After another long, intense volleyball season, one that saw his team win its fourth Division II national championship, Tampa coach Chris Catanach and his wife, Linda, went on a kayaking trip. At the end of their time on the water, he and the other adventurers were taking a van back to the drop-off point when one of the passengers spoke up.
She was a UT student, and she had been at the national championship match among the more than 2,000 spectators. She told Catanach how much fun it was to be part of the crowd that saw the Spartans win the title by sweeping Washburn.
Tampa was the first Division II team to win the national title on its home floor, a serendipitous turn of events that Catanach considers one of the most special moments of his career.
For someone who has been around as long as he has, that’s quite a statement.
The 2021 season was his 38th at UT. He has 1,145 victories against only 213 losses, a difference of 932 games — let that sink in for just a moment — with a winning percentage of .843. That includes national championships in 2006, 2014, 2018, and 2021, and 27 Sunshine State Conference titles.
Catanach has been named AVCA National Coach of the Year five times, including this past season, and SSC Coach of the Year 20 times — more than any coach in any sport in conference history.
He also has coached two AVCA Division II national players of the year — Danielle Selkridge (2012) and Berkley Whaley (2014) — and 64 AVCA All-Americans and 15 SSC players of the year.
“I think if you talk to a lot of coaches who have been around a long time and had success, I think one of the common threads will be the consistency of how you handle the team,” Catanach said. “I think you also would find the coaches who last the longest probably made the greatest evolutions in themselves. They are willing to continue to grow and learn and change with the times.”
Catanach knows as much as anyone about evolving as a coach. His evolution started from ground zero. He is, essentially, a self-made winner.
Grew up in St. Croix, started in football
Catanach grew up on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he got his first exposure to volleyball. His brother, Rod, who is 10 years older, played in a men’s league, so when Catanach was of high school age, he sometimes would get into matches.
But as much as he enjoyed it, Catanach didn’t try to play volleyball in college. Instead, he gave football a try at little Bethany College, located in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. It quickly became apparent that he wasn’t going to make it as a football player, so he “became a grunt” with the Bison women’s volleyball team.
The next year, he transferred to Tampa — where the weather was much more to the liking of a USVI native — and again helped out the women’s volleyball team. Coaching, however, wasn’t on his mind.
“I never really thought it was a possibility, so I took a job with admissions for UT,” he said, “and I continued to work as a volunteer with the team.”
Then, the volleyball coach resigned, and Catanach suddenly wondered if coaching might be the way to go. Never mind that he had no formal playing experience, let alone coaching experience.
That, however, might have worked in his favor in the long run. Rather than trying to emulate his mentors, Catanach had no choice but to figure out his own style.
“He has been able to navigate what works best for him at Tampa and did have to kind of figure it out,” said Danielle (Faggion) Marante, who played for Catanach at Tampa from 1996-99 and is in her third year as the head coach at Tusculum. “He has said that himself on multiple occasions. He just had to figure out what worked best for him.”
He was driving back to Tampa from a recruiting trip to Kentucky, mulling his future in coaching the whole way. He ultimately decided to take the plunge.
“I figured I’d give it a few years just to experiment and see what it was like,” he said. “But I really wasn’t committed long term.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Catanach’s three- or four-year “experiment” has turned into one of the most successful college volleyball coaching careers at any level.
“He’s one of those guys who I wish everybody had an opportunity to play for,” said Marante, who was a four-time AVCA All-American and still holds the UT mark for career assists, “because I think he does things the right way.”
Developing an authentic coaching style
So what is Catanach’s way? What has been the secret to his success?
There is the aforementioned cultivation of his own style. Catanach said the best thing a coach can be is himself or herself.
“I didn’t really work for coaches that kind of gave me that development period,” he said. “So my first few years, I just coached. Then I started thinking about it after that, and that’s when you get in trouble: when you start overthinking what you’re doing.
“I was just passionate, and I was intense, and it was working for me.… There’s nothing worse than going into practice and trying to implement someone else’s way of working with your team that’s not yours. It just doesn’t come off well. You’ve got to be legit and authentic.”
One of Catanach’s “authentic” inclinations was to get to know his players on a personal level and show he cared about their well-being.
Outside hitter Katie McKiel, who was part of UT’s national championship team in 2018 and again this season, said that is the quality she admires most in Catanach. She said he often would call her into his office to talk about everything but volleyball: how her classes were going, how her family was doing, etc.
“He’s very serious about volleyball, but at the end of the day, he wants what’s best for you, and he wants us to have success outside of the court and after we leave Tampa volleyball and after we graduate,” said McKiel, who also has won two beach national titles at UT. “He understands volleyball … and he wants us to be successful, but there’s a lot more to life outside of it.
“And once we leave, he just wants to see us flourish and lead healthy, balanced lives. He does a really good job setting us up for that.”
Added Marante: “He was always not just about you as an athlete but how you present yourself, how you are in the classroom. And those are things now as a coach I appreciate. He genuinely does care about his players.”
