2017 trend? Most NCAA openings filled with first-time head coaches

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Chris Tamas, an assistant at Nebraska the past two years, is the new head coach at Illinois/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

March 27: This originally ran March 13, but has been updated with coaching hires at Oregon, Clemson and Rhode Island. Division I openings remain at Illinois-Chicago (UIC), Coppin State and St. Peters.

No one can accuse NCAA Division I women’s volleyball as being a haven this offseason for recycled coaching retreads.

That might the norm in the NFL or Major League Baseball, but this winter there were 26 volleyball coaching openings and most have been filled with assistants who have had no prior head-coaching experience.

What’s more, 12 new head D-I coaches are women.

From Robyn Ah Mow-Santos at Hawai’i to Aaron Smith at Virginia to J.T. Wenger at Texas-Arlington to Sanja Tomasevic at Arizona State and Chris Tamas at Illinois, first-time head coaches broke through this offseason.

“You can’t get experience unless somebody gives you a chance,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the first-time hires where they’ve had full experiences in the game, whether it’s playing or being on other staffs.”

Athletics directors must have agreed.

Two jobs involved high-profile head coaches, like Kevin Hambly going from Illinois to Stanford and Tom Black leaving Loyola Marymount for Georgia.

But they were the exception.

Are we seeing a trend of hiring assistants? Are women breaking through in higher numbers?

All that remains to be seen, because every year there are plenty of changes. And there are at least three D-I jobs that remain open at  Coppin State, Illinois-Chicago and St. Peters.

And not everyone is concerned with who gets hired.

One veteran coach, who happens to be a man, said simply, “The trend I like,” he said with a smile, “is that you are starting to see salaries go up.”

Washington coach Keegan Cook
Washington coach Keegan Cook

“I think it’s great that people are getting chances to make their mark on the sport,” said Washington coach Keegan Cook, one of those who got to make his own mark when he was promoted. He was never a head coach before, but when Jim McLaughlin left for Notre Dame two seasons ago, his top assistant was moved up and Washington has since tied for the Pac-12 title in 2015 and won it outright this past season.

Two assistants from Nebraska alone got first-time head-coaching jobs, Dani Busboom Kelly at Louisville and Tamas at Illinois.

Nebraska coach John Cook
Nebraska coach John Cook

“I think the Nebraska program, because of the commitment, the attention, how big it is, all that goes on with the Nebraska program, Omaha, sold-out, TV, radio, I think all that stuff makes for great preparation for assistants to really understand how to run a big program,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.

“I think ADs see that. Of course, when you hire good people they recognize talent. Basically Dani and Chris, well Dani was hired in five minutes and Chris was literally on a plane at 1 o’clock and was offered the job at 4.”

Among the other former Nebraska assistants who have moved on to become head coaches are Kentucky’s Craig Skinner, UC Davis’s Dan Conners and Lizzy Stemke, who was at Georgia.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of good coaches out there at a lot of different places and had the unique experience for working for a lot of USA coaches and a lot of coaches I’ve respected over my career,” Tamas said.

“There are a lot of good young coaches out there and I’m happy to see that some A.D.s are taking some chances on guys like myself and women like myself. We’re young, we’re hungry and we know the game just as well as anyone. There’s a lot of bright young talent in the country and it’s a good move by some A.D.s.”

The Atlantic Coast Conference was the offseason leader in power-five coaching changes with four.

The ACC has new coaches at Louisville, which hired Busboom Kelly; Virginia Tech, getting longtime LSU assistant Jill Lytle Wilson; and Virginia, which elevated Smith. None had ever been a head coach although Kelly had previously been an assistant at Louisville.

And Clemson, which fired Hugh Hernesman on March 1, last week hired Michaela Franklin, most recently an assistant at Iowa and before that Marquette and Northern Illinois. She played at Kansas State and in 2013 was the head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay and becomes the only African-American woman hired as a head coach this year.

Virginia, 69-88 the past five years under Dennis Hohenshelt — 38-60 in the ACC — promoted Smith, who had worked for him the entire time. And Smith, in turn, retained another assistant, Stephanie Ross, who has been there three years.

“Jill (at Virginia Tech) and I have both prepared ourselves for the opportunity,” said Smith, who was the team captain at Penn State and then played professionally in Spain before getting into coaching.

