The coach’s eyes darted back and forth as he watched his team execute a cross-court attacking drill. A white towel draped around his neck, hands gripping it at both ends, he resembled the trainer of a prize fighter. A few minutes into the drill, he called the team in to a huddle where he told them simply, Let it loose. First-year University of Maryland head women’s volleyball coach Steve Aird wanted his team to work harder and dig deeper to compete at a higher level.
Aird will accept nothing less. High expectations constitute his recipe for making the Terps a national power in their new home, the Big Ten conference, and a presence in the NCAA tournament going forward.
And no matter what turbulent waves his Terps have had to swim through so far this season, and some have been tsunamis, Aird has kept his message steady: He’s building a program, not a team.
Everywhere I go, I try to make things bigger and better, said the self-described sarcastic, dry, and passionate coach.
Aird’s staff at Maryland find his energy to be infectious, and Russ Rose, Aird’s former mentor and boss at Penn State, had only positive things to say about his former assistant. He has good energy and a good feel for the game, said Rose. I know Coach [Mark] Pavlik felt that Steve was the best captain he had when [Steve] played on the Penn State men’s team. I knew Steve when he was a player, and he had a couple of stints working for our program and I think he made great contributions each time.
Since he started his collegiate coaching career 14 years ago, Aird has worked for some great programs under excellent coaches, and he has studied others. I think the best male coaches that are coaching female athletes would be Russ, Anson Dorrance at UNC soccer, and Geno Auriemma at UConn basketball, Aird mused. They have a dry kind of sarcasm to them that can nudge you but at the end of the day theyre honest. This is what you need to be better at, this is why, and I care about you enough to tell you the truth and you have to make these changes if you want to be better. I did that from day one here at Maryland.
Senior outside hitter Adreene Elliott has been on the receiving end of Aird’s honesty and has enjoyed how he’s pushed her to new heights. Coach asked me very early on to figure out what I wanted, she said. He could train me to just get by at the collegiate level or he could prepare me for greatness. Understanding there was another world of volleyball I could experience, I let him know my plans, and he’s been preparing me for the next part of my career since.
Elliott, the team’s leader in kills and blocks, impressed many at the U.S. Women’s National Team open tryouts earlier this year and looks forward to a professional career, but the 6’3″ hitter suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. The North Carolina native may be able to return next season on a medical redshirt, and she cant wait to come back and work with Aird.
He’s started to train me to become a diverse athlete, multi-dimensional: a volleyball player, not just a hitter or blocker, Elliott said. He’s teaching me to see the game always at the highest level, not necessarily what’s before me. A kill that I may have celebrated before I am now less satisfied with, understanding it would hardly score in a truly competitive match.
The day of Aird’s first practice at Maryland, he walked into a gym thick with tension and uncertainty. I came into practice and it was like a morgue, he remembered. I said, Where is the music? They thought I was crazy. I told them if I didnt hear some rap right then, I was quitting.
I told them to play triples and I left. When I came back a few minutes later I heard them playing, yelling over the music, and suddenly there was a little bit of pop in
At the end of that practice, I told them they have to enjoy it: they had to find that kid [inside them] that really loved playing, find her again. And then I was really honest with them and told them, Youll always know where you stand with me. There are going to be times you wont like what you hear but it’s going to be consistent. If you work hard and you play hard, Ill tell you that straight. Im going to be honest with you.
The Maryland players learned quickly that Aird has a unique approach to discipline and accountability, too.
One day a couple of teammates and I were late for treatment so we were instructed to come in at 7 a.m. the following day for punishment with Coach, recalled Elliott. It was within our first month of being with him, and he told us to get our knee pads and full gear on. We were terrifiedwe really didnt know him. We got there early and started warming up. Seven came around, no Coach; 7:10, still no Coach. Anxiety was eating away at my stomach. Finally around 7:20 he came in and said, Doesnt it suck to be left waiting on people? and left. Lesson learned.
Aird finds a way to be serious, funny, and motivating when he’s interacting with players. At one point early in practice, he called out, Little people on that court doing little people things. The liberos and defensive specialists smiled and went off to work on serve receive. On the other court, Aird wanted his hitters to get after it more. This looks like a pillow fight! he scolded. Later, in a drill pitting hitters against defense: It’s an insult for someone to take your ball with their hands in the Big Ten. An insult!
