When Tennessee played North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it was especially meaningful for Marko Fong, the stepfather of Tennessee coach Eve Rackham Watt. He wrote this for VolleyballMag.com:
In the summer of 1998, a bald man in a light blue shirt showed up at our front door in Sebastopol, California, to try to persuade my 17-year-old stepdaughter to play volleyball for him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He stayed for at least two hours, long enough for me to shake hands with him, go to a doctor’s appointment in the next town, drive home, and find him still in our living room playing a VHS cassette about Carolina and UNC athletics.
At the time, my stepdaughter’s interest in playing anywhere east of the Mississippi River was, at best, limited. The eastern frontier of serious college volleyball was maybe Arizona. According to my wife, my stepdaughter spent most of the home visit avoiding eye contact and saying as little as possible.
She showed even less interest in a scholarship offer from Rob Patrick, then the new coach at Tennessee, whom we had never met. After all, who would want to spend four years in Knoxville?
Funny how it all works out.
My wife, June, and I moved to Durham, North Carolina, just down the road from Chapel Hill, in 2014. And last week — 23 years after that recruiting visit — I was at Raleigh-Durham International Airport waiting for a flight to Columbus, Ohio, so I could attend a first-round NCAA Tournament match between Tennessee and North Carolina.
That bald man at my front door was Joe Sagula, who is still the coach at North Carolina. And my stepdaughter, Eve Rackham Watt, is in her fourth season as the head coach at Tennessee.
Oh, yes, Eve did, in fact, go to North Carolina. After her standout career, she stayed for nine more years as Sagula’s assistant coach.
During that time, she earned a reputation as one of the most effective recruiters in the country and UNC volleyball enjoyed its most successful stretch, including playing in seven NCAA Tournaments. UNC advanced to the NCAA round of eight in 2014 and the round of 16 in 2016.
Before last week, North Carolina had not been in the NCAA Tournament since 2016. And Tennessee hadn’t been in since 2018. Now the two coaches were going to face each other, and I wasn’t going to miss it. My wife was staying home to babysit Eve’s 3-year-old son.
Twenty-nine years ago, I took my then 11-year-old stepdaughter to play in her first club tournament with a 14s team. One of the older players wasn’t available, so Eve played the whole day, and the team won all of its matches. Little did we know, it was a lower-division league tournament. But she came home and started jumping around the living room and rolling on the carpet to show her mom and sister the highlights of her big day. Somehow she’d kept up with 14-year-olds for a whole day, but was now free to be 11 again. In truth, it was more a triumph of nerves than physical prowess. She mostly managed to get her serve in, pass the ball, and make a couple of digs, but it was also a moment when we found ourselves hoping that she could feel like this a few more times in her life.
Not long after, I had a conversation with Chris Lamb, the club’s director who has now just finished his 22nd year as the coach at Wichita State. He told me that he was sure that if she kept working, Eve could get a scholarship. Eve was big for her age, but not huge, and she was well coordinated but never explosive, so I found this bit of news exciting but also surprising.
Lamb told me that there was something about her instincts and the way she saw the court, but also her will to compete. He thought she had a future as a setter. Weirdly, in seven years of club and four years of high school, she was never her team’s primary setter: Her teams had other smaller girls who could set, but who couldn’t play on the pins. Interestingly, her real power was as a reliable passer in serve-receive, something setters never have to do.
Eve’s first shot as a full-time setter was her freshman year of college. Lamb has become one of the kings of out-of-the-box techniques and unconventional development strategies and one of the sport’s true original thinkers. Looking back, Eve’s preparation for four years as a college setter turned out to be even better preparation for coaching.
In another prescient moment, Bear Grassl, her club and high-school coach and now the longtime coach at Division II Sonoma State, told me when Eve was a high-school sophomore that she was born to be a volleyball coach and destined to be really good at it because she could often see things on the court before he did.
Eve still maintains a close professional relationship with Lamb. Should Tennessee and Wichita State meet someday in the NCAA Tournament, I suspect it’ll be just as, if not more, emotional than this match with UNC.
A nervous Volleydad
Ever since the NCAA bracket announcement show on Nov. 28, my Volleydad instincts had been dancing around in my stomach.
Volleydad? After all those years of writing checks to the Empire, Triangle, and Absolute volleyball clubs, I was emotionally invested, too. And it didn’t stop at club; the emotional investment continued as Eve played and coached at UNC and after she got the Tennessee job in 2018.
