Update: This story originally ran on November 19, 2014. It resulted from a rare, sit-down interview with Stanford associate head coach Denise Corlett, who retired from coaching Tuesday. She never liked publicity, but agreed — after much cajoling — to visit with me in in Maples Pavilion at Stanford for this article.
Denise is a legend in our sport and one of the most respected people in volleyball. In addition to being a fixture on the Stanford bench, she’s been a tireless recruiter on the club circuit and a friend to so many.
During our interview, Denise Corlett, regarded as one of, if not the top assistant volleyball coaches in the country, who is a master recruiter, who went to four final fours as a player at UCLA (where her number 44 is retired) and won a national championship there in both basketball and badminton, who has played on the national team, started three girls volleyball clubs, and has been at Stanford for 26 years, during which time the Cardinal has won six national volleyball titles, stopped talking and paused.
“Why are we doing a story on me?” she asked.
Let’s start with the way the volleyball world admires her.
Take Jill Lytle Wilson, for example. An associate head coach at LSU, she’s not a kid — now 35 — and is regarded as a hard-working, excellent recruiter herself. But four years ago, Wilson called Corlett, whom she’d gotten to know on the recruiting trail, and asked Corlett simply to be her mentor.
She told Corlett, “You’re the best and I want to learn from the best.”
Wilson is just one of many coaches who look for guidance from Corlett, an integral participant in the American Volleyball Coaches Association mentorship program.
“She’s one of those special people who is willing and incredibly able to work mostly behind the scenes,” AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer said. “As a recruiter she’s relentless, and I mean that in a good way. She checks kids out multiple, multiple times. I think one of the things that makes Stanford so good is that she and John are such a dynamite combination the way they complement each other, respect each other, and work so well together.”
John, of course, is John Dunning, Stanford’s head coach who, when he left Pacific for Palo Alto, had a decision to make. Should he retain the woman who had been there for 11 years at the time and had even served as the 2000 interim head coach when Stanford struggled by Stanford standards?
“I didn’t know Denise that well, but you take risks and guesses in life and I think that was one,” Dunning said. “Anybody would look at it that way.”
Perhaps, but Dunning didn’t even interview Corlett. He just kept her.
“John was a good fit for the program,” Corlett recalled. “I was just very fortunate that he kept me.”
And vice versa.
“I thought Stanford was different,” said Dunning. “It’s a fairly unique place in terms of recruiting athletes. I figured there were a lot of idiosyncrasies about it because of the academics, the huge athletic program, and this is a big, big program. Plus I got hired in July, just a month away from practice, so if you don’t retain the staff, you don’t know the place.”
He laughed at the memory.
“I thought it was a really good move at the time and it’s proven to be true,” Dunning said. “But it presented challenges, because everyone in the department knew her but they didn’t know me when I got here.”
Corlett and Dunning went about rebuilding the program, one that in Corlett’s first 11 years as Don Shaw’s assistant went 311-42 and won four national titles. But after Shaw resigned, the roster was depleted: it happened to be the year after four-time All-American Kerri Walsh graduated. The team had sophomore Logan Tom, but she missed the first month and a half of the season playing with the Olympic team. Corlett’s only season as a head coach saw Stanford go 19-12, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
When Dunning came in the next season, he told Corlett simply, “You’re in charge of recruiting. It won’t go well for either of us if that doesn’t go well, so you’re in charge.”
And so she is.
If you’re a college coach at any level, or a player or parent who has competed in big club tournaments, you have no doubt seen Corlett working the venue.
“I put my time in,” Corlett said. “I put my time in the gym. You try to see as many kids as you can. There are so many kids who have an interest in Stanford and I don’t get to see them all, but I do my best. As I’ve gotten older I probably don’t spend as much time as I used to, but it’s fun to see the younger coaches (when I’m out recruiting) and answer questions for them. I’ve got a couple I’m trying to mentor.”
Corlett’s accomplishments as a mentor aren’t lost on DeBoer.
“We’re blessed and pleased that we have over a hundred coaches a year who sign up to do (the mentorship program),” DeBoer said. “Some of them have to be asked. Denise never has to be asked.”
