Near the end of what had to be a long and hectic day, Maryland's new head volleyball coach, Steve Aird was kind enough to spend about fifteen minutes on the phone with me in his first interview since becoming the Terps head man. He immediately struck me as energetic, upbeat, and straightforward. Some of what he said about Maryland and the future of the volleyball program may surprise some Testudo Times readers.
TC: Let's start with the obvious. Maryland's move to the Big Ten and the chance to coach at a university that will be competing at the highest level of collegiate volleyball, has to present an intriguing opportunity. But what else drew you to Maryland?
Aird: I think there were a lot of similarities between Maryland and Penn State. I think it's an unbelievable school academically. The campus is beautiful. There are advantages with Maryland's proximity to D.C. There are some really good coaches and good volleyball in the area and people that I've known for a long time. Some of the top recruits in the country have been within thirty or forty miles of campus.
The other thing I love is how well they've done in women's sports. They've had a lot of success in women's sports. I love Kevin (Anderson) and his vision for the athletic department. He's a bright and caring guy that I had the opportunity to meet and talk with. All the tools you need, all the things you need to have success in the conference and nationally, I think Maryland has. Now it's a matter of coaching the kids up and getting to the point where you're recruiting into the Big Ten and hopefully the team continues to improve.
TC: Historically, Maryland did have some success under Coach (Janice) Kruger. Coach Horsmon wasn't as successful. What's your vision for Maryland volleyball and what are your strengths that will enable you to get Maryland where you think they can be.
Aird: First and foremost, what it takes to succeed in the Big Ten. I know the kind of style you have to play to have success. I think I have a pretty good idea of how to recruit both domestically and internationally. I've had success recruiting and training kids that ended up playing at a high level. For me, it's about culture. It's about wanting to come and work hard every day and have fun doing it.
Both Janice and Tim were good coaches. Janice obviously had her share of success. I think Tim is great in the gym and he's a good coach and a good guy but sometimes people fit better at some places than at others. For me, all the things that surround the program, all the tools we need to be successful exist. The move into the Big Ten Conference is going to open up some recruiting connections to kids who want to have a B1G experience.
As for my style, I'd say, I'm high energy. Positive. I think if you asked former players they'd tell you I'm a guy who helped them improve. Kids want to learn how to get better. They want to know you care. They want you to be honest and straightforward. At the end of the day, I'm just going to be passionate every day about the program. What people will learn about me really quickly is that I'm pretty consistent with my approach. I'm a high energy guy. I care a lot about the kids and the program. I promise there will be excitement and energy around the gym all the time because that going to be the way we go about our business.
TC: How involved were you with recruiting at your previous stops at Auburn and Cincinnati? I think we can set Penn State aside because that's a program that's closer to being able to more or less choose the athletes they want rather than the other way around.
Aird: You're right. It is different. But when you're recruiting at Penn State, you're recruiting against the other elite programs like Stanford or Texas or Nebraska. There might be one or two kids in the country that can help you immediately compete for a national championship and obviously all the top programs want that kid. SO there's a certain approach you have to identify when you're going after that type of athlete.
When I was at Auburn, we had to rebuild a program and your pool of potential recruits is much larger. And you've got to make sure you scour the country and find the right kind of student athlete who fits the program you're trying to build. At Auburn we were able to help start the rebuilding process there.
Cincinnati had been very good in the Big East. They were chipping away at the top 25 and they'd had some Tournament wins. So I think I've been at all the different rungs. A program that was trying to get going, to a program that had some success, and then obviously at Penn State which, as you said, is a different animal altogether.
I've had some really good people around me. I've learned a lot from people and my recruiting style is going to be kind of a hodgepodge of all of that. One thing I want to do is talk to the coaches at Maryland. I'm going to try to invest time to meet with coaches like Missy (Meharg) - the people who have had great success - and say, ‘Let's help each other's vision of where we want to go with Maryland athletics.' On the volleyball side of I understand where we've got to go. I think knowing a lot about the community and the school and getting people excited about coming to games is the next step.
TC: Since you mentioned it, I know this has been kind of a whirlwind couple of days for you. Have you had a chance to meet with any of the coaches?