The former collegiate libero lives and breathes competitive fire. It’s a trait he brought with him from Rose’s Nittany Lion program, along with an understanding of the process necessary to build a powerhouse program like the one at Penn State. [Russ] brings in student athletes who are used to winning and do things every single day to get closer to winning championships, whether it’s conference or national championships.
That, Aird acknowledged, is the goal.
In 2002, Aird started his coaching career as an assistant at Auburn, a season that concluded in a disappointing 1-27 record. But the number in the Tigers win column grew to 10 the next year and 16 the next. I think that experience was really hard on me, said Aird. But it’s perspective now.
So much of [coaching] is ego, he continued. When you coach, it’s so much about wanting people to believe youre a good coach when youre young. If I go through the rest of my career and never win a national championship, it’s okay. That’s not the secret sauce for me anymore.
Aird, who was an assistant with the 2014 national champion Penn State team and knows what it feels like to win the title match, takes the long view when considering his future as a coach.
I am not worried about right now, he said. I am not worried about this year. I want the young kids to get experience even if they dont get success. I want the culture of the program to change, and it has. Im not doing anything that is a short-term fix. Everything is about putting the pillars in place.
That mentality has helped guide Aird through the toughest of seasons. Losing Elliott was a blow but just the beginning. After a promising 6-0 start, reality set in and the rough waters of the Big Ten crashed ashore. By mid-October, five of Aird’s 12 athletes on scholarship were out for the season and Maryland was riding a long winless streak. True to form, Aird looked for the positives.
You know, Nebraska should kill us. Penn State should kill us, he said. But if my girls compete, at least at the end of it theyll feel good about themselves. That’s all we can ask for. We played Wisconsin in front of 6,000 people starting five sophomores and a freshman and it was a match. I mean it was 25-17; it wasnt 25-4. I think some of the best coaching jobs you do arent always with the best teams and the best kids, but how you keep it together when everything is going sideways.
Aird is emphatically optimistic about Maryland’s potential as a program. I know it sounds crazy, but I am so excited about the next few years because weve got really good talent coming and a ton of support. Were going to be fine.
Rose too sees the promise in the underdog Terps. They went five games with Northwestern, and Northwestern beat Minnesota and Northwestern pushed us as well, he said. Everybody has challenges with their program, with their players, with injuries. [Maryland] may have a lot of those right now, but what they do have is Steve and Adam [Hughes, who also came over from Penn State with Aird] who have a really good handle on the Big Ten. They know the teams, they know the personnel, they know the coaches very well. Theyre hitting the ground running. Their players are pretty far ahead in a lot of areas because those guys are bright guys that brought contributions to our success and will do so with their own program.
Think bigger. Aird applies that mantra to pretty much everything.
I just think life is short. I have traveled a long way and taken lots of risks, he said. I want my players and staff to dream big and bite off more than they can chew. I am attracted to players that have a chip on their shoulder and want to prove people wrong.
I never wanted to look back in life and say, What if? Instead of my players working for a company, I want them to own it. I want them to travel and dream and live life hard. I want them to fail and realize it’s not a bad thing.
As practice approached its conclusion, a drill ended on a dropped ball. The players expected to finish with a successful play and readied themselves, but Aird ended practice right then.
When you lose matches, that’s what happens, he said. You dont get another opportunity. One team wins. Im okay with [my players] feeling uncomfortable. I want them to end drills saying, I wasnt good enough today and Ive got to come back tomorrow and be better.
Despite the struggles of the season, it’s obvious the team is buying into Aird’s mantra.
Our inside joke, is bar fight, the coach said. Everything is like hashtag bar fight. I want [them] to think about all hell breaking loose. Just battle and play as hard as you can. Nebraska beats you 25-8, but when we switch sides, can you just dust yourself off and say, Let’s go round two?
#Barfight represents Aird’s hope and goal for a competitive team.
If you get beat 25-8 and youre disgruntled, I dont want that. Can you just line it up again and go, line it up again and go? Can you have that kind of attitude like, Hey, I dont care what the score is, let’s play the next point. Oh, they beat us? It’s Nebraska; they have 8,000 fans here? Good: line it up again. They dont have that in them yet. I think some of the kids Im bringing in will, but my hope is some of the kids I have now that are on the fence learn that.
That’s how well get better.