Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Coach men or coach women?

University of Washington coach Jim McLaughlin won a national title coaching the USC men's team. But, long ago, he switched to coaching women, becomming the first coach to ever win NCAA titles with both men and women.

Now, Hugh McCutcheon is doing the same.

I often contribute stories to the Seattle Times; the latest is about McCutcheon's choice and his upcoming visit to Seattle:

Olympic Coach here for Volleyball Clinic
Man who coached U.S. men to 2008 gold will coach women in 2012

by Jack Hamann
special to the Seattle Times

He could have coached any men’s volleyball team in the world.

He’s decided, instead, to coach women.

Hugh McCutcheon was one of the biggest stories of the Beijing Olympics, leading the U.S. men’s team to unexpected gold, despite the murder of his father-in-law the day after the Games’ opening ceremonies.

Two weeks ago, McCutcheon announced that he had spurned offers to join the lucrative overseas professional volleyball circuit to become the head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.

It was a bittersweet decision.

“Our sport is not like other sports,” McCutcheon says, “especially for coaches. There are just not as many opportunities in men’s volleyball as in women’s.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sideline Smitty takes a seat

Volleyball wasn’t his favorite sport.

In fact, it probably wasn’t in his top ten.

But Sideline Smitty will be missed.

The Seattle Times’ Craig Smith wrote his
final column this morning, tearing another huge hole in the increasingly tattered landscape of local print journalism. Smitty took a voluntary buyout, a euphemism for “we don’t pay you much, but we nonetheless can’t afford to keep you anymore.”

Like an episode of HBO’s The Wire come to life, the Seattle Times—and the citizens of the state of Washington—have just lost more than three decades of institutional memory. This is a very sad day for high school coaches who care about kids.

Why worry about institutional memory? Reporters who’ve been around the block are much quicker to spot insincerity, to detect patterns or deviations from the norm, to know whom to call when some really important story breaks. They are the worst enemies of those who push style over substance, who urge us not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

When I was a young reporter, it was the grizzled veterans who set me straight. Don McGaffin, Bob Simmons, Mike James, Phil Sturholm—each helped craft my writing and demanded I understand the crucial role of journalism in a free society. While younger reporters who hang on at depleted newspapers are unquestionably talented, their professional development will be significantly slowed by the absence of generous colleagues like Craig Smith.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

63 Losers

You don't want to go there.

Your teenage daughter is in her bedroom, door closed, sobbing. Her heart is broken (boyfriend? cut from team?), but she needs her space.

63 times every postseason, reporters file into the post-match press room. One of the teams has just ended its season.

You don't want to go there.

It starts easily enough, as an NCAA representative sets out name placards for the winning team (or, in NCAA-speak, the "advancing team.") The victorious head coach says a few words, the players smile and giggle through their valedictory, then bound from the room.

At that point, you'd like to close the door. Another group of girls (the non-advancing team) is about to enter, and its obvious they need their space.

I've covered dozens of NCAA volleyball post-match press conferences. Without fail, one or more sportwriters with little experience covering women's one-loss-and-you're-out competitions squirms at the sight: red eyes, tear-stained cheeks, distant stares. They're familiar with a certain reaction from defeated male athletes--exhaustion, defiance--but rarely tears. The different display of emotion from female athletes leaves much of the press corps uncomfortable and uncertain. The silence after a women's volleyball match can be deafening.

You can tell a lot about a volleyball coach by comparing how he or she handles these media sessions. Jim McLaughlin (University of Washington) and John Dunning (Stanford) carry themselves almost the same way after either a win or a loss: quiet, understated, focused on the athletes. John Cook (Nebraska) and Russ Rose (Penn State) can be decidedly curt after a loss, though I've never seen either veer into poor sportsmanship. Younger coaches are often estatic after a win and look wiped out after losing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Delirium in December

Who needs March Madness?

The annual men's overhyped hoops tournament can't hold a candle to the previous three matches of the 2008 D1 women's NCAA national championships.

December Delirium is clearly better.

Our hometown UW Huskies were victims in the first of the tremendous trio, as Nebraska erased an 0-2 set deficit and trailed 3-9 in set five before posting a stunning 15-13 victory.

Six days later, Stanford duplicated the effort, slipping past Texas in set five, 15-13, becoming the first team to ever overcome an 0-2 deficit in a national semifinal match.

That same night, Nebraska nearly made it three comebacks in a row, turning an 0-2 disadvantage into a 2-2 tie, before falling 11-15 to undefeated Penn State in front of the largest crowd (17,000+) ever to witnesses indoor volleyball in the United States.

Volleyball is the rare sport where it's truly never over till it's over. At the highest levels, studly athletes can be beaten by scrappers with superior confidence and concentration. Volleyball puts a premium on preparation, and then rewards risk-takers ... an intoxicating mix for fans.

As this post goes to publication, the Stanford/Penn State championship match is just a few hours away. No other sporting event in America will be more meaningful--and potentially more entertaining--than that pairing in the prairie.

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