In Eve’s first year at Tennessee, she gave birth to her son the day before the second to last regular-season match. She couldn’t accompany her team to Washington State for the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols went 16-2 in the SEC and finished second in the league after being expected to finish ninth.
Eve also dealt with knowing that her older brother, Nick, was found to have leukemia in the middle of the season. He was hospitalized for six weeks starting in November of that year, something that stayed mostly private until he passed 13 months later.
(VolleyballMag.com did this feature story on Eve in the spring of 2019).
The day after this year’s NCAA announcement, I was picking up my 12-year-old granddaughter for, you guessed it, club-volleyball practice. My other daughter Holly, who coached club and high school then quit because – unlike her older sister – she wanted a “life,” asked me about the trip to Columbus.
“I’m really nervous,” I told her.
Her reaction: “Why would you be nervous? You’re not playing or coaching.”
Challenges of female coaches
Unquestionably, the life, family and career balance remains more of a challenge for female coaches. Over the last 25 years, head-coaching salaries, especially in the SEC thanks to BCS money, have risen dramatically, something that’s made it easier for female coaches to pay for childcare.
Eve still tells the story of how she was recruiting at yet another convention center when she happened to run into a sister coach changing her baby in the women’s room. Her question at the time was, “Do I really want this life and would it be fair to my kid, if I ever get to have one?” When she broke the news of her pregnancy to Angie Boyd Keck, Tennessee’s women’s athletics director, Eve was understandably nervous: She had just signed a five-year contract and was going to have the baby in the middle of her first season.
Boyd Keck’s reaction: A hug and the question, “How can we support you?”
Kayla Banwarth also had a child during her first year at Mississippi. Mississippi State coach Julie Darty Dennis, the 2021 SEC coach of the year, got married during her third season.
One thing that has helped make the family-career balance easier for Eve is that her husband, Gavin Watt, is one of her assistant coaches, and more importantly, a full partner in parenthood. They met at an Orlando recruiting tournament when Gavin was an assistant at Lehigh. Coincidentally, the Lehigh head coach then was Bob Bertucci, once the head coach at Tennessee (1979-1986). Watt spent the 2017 season as a volunteer assistant at North Carolina in Eve’s final year as an assistant there. Tyler Adams, the other Lady Vols assistant spent seven years as a UNC assistant.
Praise for Joe Sagula
One of the fascinating things about Joe Sagula as a coach is that he’s passionate about the dimensions of the job most people don’t notice. He loves things like running Carolina’s popular summer volleyball camp, he’s a terrific dinner speaker representing UNC athletics at endless Rotary and Kiwanis dinners, and he looks after his players.
He has also been known to astonish his staff by calling them after hours because he’s counting T-shirts and they need to order a particular size. Details matter to Joe Sagula, and Eve unquestionably learned from him.
When Eve was a sophomore, I happened to be in Chapel Hill and walked into the volleyball office unannounced. I asked Joe how she was doing in a class she’d had some problems with, and without looking he was able to update me in detail. It was one of those moments when I felt we’d left our kid in the right hands. Also looking back, he was maybe not the most charismatic recruiter, but Joe was the one coach who was totally straight with us. He let us know that Eve was his No. 1 choice and she’d be his starting setter from the beginning. He also said, “I have a bunch of nice kids on my team. To make my team better, I want someone with fire.”
The result was a successful but curiously volatile mix. In a match where Carolina went up 2-0, Joe pulled all the starters except Eve, and UNC lost a set. In the middle of a timeout, Eve started yelling at Joe about not wanting to win enough. It was a road match, and the other team’s fans behind us were openly pointing at the UNC huddle. Eve stayed in, the starters came back, and Carolina closed out the next set. UNC went on to make its first run to the NCAA round of 16, capping a run of four straight NCAA appearances and three ACC championships.
Joe has since openly said that he had a hard time coaching Eve, and many were shocked when he brought her back as an assistant.
Often, when a star player expresses interest in coaching, she stays on as a graduate assistant with her former team. Instead, she came home for a year and got talked into coaching a high-school junior-varsity team that went from being a perennial doormat to going undefeated.
Eve spent a season at Colgate, three at East Carolina, and one at FIU. FIU made the NCAA, but she spent some seasons with some low-profile programs before returning to Carolina. People tend to see the 13 years at UNC as the whole of Eve’s pre-Tennessee coaching career, but her time in the mid-major hinterlands and even with a lower 16’s club team was substantial and critical.
