Friday, March 29, 2013

What happened?

As I’m sure readers of this site already know, four players have left Tennessee to transfer to other schools. Three of the players were instrumental in securing the 2011 SEC Championship: two time All-American Kelsey Robinson, All-American Mary Pollmiller, and All-SEC and National Player of the Week Tiffany Baker. The other was a promising freshman who had been named the state Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year in high school: Bianca Arellano.

Obviously the loss of this many key players is a big deal. And it’s only natural that fans would want to know what happened to a team that showed so much promise. Of course, as I write this three months after the end of the season, only the diehard fans are paying attention and know what’s happened. But as we near the beginning of the season when the more casual fans start getting back into volleyball a lot of people are going to be asking questions. And that’s unfortunate because that is definitely not where the coaches or the team’s focus needs to be as they prepare to begin play. And I feel the same way. Speaking for myself I can’t wait to put this behind me and start looking forward to fall. I have so many stories that I’ve put off about the current and future players that I’ve delayed long enough. Which is why I’m writing this now when there will be plenty of time to move on afterwards.

Some people have told me I should not write about what happened. But I feel like that would be dishonest of me — to say I write about Tennessee volleyball and then ignore one of the biggest stories to occur since I started the site. Yes, I find it uncomfortable, and yes, I’m worried about how it might make my school look. But I might as well just shut this site down and point you to the UT marketing department for news if I ignored this. At the other end of the spectrum, some people want me to really lay into the school hard let them have it. That’s not my goal either. I’m not doing this to punish or embarrass anyone.

So what is the point? Besides giving fans (who, as volleyball fans in a place like Tennessee, deserve at least some explanation) a little bit off information, this is purely an effort to shine some light on an unfortunate situation, foster some understanding, maybe effect some change, and allow everyone to go forward from here. Sweeping it under the rug would be the easy thing to do but would leave fans asking questions, prevent people from moving on, and do nothing about the real problems. And while raking those involved over the coals might make some people feel better it would not go far in making things better. I care about the team, and sometimes you have to criticize those you care for. In fact, I would hope that the fact that this is coming from such a huge supporter might make it more meaningful than if it came from a more unbiased source.

Over the past three months I’ve talked to a lot of people connected to the team. Due to the nature of this situation, most of them were on the side of the transfers since they were more willing to talk. I also talked with some people that were part of the team in the past to get the perspective of those not involved but with knowledge of how things are run. I contacted Tennessee to see if they were willing to comment, take questions, or make a statement. They declined, quite understandably. From their point of view there really is no upside to discussing this further. So please don’t take their silence as anything other than them doing what is in the best interests of the the school. I did, however, talk to a couple of people not officially connected to the team that were able to fill me on some of the issues from their vantage point.

I know this is already an absurdly long introduction before I get to the thing you’re here to read. But I do want to make these final points. Most notably: I’m not here to whitewash the story, but I’m also not interested in spreading gossip — so no talk of the more lurid accusations each side is making that can’t be publicly substantiated. I’m not going to go into detailed player by player explanations. I’m not going to name names or even quote quotes. I’m not going to do much more than give you one side of the most topical issues in a general sense, and then, since they did not provide it themselves, give you the other side as best as I understand it. Also keep in mind in order to do all this I may need to oversimplify what are complex problems. And finally, please note that I’m not giving my opinion or necessarily passing judgment here.

One year ago, Tennessee was making space on the shelf for an SEC Championship trophy. The 2011 season had seen a team almost entirely composed of underclassmen do something only four other Lady Vol squads had ever accomplished. The future seemed bright.

Today, players responsible for half of that team’s kills, over 90% of all the assists, almost half of the digs, and a third of the blocks have prematurely left Tennessee for other schools.

When the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote a pro forma article that gave little information and even less insight, website commenters were quick to add their own analyses — though most had probably never stepped foot in Thompson Boling Arena to watch a volleyball match. The two most oft repeated causes of all the problems according to the online pundits were that “the coach was a screamer” and “the girls were bad apples”. Both are easily refuted.

Yes, head coach Rob Patrick (who is starting his 17th season in Knoxville) is loud on the court! Players and referees who have been on the other side of his tongue-lashings can attest to that! But almost every person I talked to on the transfers’ side brought up on their own without being prompted that this was a non-issue. A few seemed almost offended and wanted people to know that college level volleyball players are all but professionals and can take being yelled at. And it’s not like Patrick hides his “passion” on the court! I can personally say that even with recruits in attendance he doesn’t tone it down to put on a good face for potential newcomers.