Wilson, who played at LSU, is one of the many young coaches Corlett mentors. Wilson was an assistant at North Carolina when she first got to know Corlett.
“She’s known as the best recruiter in the country. I would watch how she works,” Wilson said. “She’s known as the most diligent and hardest working. She’s at every tournament. It doesn’t matter how long she’s done it, she’s diligent. She knows every kid in the country. And she keeps all those relationships and that’s what makes her so good.”
And Wilson said what so many in the volleyball world know.
“If you stand with her on a court (at a club tournament), there will be 10 people who come up who she’s built a relationship with. She continues those relationships and she’s never above any of that. She makes time for people.”
Corlett, 56, grew up in Manhattan Beach, where her mother was a coach, and she was a star athlete from a young age.
Eileen Howard grew up admiring Corlett’s talents.
“I was in the third grade and she was in the eighth at American Martyrs School, and I was so scared of her,” Howard said with a laugh. “She was a great athlete. Everybody knew her. Her mom was my yard-duty and PE teacher all through elementary school. I always looked at Denise in awe.”
Howard turned out to be a pretty good player herself. The former Eileen Dempster was a three-time All-American middle at Pacific and spent time with the national team. Her family lives in Los Altos, not far from Stanford.
Now her daughter, Brittany, is a junior outside hitter for Stanford. As a little girl, Brittany went to Stanford camps and even served as a ball girl at Cardinal matches where Eileen and Corlett rekindled their childhood friendship. But when Brittany got on Corlett’s recruiting radar, the coach called Eileen Howard and told her that from then on when they saw each other at tournaments, it was going to be all business.
Once she got to Stanford, Brittany Howard said Corlett set the rules when it came to things like letting freshmen know exactly what their places were and what their jobs were, like doing team laundry and carrying equipment.
“She’s so motherly, she doesn’t sleep practically. You can text her like any hour and she’ll respond immediately, Howard said, snapping her fingers. She’s always there for you.
Perhaps that’s because Corlett knows what it’s like. There are few sides of sports that she hasnt been a part of.
“I’ve been around a lot,” she says matter-of-factly.
As a kid, Corlett played many sports. While in high school at Marlborough, she coached the seventh and eighth-grade volleyball teams.
She actually got accepted to Stanford coming out of high school, but the school wasnt giving women’s volleyball scholarships at the time. So she went to UCLA in 1976 and played volleyball for Andy Banachowski and basketball for Billie Moore, each a legendary coach in their respective sport. She said she would help Banachowski with stats.
“I’ve been very fortunate with the coaches I’ve had,” she understated.
And she also won the 1977 national badminton singles and team titles. No wonder she was a 1999 inductee into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame.
Also while in college, Corlett, a setter-hitter, won the 1978 and ’79 adult club national titles.
After college, Corlett played with the USA Women’s National Team, but got hurt and finally called it a career in 1983. She then spent time in the computer business as a software engineer, about the farthest thing from coaching you could imagine. Not that she left the sport entirely, because she spent her spare time scouting for Banachowski.
It was at the wedding of John and Laurie Corbelli, now the coaches at Texas A&M, that she visited with then-San Jose State coach Dick Montgomery, who convinced her to go work for him.
Then in 1989 Shaw hired her at Stanford. That began an incredible run that ended when Shaw left and Dunning, who had won an NCAA title in 1986 with the Pacific team, had that personnel decision to make.
It paid off right away. In his first year as head coach, in 2001, Stanford won its fifth national title. The Cardinal lost in the 2002 NCAA final, but two years later won again. Since then, Stanford has played in the national-title match three other times and perennially has one of the strongest programs in the nation. At this writing, in mid-October, Stanford stood 16-0 and was ranked No. 1.
“It turned out to be a really good move to keep her,” Dunning said with a smile.
“I’m surprised there hasn’t been a story written about Denise Corlett,” said Laura Bush, the Minnesota assistant coach who was previously the head coach at Marquette and Auburn.