Aird: I can tell you this. One of the first talks I had was with Missy. And I found that she was just such a unique and dynamic person. I can understand why she's had so much success. It's so easy when you meet her to see how she's had so much success. I had lunch with Laura Watten, the softball coach. I really like her. I like her energy and her vision. I think she's going to have a great year. SO I've met a few of them. I'm excited to meet more people when I get there on Monday.
There's a good energy around the program right now. I think what Kevin and his staff have done is try to identify like-minded people who are about recruiting great student-athletes and making a strong push to win conference and national championships. When you get enough people in a room with that type of energy at that kind of competitive level and some of these coaches have so much experience that I feel comfortable learning a lot from the people who are there and creating my own thing to contribute to cultivating a culture of winning.
TC: Let's talk about the team you're inheriting. Have you had a chance to see any tape on the current roster and if so, have you identified what you think are the most immediate needs?
Aird: Yes and no. I've seen film of the team. I've seen them play some matches. I know enough about the recruiting landscape to know about who Maryland's been looking at bringing in. So much of what I've got to do over the next month or two is assess what kind of team we're going to have, what holes we're going to need to fill, what players I think can develop, whether we want to make any position changes. Things like that. I don't want to hold any concrete thoughts on that until I get in the gym with the players and I can really spend some time with them.
But it's also important that I get to know them as people. Hard work and effort and passion a lot of times can trump talent. And if you get the right group of people together and they fight like crazy for each other you can have success. I've got to gauge where they are on that continuum and how passionate they are about the program. My hope is that when I show up on Monday and I meet with the team that they're hungry and they're excited about the opportunity and we can get in the gym and help them get better. My goal is to help them get better. I need to help them get to their 100 percent. I'm going to coach the team that's in the gym. I'm not going to worry about two or three years down the road right now. My loyalty right now is to the student athletes who are there and to how much better I can help them get.
TC: Are you planning to save some of that evaluation for the spring season?
Aird: I think so. I need to find out about the logistics. We're a little bit behind but I'll be there the first workday in February. We should have enough time in the spring and moving into the summer Hopefully we'll get the camps going and we'll get people to campus who enjoy it. It's a really exciting time because I think there are a lot of people around who want the program to do well. There's a lot of volleyball players in the area that we need to get on campus and we need to get them excited about it. When we host Penn State and Nebraska it's going to be fun. It's going to be a big event. We want the community to support it and we want the kids to be prepared.
TC: Over the last two seasons in particular, the team's been slowed by a lot by injuries and almost all of them seemed to have happened in practice. Do you have an approach that might mitigate that a little bit?
Aird: I don't know because I haven't been in the gym and I don't know what they do. I can speak to what I do. I think we'll train hard but we'll train smart. The B1G season is grueling. You have to know when to rest people and you have to know when to really go hard and prepare. You have to manage the schedule. There are televised matches that change things. There's the travel. There are just so many things it comes back to and the bottom line that trumps it all is the communication between the coach and the student athlete.
There's a difference between being hurt and being injured. You're going to play a lot of the season where you might have a finger that hurts or an ankle that's tight. I'll be in constant touch with our sports medicine staff and they'll let me know what they think. But the kids have to communicate with me, too. I'll tell them this is how we want to go about it.
TC: Last season, the team had a lot of very close losses. Besides bringing energy, because you come from a big winning tradition, what do you think you can bring that will help get the team over the top on the close matches and create a culture of winning?
Aird: I know that every single day we have to compete. So everything that we do and everything that we touch there's going to be competition. It's going to something that's healthy. It's going to be something the players want. The truth is we want to be in close matches. I've always taken the approach that if it's 23 all, I'm good with that. If it's a fifth game, you want to love the fifth game. Sometimes it's training. Sometimes it's confidence. But what we have to do in the practice gym is get the team to the point where they have the mentality that they know they can finish. That's going to happen a lot in training. It's hard. It's a grind. You just have to really care about it and be passionate about it to have results. But, you know, winning's fun. Winning's fun. But you've got to pay the toll. You've got to work your butt off during the day. But the kids have to enjoy it. They've got to have smiles on their faces and really want to get better. When those things happen and you get in tight matches, you're prepared. And that's all you can ask for.
TC: One last question. Has anybody prepared you for DC traffic?
Aird: No. But I lived in southern California so I'm familiar with the 405 and the 5. I don't know if it's comparable but I plan to spend a lot of time at the Comcast Center. Maybe I'll be more interested in a golf cart and that'll be my car.