they caused some of that. I do feel like we played several of the top teams in the country, not only this year, but the last few years. What we’ve learned is we think we can win or we think we’re really close. Now it’s a matter of taking small steps forward each time we’re on the court if that’s training or year to year. That’s what we want to do. We also fully recognize that we went five in every match of the NCAA tournament. We could have lost in the first round. The good thing with volleyball compared to some other sports is there’s parity. We want more parity. The more parity, the better. That’s going to make our sport more exciting for fans. We’ve got a lot of young, talented athletes playing our sport. As we continue to have a lot of girls playing volleyball, I think the parity will continue to get better.
VBM: Some could argue that in the Big East Conference, with Creighton’s success, there isn’t parity in your own conference. How would you address that?
KBB: I think this year was an anomaly. This year our team just … man, they approached every single game like it was the national championship game. They were up for each match. We did have a lot of success in the Big East this year, but I can tell you the two years prior, when we also won the Big East, it was a dogfight every single night. I think the Big East is really underrated. It is good volleyball night in and night out. We have to be ready to go. That’s why I think this team was so great because they understood that. If they took a night off and weren’t locked in, they were going to lose. A lot of people that don’t think Big East volleyball is as good as some other conference don’t watch very much Big East volleyball because Big East volleyball is a great conference.
VBM: Since Creighton made the transition from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East, do you find yourself as a volleyball coach fighting the stigma of a “mid-major?” That some may still …
KBB: Still see the Big East as a mid-major? We’re not in that Power 5 label. I don’t feel that very much because some people call it the Power 6 with Big East basketball. We have proven we can be a national contender, particularly in men’s basketball. I argue — and in men’s and women’s soccer — why can’t we do that in volleyball? Here’s the deal: The Missouri Valley is a great volleyball conference. The Big East lure is the cities. We’ve got great volleyball and you’re going to go to the best cities in the country. A lot of young kids haven’t been to New York City. They haven’t been to Philadelphia. They haven’t been to Washington, D.C. That’s a pretty neat opportunity to do that while playing the sport you love.
VBM: Creighton has had so many good basketball seasons, yet the basketball team has not gotten past the first weekend (of the NCAA tournament). Ever.
KBB: We hope that’s going to be the case for men’s basketball. We’ve been close obviously. We’ve had some years that we’ve been ranked high. But I’m not going to lie. Going to the Sweet 16 last year and the Elite Eight this year was incredible. The interesting thing is I think it has driven our staff more. Instead of feeling, “Omigosh, we did it and we can rest,’”you taste it and you want to go further.
VBM: Creighton was unseeded in the NCAA tournament and you played a tough non-conference schedule. The committee looks at the RPI when it looks at the overall bracket. Where do you think the committee went wrong with Creighton being unseeded?
KBB: I don’t think the committee necessarily went wrong not seeding Creighton. I think you could have made arguments why we could have been seeded, but I think you could make arguments why we didn’t need to be. I didn’t have an issue with that. Where I was surprised is that we were sent to Kansas. If we weren’t seeded, I assumed — and have since been told that this probably wasn’t the case — that we would have been the next four or five seeded (teams) because they seed all 64. They could only release the top 16 and then plug you in. To me, Kansas was a very high seed, but K-State for instance wasn’t quite as high a seed. It would have seemed logical for us to go to Kansas State. My understanding is we didn’t seed out where we thought we probably deserved to be seeded. That’s the committee’s prerogative to make that decision. Ray Bechard, the Kansas coach, and I — before we played — said “This stinks,” because we felt both of our teams should be Sweet 16 teams. I think anyone that saw that match felt both of those teams should have moved on.
VBM: Do you think the committee is short-sighted when looking at teams that try to play that strong non-conference schedule in a conference that may not be as recognized as the Big 12 or the SEC?
KBB: Listen, I’ve met with the committee. I know that they’re doing incredible work. I know that they care a lot about the sport, so it’s not that I doubt that their effort and due diligence is there. Do I think that the Big East sometimes gets slighted? Absolutely. I think sometimes the Big Ten gets the nod or some of these power conferences. On the other hand, you can definitely make the argument that the Big Ten is so strong beating each other up that they shouldn’t be penalized for those losses.
VBM: From the outset, you mentioned that each team is different. Based on the success of—not just last year — the last several years, how excited are you for 2017?
KBB: I’m always excited going into each year and you always try to think ahead of potential issues you can have. Where you could have depth issues or lack of depth is a better way to put it. I think the biggest thing that makes me excited is I like these players, these young women. That’s what drives me to coach. I like their relationships. I like, hopefully, helping them grow into strong, independent women. I like them all as people, so that makes me excited. We’re very process driven, so we want to do things the right way. We want to work hard. We want to take care of things off the court. In the classroom and in the community. Hopefully, winning will be a byproduct of doing those things right. If not, hopefully, we can look back and be proud of the process that we took.