“As a person I find her humble and unassuming, but I also know that she would be talented at whatever she decided to do,” continued Bush. “With college coaching, she works as hard as when I first saw her. She’s in the gym early, leaves the gym late. And she is able to recruit some of the best talent in the nation to attend Stanford and play Stanford volleyball. She’s obviously quite an asset to that program.”
“She is the face of Stanford volleyball,” Cardinal junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku said.
She’s a central figure behind the scenes, too.
“She’s the team mom,” Eileen Howard said. “Those are her girls. She takes them under her wing and takes care of them and they can go to her for anything. Even though I’m down the street, it’s nice to know Brittany can go to (Denise) for anything and she takes care of all of the girls.
Added Ajanaku, “Denise is one of those people where you can always bank on her intent being the best for you. She works to know us as people and know us outside of volleyball. And if you want to get anything done, you talk to Denise.”
Walsh, now Walsh Jennings, whom Corlett coached each of her four years at Stanford, is one of the most decorated players to come out of the Cardinal program, and she too is grateful for Corlett’s contributions to Stanford and to her individual development as an athlete.
“I don’t have words for how special Nesi is or for how important she is to the Stanford program,”aid the 1999 co-National Player of the Year. “She quietly and very humbly does her job better than any other. Her legacy will be one of incredible success and unfaltering heart, loyalty, and love for the program, the university and her athletes.”
Dunning said Corlett could have gone to UCLA when the head-coaching position opened up four years ago, but didn’t. “She told them she was part of this program and not leaving this community,” he said.
The academic achievements of the athletes are part of what Corlett loves about the Stanford community. She was thrilled when Logan Tom came back to Stanford to get her degree, graduating earlier this year, making the Cardinal’s all-time graduation rate an incredible 100 percent except for one player who transferred.
“I just love it here,” Corlett said. “This is a great place. It’s a great university, the caliber of student athletes we get here is amazing, and for me it’s one of the best combinations of athletics and academics that you can find in the country.”
And she figures to be around a while.
“What else would I do?” she asked with a smile. “It’s a good gig.”
“It has been an honor to spend the past 31 years with Stanford women’s volleyball,” said Corlett, who recently completed her 24th year as the program’s associate head coach. “I am proud of what we have built and the continued success the program has achieved. It is a testament to the young women who have come through the program and the legacies they have left behind. It has truly been my pleasure to coach them.”
A two-time AVCA National Assistant Coach of the Year, the Cardinal was 875-146 (.857) during Corlett’s association with the program. She was on staff for an unprecedented nine NCAA championships and 18 Pac-12 championships. The Cardinal twice won three NCAA titles in a four-year span during her tenure (1994, 1996-97 and 2016, 2018-19). The conference titles included six in a row between 1994-99, and more recently 10 of the past 14 seasons.
At Stanford, Corlett coached in 14 national championship matches, helped lead the team to 17 final fours and mentored 38 players to 93 AVCA All-America awards. She was also a part of Stanford’s first beach volleyball staff, serving as an associate head coach from 2013-15 and the head coach of the program in 2016. Last spring, she was inducted into the Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame.
“I want to thank Denise for her tireless dedication to the program,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “Her knowledge and experience with the team and university have been invaluable during my three seasons on The Farm. Denise has been a mainstay on the Stanford sideline and will be missed within the Stanford community.”
Over the years, Corlett also made a name for herself at the national level. She spent time as an assistant coach with the U.S. National Team during multiple World University Games and was on the sideline for the 2003 Pan American Games. She also held positions in management with USA Volleyball, including business manager for the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 1980s and the head of delegation for the U.S. Junior National Team from 2007-13.
Prior to Stanford, Corlett served as an assistant at San Jose State (1987-88) and spent five years assisting at UCLA (1982-86), her alma mater. She held a graduate assistant position for the Bruins for two years and was a volunteer assistant for three.
Corlett received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA in 1981. At UCLA, Corlett played three varsity sports and was named the All-University Athlete of the Year in 1979. She was the national badminton champion in 1997 and won the Broderick Award in that sport. She was a three-time All-American in volleyball and played on the Bruins’ national champion women’s basketball team. In 1999, she was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame.
Stanford will immediately begin a national search for her replacement.