The “bad apple” excuse is even more easily dealt with. Tiffany Baker is now playing for defending national champion Texas and 2012 national coach of the year Jerritt Elliott. Kelsey Robinson is at perennial powerhouse Nebraska with the fiery two-time national coach of the year John Cook. Bianca Arellano is playing at Arizona State in the Pac-12, the premier league for women’s volleyball. Mary Pollmiller is taking her time deciding where to go next but is getting a lot of interest, including from a couple of legendary coaches of top ten programs. With maybe only five or so openings a year at these programs and hundreds of girls vying for the chance to fill them, does anyone believe these schools would be wasting their time on bad apples cast off from a comparatively mid-major program like Tennessee?

And that brings home what is so sad and frustrating about this situation. Tennessee, not exactly known as a bastion of volleyball privilege, had players on our court that national champion contenders are now scrambling over each other to get. How could we have let that get away?

When I first started researching this article I assumed that something must have happened to make these women walk out en masse in what almost appeared to be a mutiny of sorts. The more I dug, however, the more I realized that was not the case. Each left for their own reasons, some with more or less animosity than others. It was an unfortunate perfect storm that had them all make the decision around the same time.

But there was one underlying thread tying most of their reasons together — a serious lack of candid communication and empathy on both sides. A few uncomfortable but honest conversations at the appropriate points in time might have stemmed the worst of the problems, or at least made them more amicably resolved.

For example, when an upcoming recruit is promised a certain role, and another player unexpectedly steps up to fill that role before the recruit arrives, you now have two people expecting the same job. That’s not uncommon in sports but it’s always a delicate situation for a coaching staff. On the other side, recruits and players need to understand that nothing is guaranteed in sports. The nature of the game is that you earn your spot, you’re not just given it. So while it’s completely fair to force two players to compete for their position, eventually you have to make a final decision. You can’t continue to play them off each other, not let them know where they stand, change things up every other week, and just hope one of them will quit on their own. Yes, making a final call that may cause you to break a promise or bench a solid player will not make them happy or a coaching staff liked. It will not be an enjoyable conversation. You may in the end still lose that player. But that’s preferable to losing both. And when there’s uncertainty like that in an important position on the court it affects the whole team.

Another breakdown in communication can occur when players and the school have different goals in mind and aren’t working together to achieve them. Obviously for the staff being paid by the University winning games (and ultimately championships) is the objective. But student-athletes have other plans that need to be nurtured. Of course, getting an education is job one. And on that score Tennessee is to be commended. But for elite players, college volleyball is a stepping stone to the professional ranks — and that means the beach most of the time these days. Unfortunately (as I’ve warned back when votes were being taken) collegiate sand volleyball will do nothing in the short term but increase the disparity between the haves and the have-nots among indoor volleyball teams. While UT is making progress there is no doubt they are among the latter, especially when it comes to the outdoor game. So when we’re lucky enough to land elite players that may have a future in the game beyond their time on Rocky Top, steps need to be taken to help them work towards their personal goals while they help the team reach theirs. While it’s understandable from the staff point of view that the team must come first, that doesn’t mean players should have to decide between their career in the future or playing time today. Once again, a player initiating an uncomfortable conversation about their needs or a staff member noticing what is going on and trying to find a solution that works for everyone is preferable to secrets and threats — both sides working to further common goals while working together on going forward is a win-win for everyone.

Not helping matters was the fact that these issues and more came to head as Tennessee was completing the merging of their previously separate men’s and women’s athletic departments. While several people told me they didn’t think it mattered, others felt the administration didn’t care about what was going on or in helping them resolve things. Having a distinct women’s athletic department was often a factor recruits mentioned after announcing their intent to come to Knoxville. And it makes sense. Men’s football and basketball draw so much attention (and money) in college sports today that it’s not surprising that the people that run it at a school have little time to spare for woman’s volleyball. Having an entire department and associated staff devoted solely to the women’s teams that usually struggle just for some notice seemed like a welcome luxury for Tennessee student-athletes. So did combining the two cause any of this? Of course not. Would having a person like Joan Cronan on call — whose time and energy was devoted to helping female athletes, families, and coaches navigate through thorny issues that might arise — have encouraged conversation and eased some of the pressure before it burst? One has to think so.

I could go on and on — and some of the people I talked to will probably be upset that I am not! But with these few volleyball specific examples I think the point has been made and there really is no need to dwell on all the details when the big picture is what needs to be focused on. In the end what happened at Tennessee, based on the conversations I had with some of the people involved, all comes down to a lack of a few simple things: honesty, communication, trust, and empathy. A little bit of those things from both sides could have gone a long way. There are other issues at UT as well that need to be addressed eventually. But right now they pale in comparison. Hopefully those in charge at all levels will see this as a wake-up call and make what are really some easy changes to how things are run. Yes, there is blame to share. But it’s the people who remain in Knoxville that have the power, and hopefully the desire, to make things better.

Best of luck to the former players as they pursue their new opportunities. Your fans will always consider you Vols for life. And to the Tennessee squad and coaching staff that will take the court this year, please know that we are behind you and support you going forward.