Assistant to head coach
Let me finally get to it. One key to success as a head volleyball coach is to hire talented committed assistants. One problem with that is that really talented, driven assistants don’t want to be assistants forever. Looping back, there have been some notable women assistants like Denise Corlett (Stanford), Salima Davidson (Penn State and Texas), and more recently Leslie Gabriel (Washington) who could have easily taken head-coaching jobs, but chose not to.
When Eve returned to UNC, the fire-and-ice stylistic combination worked really well, especially with recruiting. UNC started bringing in bigger, more athletic players, and the measure of success went from doing well in the ACC and making the tournament to an expectation of going deeper into the tournament. In turn, Joe was extremely appreciative of what Eve brought to the program, nominated her for National Assistant Coach of the Year, which she won in 2014, and advocated for improving her compensation with the athletics director.
Two inevitable things happened,
Eve dreamed of someday taking over the Carolina program and winning a national championship at her alma mater. After all, she’d contributed as a player and assistant coach in raising the program’s profile. Joe, who had celebrated his 60th birthday at a dinner that included many of his former players, had even suggested at times that if he might not be around when a recruit became a college senior, Eve would be.
Eve started hosting the team Christmas party. Even more intriguing, in a match at Georgia Tech, UNC was trailing 0-2 when Joe argued a call by throwing his clipboard at the floor. He has never admitted to staging it, but it was the first time the usually gentlemanly coach had ever been thrown out of an ACC match and the first and only time he got himself suspended for a match. It left Eve in charge for the first time, with the responsibility of calming the team down and firing it up all at once. Carolina won.
Joe was enjoying being in the mix beyond the sub-regionals. Why retire when your team and you are still doing well? At this point, Eve had turned down head-coaching offers from other Power 5 schools out of loyalty to Carolina and Joe. She also liked living in the Research Triangle. Her sister lived there, and by then, so did we. She was also in danger of being typecast as a lifelong assistant. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but her dream of being the head coach at the school she played at, something that made her an especially effective recruiter, wasn’t going to happen in the near future.
Moving to Tennessee
It was Christmas and we were on vacation at the hotel where Eve and Gavin met. Eve talked about giving up coaching and getting a job on Marco Island. She also mentioned having applied for the Tennessee job but worried that they were pursuing other options despite Joe’s support.
Less than five weeks later, Tennessee was flying her to Knoxville on a private jet for her initial press conference. Instead of Eve’s going to work for the Marriott (being an assistant coach is actually excellent preparation for travel planning or customer relations) on Marco Island, Eve and Gavin got married there with a guest list, including Joe, that could have filled a breakout room at the AVCA Convention.
Playing North Carolina
Back to the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State ended Tennessee’s season with a hard-fought, second-round 25-18, 14-25, 25-21, 25-21 victory. The Vols finished 20-10.
But the day before, Tennessee, which finished fourth this season in the SEC and got an at-large NCAA bid, played North Carolina. The coaches hugged beforehand, and then Tennessee won 25-20, 25-19, 24-26, 25-15.
The match ended with a kill by senior middle Ava Bell, who transferred from North Carolina after her freshman year, to Tennessee.
Although Tennessee vs. UNC wasn’t a match of national significance, it was emotionally significant. You might be six inches taller and forty pounds heavier than your parent or older sibling, but it can be a while before you actually win playing one-on-one on the hoop in your driveway. On the outside, you might be bigger, but somewhere inside you’re still the younger one, the student and not the teacher.
Then one day — maybe it takes several tries, maybe it’s the first time out — the younger one wins.
On the court at least, Eve and Joe are now peers. The child celebrates her arrival as an equal at least on the court. On the outside, the parent may feel the loss, but inside it’s also a victory. In some ways, it’s the ultimate victory for the parent when the student surpasses the teacher. And, by the way, it also meant that Joe Sagula got UNC back into the tournament with a completely different staff.
I’m feeling some of the same emotions because it has happened to me in various forms with all three of my kids, and, hopefully, I’ll see it soon with my grandchildren. My granddaughter is already a better artist than I am. I tease Gavin that I want to see his and Eve’s son, Jude, play basketball for Duke someday. Eve stops me and starts to say, “If he winds up playing basketball, it’s going to be at Carol … ” then stops herself and says, “Or here at Tenn … ” then stops herself again.
“Or wherever he wants at whatever he wants to be.”