If energy and drive can build an athletic program into something special, then the Big Ten better be prepared for Maryland volleyball. Early Wednesday afternoon I sat down with Maryland's first year head volleyball coach Steve Aird. His plans for the future of the volleyball program in College Park are exciting and his energy is almost infectious. I write almost infectious because when he talked about his schedule for the next few weeks it so exhausted my nearly sixty year old body and mind that I had to take a nap before I could start writing.
Coach Aird will be on scouting/recruiting trips to Orlando Thursday (6/19) through Tuesday (6/24). He'll get a day at home before trekking up to New York on Thursday and going from there to Minnesota for more recruiting. He'll be in the land of 10,000 lakes through the twenty-ninth. He comes back to College Park to close on his new house on the morning of the thirtieth (and somewhere in here he also has to close on the sale of his old one, too) then will take part in Maryland's B1G celebrations at Under Armor in Baltimore and at Nats Stadium later that afternoon and back to Minnesota on the first of July. And I'm tired again just writing it.
Playing in the B1G - A marquee sport
"Volleyball in the B1G is a big deal," he told me. "If it's not the marquee women's sport in the conference, it's close. The communities and the schools all rally behind it. They fill the gyms, they support it at a really high level."
As we talked, it quickly became clear that while we will can expect B1G things from Coach Aird and his team over the next few years, volleyball fans need to take a realistic view of the program. Here's what the Terps are walking into: In 2013, Penn State, where Aird was an assistant, defeated Wisconsin to win that program's sixth national championship. The B1G sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament and placed four teams in the final RPI top ten and seven in the top twenty-five. Maryland finished 2013 with a record of 13-19 and an RPI of 134.
"You just don't go into a new conference, hire a new coach, and win. You may in certain conferences. You won't in this one. Going onto this season, we're going to be playing teams in our conference that are top 5 or top 10 in RPI. Do we win those matches? We're going to compete and we'll see what happens. But I do know that four years from now we're going have a really good team."
He continued, "You've got the best volleyball coaches in the country in this conference. It's not just gold medalists and people who have won 5 or 6 national championships. It's how they recruit. It's how they grind. And they have total support from the administration and the community and the school and that's what we're going to build at Maryland."
Process and Challenges
Reflecting on his first few months, the coach said, "I think the reality of the challenge is probably a lot clearer to me now than it was in February. And Aird's challenges are many. First and foremost, he has to prepare his team. "Trying to convince the current roster of kids what they're in for has been something I've stressed. I don't know if I've done great job of it and I don't know if I can because a lot of the kids came to Maryland not knowing what was going to be in store for them with the switch to the B1G and probably not knowing that this was what they were signing up for. That's the truth."
And when he talks about this adjustment , he's referring to more than just the athleticism and skill of the opposition in Maryland's new conference. Travel will be more demanding. Media attention will be greater. Crowds will be bigger and more hostile even at home where Penn State or Nebraska might travel with 1,000 or more. "Frankly, these are things I don't think some of the kids on the roster have taken a good hard thought about."
From the start, he realized he had to change the way the team he inherited felt about themselves and the game. "I wanted them to find the love of the game again," he told me. "I wanted to reconnect with the kid who would pack up her stuff and go to a club tournament and be excited to play with her friends. We wanted to get them excited to come to the gym." Even that had an element of process about it. "I wanted them to learn about how we go about our business and how we run our practices."
One other decision the coach made was not to push his team into heavy spring competition. "When I got here, the team was still working through a lot of injuries. When you're going through that transitional feeling out period what you don't do in that situation as a coach is go to tournaments against four good teams and get drilled. Nothing good comes from that."
But he also knows he has to change some hearts and minds in the Maryland community as well. "I'm a process guy. I hired a staff I'm thrilled about," he said. But that's only one step in the process. "On the Penn State volleyball facebook page, we have 55 or 60 thousand likes. When I got to MD, their page had around 500 and this is our competition, now. I understand that we won't get people to really get after this until we have a winning program but we're probably not going to win for a while. My job isn't to win the B1G or win a national championship this year or even next year. It's to be better. Recruit better athletes, have a better product, have a better atmosphere at matches, do a better job in the community. Do all of those things and keep taking those steps."
Life as a Terp and in the DMV
As I've noted elsewhere, I've seen both Coach Aird and his staff attending and sharing in the success of Maryland teams this spring. "I haven't slept much because I'm so excited about their success. I want all the sports to do really well. Look at baseball. Coach Szefc works hard. His staff works hard. He's done things the right way and it's paid off."
In addition to integrating himself with Maryland sports, the coach is enjoying his new surroundings. "The school academically is great. The location's unbelievable. The campus is gorgeous. I love living in the area. I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old. They go to the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, they go down to the Mall and have a great time. I think the area for me to raise a family is going to be great. There's so much within 20 miles."
Getting back on topic
I feel compelled to reveal that my conversation with the coach happened over lunch at Ledo's. Coach had something healthy. I had a small pizza. I got distracted - Ledo's pizza does that to me - hence the tangent above. Coming back to the subject at hand, I asked him about the upcoming season and some of his plans to help fill the stands. We talked about recruiting about the 2014 class, about how, according to Twitter, he's already managed to land commitments for 2015 and 2016 players from the heart of B1G country including a Michigan high school star who is a MaxPreps sophomore All-American. We'll get into all of that and more in part two of our story tomorrow.