Nov. 2, 2011
BY CAMERON HARRIS
What began as a massive rebuilding project 15 years ago is finally beginning to take on the form Rob Patrick has always envisioned.
When he was named the head volleyball coach at Tennessee in July of 1997, Patrick understood he had a challenge on his hands, but he also had a plan. A seemingly simple plan at that: work hard to get better every single day.
"We have built this program on the idea of working hard each and every day," Patrick said. "We don't take any days off, and that is a mindset we have always tried to instill throughout everyone in our program from the staff down to the players. From day one, our goal was to build a program and not just one team, and I think we've done that.
"We talk about what `getting better' means constantly. It applies to every facet of our program, not just on the court, but coaching, recruiting, academics, you name it. If you work hard to get better at one thing each and every day, eventually you will be able to look back and see significant improvement."
After averaging 19 wins and making just one NCAA Tournament in his first seven seasons at UT, Patrick's program has taken off. Since the start of the 2004, the Big Orange is 178-70 (.718) with six trips to the tournament, including the program's first-ever Final Four appearance.
Patrick admits he's impatient, and his plan took longer than he hoped it would.
"I'm kind of glad that I walked into this job a little bit naïve because this process does take longer than a competitive person might like it to take, and it's easy to get frustrated because it isn't happening as fast as you want it to," he said. "The key is to not let frustration elevate to discouragement. Frustration is just an emotion you can work through. As I look back at the process we've taken to build this program the right way, I don't know if it could have happened any faster."
Patrick holds himself as accountable as anyone else when it comes to doing what needs to be done to improve every day.
"The biggest change I have made is that now I make it my highest priority to let the players know how much I care about them," Patrick said. "I've always cared, but, especially early in my coaching career, I never wanted to be seen as a friend. I wanted them to know I was their coach. I've grown past that though and am much more comfortable in showing emotion that I truly care for them. When players understand and believe that, you can push them further because they trust you."
Patrick already has more wins than any other volleyball coach in school history, and the two-time national coach of the year might be doing his best coaching job yet this season.
Three-time All-American Nikki Fowler graduated, and UT's most experienced player, Kayla Jeter, suffered a season-ending knee injury just three days before the season started.
But even with a lineup that regularly features six underclassmen, Patrick's team leads the SEC with a 13-1 record in the conference and is 20-3 overall .
The 16th-ranked Lady Vols have found a way to turn their lack of experience into a positive.
"This is probably one of the most competitive groups of young ladies to put on the Lady Vol uniform, a group of young ladies that is very coachable, and that don't know better," Patrick said. "They are freshmen. They don't know the history of the Florida series or the LSU series, where we hadn't really won at their place in a while. Just being able to go and compete without having anything else on their mind except volleyball has carried us through.
"They are fearless. They don't care who they are playing. We played Illinois. Illinois has two All-Americans on their team. We went at them, played as hard as we could and looked up at the scoreboard after and realized we lost. We did the same thing against Florida, looked up at the scoreboard and, `Hey, we won'. That's what is really neat about this team. You can't really tell what the score is by looking at their faces. When somebody finally blows the whistle and says the match is done, they are like `OK.' "
Patrick and the Lady Vols close out the non-conference portion of their schedule on the road against Louisville at 7 p.m. tonight before returning home for final six games of conference play, which begins Sunday at 1:30 p.m. against Mississippi State in Thompson-Boling Arena.
A little more than three years ago, Patrick got married, and on April 19, he and his wife, Julie, welcomed their first child, daughter Kensington Grace.
"It has been an absolute joy and definitely provides more of a balance in my life," Patrick said. "I have to prioritize and delegate a little more and allow my assistants to handle more responsibility which helps everybody. Not only does it keep them more interested and involved in the program but it helps prepare them to become head coaches in the future. I've also become more organized and cognizant of managing my time efficiently. I don't think it has made me any less competitive, but I definitely work smarter.
"I think the players see me more as a softer person now as well. Although I spend most of my time with them in the gym correcting their mistakes, they realize that I have a different side off the court too. When they see me with Kensi, it is easier for them to differentiate between `Coach Patrick' and `Rob.' "
And he still uses many of the lessons he learned while playing at a school known as the "Cradle of Coaches."
"Football is way more complicated than volleyball," Patrick said. "Just the sheer number of players on the team and on the field is a big difference. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved in and see how a program that large is organized and run on a daily basis and taught me a lot about coaching. One thing I have always believed is that women are as competitive as men, they just aren't always pushed as much. While at Miami I learned that there is a way to analyze and compete for positions, which is something you do every single day in football. As a coach, I've tried to bring that mentality to volleyball."