Of course, being a parental figure isn’t all it takes to win volleyball matches. Knowledge of X’s and O’s is a must.
Catanach’s lack of formal training in the sport led him to do a lot of discovery on his own. That’s something he has carried over even this far into his career, remaining a student of the game.
“I think he knows the game better than anyone even though he didn’t play in college,” said junior libero/defensive specialist Claudia Rivera, who was the only UT player to earn AVCA All-American honors for the 2021 season. “He studies the game. He would spend hours and hours watching volleyball, getting strategies for us to come with, better plays.”
Catanach also has succeeded in creating a true “team” culture. First, his expectations don’t change regardless of a player’s role or skill level.
McKiel recalled her freshman year, when she was teammates with then-reigning SSC player of the year Allee Stelogeannis. That accolade didn’t earn her any special treatment.
“There wasn’t a day he wasn’t hard on her and pushing her to be better,” McKiel said, “and she was the best on the team.”
Second, McKiel said, Catanach goes out of his way to make sure everyone on the team feels valued, from the all-conference honorees to the last woman on the bench.
During practices, the Spartans split into two teams for scrimmages: the black team, which consists of players in the main rotation, and the red team consisting of the reserves. The games often are spirited.
When conference title and national championship hardware are won, Catanach makes sure to let each player know she contributed.
“Sometimes in practice this season and in 2018, which was the last time we won, the red team kicked our butt,” said Rivera, pausing between the final three words for emphasis. “That’s what makes this a really good team. We have a really competitive team all around.
“So when the black team is not doing its job, the red team is going to let you know you’re not doing your job.”
Added McKiel: “It’s more about the team and working hard for the team’s success. … Our red team in 2018 beat us all the time in practice, and that’s the reason we were so good is because they were relentless. But he told them to be that way.
“He said, ‘If the starting six has success, it’s because you pushed them all week in practice, and you’re just as much a part of that.’ You earn the national title whether you play or you’re on the bench. You earn it in some way.”
Marante might not have appreciated it while she was playing, but now, as a coach, she is struck by Catanach’s attention to minutiae. He would hammer home the granular details of the sport, whether through drills or film study.
He got players to focus on every point, even down to knowing the score at all times. Detail work and repetition, she said, are a big part of what has made UT successful.
“I don’t think people focus enough on the details,” said Marante, who still contacts Catanach frequently for coaching advice. “Some people think that’s boring, but those are the things that help you win championships. You’re not just doing it until you get it right. You’re doing it until you can’t get it wrong.”
Still a long way to go
Catanach just turned 60, but he isn’t ready to hang up his whistle. He still enjoys too many aspects of the game to walk away.
He calls himself “old school” and has not gone down the rabbit hole of social media. And yet, he still enjoys being around the players despite the obvious generation gap.
He also keeps energized by contact with fellow coaches. He said he believes volleyball is a sport where coaches still are willing to share ideas for the overall good of the sport. As competitive as they might be on the court, he said, there is a camaraderie that exists when the nets are taken down.
“I really think that’s unique to our sport,” he said. “I know in our conference … the commissioner and assistant commissioner talk about it all the time when we get on a coaches’ call. … They’re just shocked by how well we all work together toward a common good.”
There also is a large network of UT volleyball alumni that continues to support the program. They often come back for matches to cheer on the team. Catanach has recruited heavily in Florida over his career, and many of those alumni, he said, tend to stick around the area.
His longevity also has helped build that following. He pointed to Penn State and the recently retired Russ Rose as an example of how staying with one program helps to maintain stability and long-term relationships.
“You just have a connection as an alumnus with that program than if you change coaches every five to seven years,” he said.
“I feel most of these programs, they graduate and they move on with their lives, and maybe only a couple come back and pay attention,” McKiel said. “I have teammates I played with six years ago who watch Tampa volleyball games religiously.”
Rivera said she wants to be one of those alums who returns to support the Spartans.
“Those (former players) come to our games and inspire us every day,” she said. “I want to bring my kids to a game and say this is where I played and be with all my teammates.
“You can win or you can lose, but at the end, you’re just going to have the memories with your teammates and the trips and the tournaments you all played together and the funny jokes. I just feel like that’s a very powerful thing that Tampa volleyball has.”
At some point, Rivera will come back, and Catanach will no longer be on the sideline. As lengthy as his tenure has been, he’s not the Spartans’ most veteran coach. Men’s basketball coach Richard Schmidt has been at UT 40 seasons and will turn 80 in September. Catanach said he can’t envision himself coaching that late in life.
Though he hasn’t set an end date, there’s one thing Catanach knows for sure: When he decides it’s time to quit, it will be the same way he began. On his own terms.
“I think I’m going to do it until I don’t enjoy all of it,” he said. “I still enjoy the administrative side, the preparation and all that stuff. And they’re so much younger than I am, but I really enjoy the kids. They’re fun to be around.
“As long as that’s happening, I’m going to stick at it. I’ve got some years to go, but I’m not going to do this forever.”