Adler Augustin wasn’t exactly looking for a head-coaching position in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but East Carolina University athletic director Jon Gilbert was looking for him.
The two men originally met in 2018 when Augustin interviewed for the opening at Southern Miss, where Gilbert was the athletic director at the time. That job went to Stephanie Radecki, but Gilbert, who took the AD position at ECU in December 2018, immediately thought of the Stephen F. Austin associate head coach this spring when he once again found himself in the market for a volleyball coach.
“I think when it came down to it, there was more consideration given to someone that had head-coaching experience,” Gilbert said of his decision to hire former North Alabama head coach Radecki at Southern Miss back in 2018. “This time around, every coaching search and every circumstance is completely different, and so as I began putting the list together, I had (Adler) on my list.
“I had not spoken to him since I interviewed him at Southern Miss, but I did follow SFA’s volleyball program and knew that they were such a well-oiled machine, very well-coached, had beaten multiple teams in the American Athletic Conference, and I wanted to get someone from a respected program that had a history of winning.”
Augustin got Gilbert’s initial text while traveling, and his reaction was “Are you sure this is for me?” But as soon as the two men talked and Augustin realized what a huge opportunity sat in front of him, he got right down to business.
“This time I’ve got to knock it out of the park on the interview,” Augustin said.
And even though Gilbert was familiar with Augustin, having interviewed him once already, he was even more impressed the second time around. By the time they spoke again, Augustin had done his research and knew the history of ECU volleyball and had familiarized himself with the team’s roster and schedule.
Attention to little details like that helped a kid who played club volleyball at the University of Texas and got his start coaching high school and club part-time find success and a career in the college coaching ranks.
You see, Augustin doesn’t exactly have the typical background of a Division I women’s volleyball coach. Sure, he loved volleyball and has played it seriously for most of his life. But he’s the son of Haitian immigrants, was born in Brooklyn, lived in Haiti for eight years and graduated from high school in Lowell, Massachusetts, before moving to the capital city of Texas for college.
Although he started coaching while still at UT, helping out with the club program, after graduation, he got a “real” job as an accountant for the IRS. But coaching always beckoned.
“I realized when I was in my regular 9-to-5, I would always look at the clock. ‘Ah man when is it time to go home, because I can’t be in the office anymore.’
“But when I’m coaching, it’s almost like there’s not enough time and I’m always like, ‘Man, I wish we had another 30 minutes, we really need to work on something.’ So I realized what I really enjoyed doing.”
Augustin spent seven years coaching the UT club programs (men’s from 2007 to 2009 and women’s from 2008 to 2013), then coached at the Austin Waldorf School for three years and at Austin Juniors for five. He finally got to make coaching his main gig in 2015 when veteran Stephen F. Austin coach Debbie Humphreys hired him as a full-time assistant.
He left the IRS for good.
“(Adler’s) got a good mind for the game,” Humphreys said. “He’s very technically savvy, which is something that comes in very handy as well. He’s very connected in the recruiting world.”
During both interview processes, Gilbert spoke with Augustin’s coworkers and bosses, and he heard multiple times that he was the best assistant coach they’d ever had. And even though that doesn’t necessarily indicate how he’ll perform as a head coach, Gilbert was willing to take a chance on the 37-year-old.
“Most people are going to defer to someone who has head-coaching experience, but also (Southern Mississippi president) Rodney Bennett took a chance on hiring me and giving me my first athletic director opportunity,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s important as an athletic director to identify those coaches that have put in the time and effort.
“One of the things that impressed me about Adler was the path that he’s taken. He’s been a high school coach, he’s been a high-level club coach, he’s been at a very well-respected program as an assistant coach, and then he gets elevated to associate head coach, and so in my mind when you look at someone that hasn’t been a head coach, I look at a profile like Adler’s and he’s taken every step along the way. He didn’t jump from a playing career to being a head coach right away and so that really impressed me that he’s taken the steps along the way to get here.”
“He’s ready for that next chapter,” Humphreys affirmed. “He’s ready to go be in charge and get his own staff put together and have an opportunity at a new challenge.”
And what a challenge it will be. Augustin accepted the head coaching position at ECU on June 24, four months into the United States’ battle with the novel coronavirus. NCAA women’s volleyball teams are on schedule to report on campus any day now, but it remains unclear whether they will have any matches to play this fall or not.
What’s more, in 2019, ECU finished 19-11, 6-10 in the American Athletic Conference. Augustin replaces Julie Torbett, who went 109-107 in seven years at the Greenville, North Carolina, school. The Pirates return seven athletes who earned playing time last season, along with an eighth player coming back from a medical redshirt.
Tonya Johnson, the associate head coach at Texas, spoke with Augustin a few times during his interview process with ECU, as they have done throughout his career since he was a club coach working Texas camps, and she counseled him to consider whether or not it was a good idea to take a good job in the midst of all this uncertainty.
“You’re probably going to be faced with some challenges,” she told him. “There’s a chance we could have a season, and there’s a chance we couldn’t have a season. So what is that hiring process going to look like? Will you be able to hire staff?
“I kind of played devil’s advocate with him,” she said, “because I think they are all important questions for him to consider.”
Augustin, however, said that although he was a little nervous about the pandemic’s effects, he feels good about the protocols and plans ECU has in place.
“They really cared about the safety of the players. It’s not, hey, let’s just play, it’s more so, OK, we’re going to play if we are safe,” Augustin said. “I thought that was really good. So from there I was OK making the move.”
“It’s a weird time for all of us,” Humphreys added. “Honestly, maybe it’s the best time to go do something like that. You’ve got a lot of challenges but everybody else does too.
“One of the things we always talk about in our program is everybody can function at a high level when life is good. But what about when adversity comes?”
Some of that resilience clearly rubbed off on Augustin in his five years in Nacogdoches, Texas, home of SFA.
“I kind of looked at it in a sense that certain opportunities come and you can’t really dictate when they come, so at that moment, you’ve just got to make a decision that you feel that is best for you and decisions that you think you can capitalize on,” Augustin said. “I feel like ECU’s a really good university and a place I feel like I could contribute to what they’re doing right now.”
At this unique moment in history, with the 2020 season in doubt, the country in the grips of a pandemic, and protests against racial injustice ongoing, Augustin’s first head coaching job holds some additional significance. With his hiring at ECU, Augustin increased the number of black men serving as the head coach of a Division I women’s volleyball program to six. He inherits a roster made up of 60 percent black women.
“Obviously I’m fully aware he’s African American, and I think that certainly it sends the right message, No. 1 to our team and to our athletic department,” Gilbert said. “We have a large number of African American student-athletes on our volleyball team, and I think that that is a positive for them to see that, but Adler with his work ethic with his knowledge of the game, he’s earned this opportunity.”
“There aren’t a lot of African American head coaches in our profession,” said Texas’ Johnson, the former LSU player who left Texas to be the head coach at Georgia Tech before returning to Austin.
“I was on a Title IX webinar the other day, and I think they said 2 percent is the percentage and so that’s a big hire for ECU. It makes a big statement for them, and especially hiring a black male,” said Johnson, also African American.
“Like I said, I think Adler’s a great coach, but I think he’s an even better person. With everything happening today and just opening people’s eyes to everything that is happening in America, what a great opportunity.”