“For me, it’s a little bit of being at the right spot at the right time, but Jill’s been around for a long time, has been at a few different schools, and has proven herself as a recruiter and in the gym, as well. She’s very well respected around the country.”

Virginia coach Aaron Smith
Virginia coach Aaron Smith

We spoke with Smith in Salt Lake City last month at the Triple Crown Sports Invitational.

“Being in this gym today, I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me to say congratulations, you’re ready for it, it’s well-deserved,” he said, “so I’m excited about it.”

There was only one change in the Southeastern Conference, but it was major. Georgia was 1-35 in SEC play the past two years and made a big splash when it lured Tom Black away from Loyola Marymount. Black’s resume includes not only being the head coach at UC San Diego and LMU, but being an assistant with the U.S. women’s Olympic team.

Black’s move, of course, created an opening at LMU, which was filled by former Santa Clara assistant Aaron Mansfield, a former UC Santa Barbara standout who also comes highly regarded but has never been a head coach.

From that Georgia staff, Josh Lauer landed as the head coach at Troy, a Sun Belt Conference program in Alabama. Lauer, who worked at Georgia from 2011-16, when the Bulldogs went 79-105 overall, previously was an assistant at Alabama from 2008-10 and during that time the Crimson Tide was 35-54.

There were no coaching changes in the Big 12, which, by the way, has not 12 but nine volleyball teams.

The only change in the Big Ten was Illinois.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of good coaches and been a lot of different places with a lot of unique experiences,” said Tamas, a former standout at Pacific and pro player. He’s been an assistant at Cal Poly and Minnesota has had stints working with the USA program.

There are a lot of good young coaches out there and I’m happy to see ADs taking a chance on guys like myself and females like myself. We’re young and we’re hungry and I think we know the game just as well as anyone. There’s always going to be a learning curve to try to be a head coach but there’s a lot of bright, young talent in the country and it’s good move by a lot of ADs.”

There were three in the Pac-12, starting with Stanford, which created the Illinois vacancy, Arizona State and, most recently, Oregon.

Arizona State, which the year earlier went with an untested assistant in Stevie Mussie, went that route again when it promoted her assistant, Tomasevic. 

Technically, Oregon coach Jim Moore retired at Oregon, and his wife, Stacy Metro, was was given another job at the school but is no longer a coach. They were replaced by assistant coach Matt  Ulmer, who was named interim head coach for the rest of 2017.

Here are the other Division I schools that hired new coaches:

Abilene Christian went with Angela Mooney, an assistant at UTEP, South Dakota State and most recently Ole Miss.

Delaware hired TCU assistant Sara Matthews, who previously had been an assistant at West Virginia.

The Hawai’i opening was created when legendary coach Dave Shoji stepped down after 42 years. He was replaced by former Hawai’i star, Olympian and assistant coach Ah Mow-Santos. She was an assistant at Hawai’i from 2011-15 and has never been a head coach.

Indiana State hired former Southern Miss, Bradley and Wake Forest assistant Lindsay Allman.

Manhattan hired Lora Sarich, who had been the head coach at Division II Northwestern Ohio.

Middle Tennessee tabbed Chuck Crawford, an assistant at Auburn the past three seasons. He’s also coached at Georgia Tech and Miami, Ohio.

Montana promoted assistant Allison Lawrence, the former Oregon State player who was at Montana since 2010.

Penn hired Katie Schumacher-Cawley, who had been the head coach at UIC for 14 years.

Rhode Island promoted Steve Santonastaso, who was on the Rams’ coaching staff for 12 seasons. He becomes just the second head coach in Rhode Island history and replaces Bob Schneck, who retired after 36 years.

Stetson split its indoors and beach program and hired longtime Missouri assistant Deng Yang.

Stony Brook hired Kristin Belzung, who had been an assistant the past four years at Wyoming.

Tennessee State hired assistant Donika Sutton. She is a former head coach at South Carolina State.

Texas-Arlington went with former pro player Wenger, whose resume as an assistant coach includes working with Al Scates and the UCLA men. He then was with the Colorado women and last year at Michigan State.

For many of them, athletic directors have taken a leap of faith, much as U-W did for Cook.

“Absolutely, they did,” Cook said, “but what sticks out in my mind was the players took a leap of faith. We’re going to have six seniors next year who all could have chosen to play somewhere else. For them to come back and have some faith in me means the world to me.

“But, yeah, there’s always a risk.”

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