In part one of our interview with Maryland's head volleyball coach Steve Aird, he brought us up to date on his experiences this spring in College Park, some of the challenges he'll be facing as Maryland transitions into a new conference, and his broader vision for the Terps' volleyball program. In part two, we'll get a more detailed look at what to expect in the upcoming season, some exciting recruiting news, and learn why he's in favor of gambling.
Volleyball's a good drug
Aird understands that winning is paramount to building interest in the program and he knows that winning consistently won't happen immediately. However, he also believes he can build a core of interest by building relationships. "One of the things I thought when I came here was that Maryland has basketball, they have lacrosse but what they don't have is three or four thousand people showing up every night at a volleyball match. But then I thought, you've got a top 20 school, 7 miles from the most powerful city in the world, that will be playing in the best conference in the country, you can get people interested."
Fortunately, the magnitude of this challenge isn't as great for Aird as it is for, say Coaches Edsall and Turgeon. When it comes to volleyball, the Terps will be more or less the only game in town. What he's convinced he can do is change hearts and minds and change the way people perceive volleyball. "You have to have a good product, I get that. But you've got to get out in the community and make people understand that you're working your butt off. The mentality in this area that volleyball doesn't matter, I get it. The mentality is that you have to win in order for people to show up. I get that, too, but I don't buy it. Even when they know they may not have a winning season people support teams because they feel they're part of the family. What we have to do is build that family. You've got to get people in the community to come to the matches. When they meet the girls and meet the staff, they'll come back. Volleyball's a good drug."
The upcoming season and the Pac 12 challenge
In addition to the loaded conference schedule, one of the first things that will jump out at Terps fans who look at the volleyball schedule is a trip to Seattle where the Terps will face Washington and USC. Washington reached the Final Four last season edging USC in the regional final to do so. Their addition means the Terps will play six of final eight teams from last season's NCAA Tournament and three of them, Nebraska, Penn State, and Purdue are coming to College Park. "I added USC and Washington to the schedule by design," Aird said. "I want the team to get a taste of what it's like to travel a long distance and play in front of thousands of people on national television before we get that on a regular basis when we get into conference play."
Here, too, the coach showed that he is looking not only at the immediate future but at bigger opportunities for Terrapins volleyball. Another B1G team, Wisconsin is part of this mini-tournament. "This is a four year rotating challenge. Remember when I said that in four years we're going to have a really good team? Well, four years from now we're going to host that tournament here in College Park. And I'll be bringing arguably two of the best west coast teams to the DC area to play in a tournament in front of our home fans and showcase the sport." With Illinois and Penn State facing off with Stanford and UCLA in September, Aird envisions the possibility of the event becoming a fully developed B1G-Pac 12 Challenge akin to the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball.
What fans will see on the court
Aird hasn't yet installed any systems and he hasn't determined who on his roster will see consistent playing time. As noted in part one, his spring practices were more about the process than about learning any systems he might have. He said the approach he will take is grounded in the philosophy that, "Players beat systems. When I was a player I always thought that players won games, not coaches. As a coach, I think that players win games not coaches. I don't know what I have yet. We have freshmen coming in, we have a transfer, and we have kids coming back. My approach is pretty simple: the people who can pass the ball the best, make them pass. The person who can deliver the ball the best, have her set. The people who take the biggest swings, have them hit."
He added, "The pecking order for me will be if you're the best at doing something you're going to get the opportunity to do that more than other people. I'll put them in the right spots and I'll train them so they have the right tools but at the end of the day, they're going to have to play."
Speaking of training, Aird expects a lot from his players. He knows he has a fine line to walk but said, "Things will get real in August or September. Like Mike Tyson says, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. We'll see what happens when I get demanding. I am honest with them. I don't care who plays. But I hope they can see I care deeply about them and the program. I want them to see that I'm working hard every day. I'm on the road, I'm in the community, I'm at events because I want them to have a great experience at Maryland."
2014 is about competing
When Tim Horsman replaced Janice Kruger, the Terps were coming off a season in which they'd finished 18-13 overall and 10-12 in the ACC. In Horsman's first season Maryland finished 6-26 and won only two ACC contests. Coach Aird inherits a squad that finished 13-19 in 2013 and are moving into a conference that produced half of last year's Elite Eight. Thus, fans, like the coach need to temper early expectations. "Early on I'm less worried about wins and losses than about how the team competes. For example, if we go to Nebraska or Penn State and we get blown out in the first game, what are we going to see when we turn to the next game. Are they pouting, are they upset, are they acting like the match is over. Or do they have a fire about them. Do they say let's line it up and go at it again. I want them to be interested in the fight. Because in this conference, I've seen teams play great and compete and still get smoked. If that happens, what I want to be able to say is, we competed like crazy and we're getting better. I don't want to see moping. Winning is a byproduct of having better players, of having confidence and some swagger. We might not have a roster full of better players yet but we're going to compete like crazy."
Still, Aird believes the Terps will have opportunities, "If we get in matches against teams that have better players and are more physical and more talented and make more plays, we won't win. But if we get to the point where we're efficient and limit our errors and the kids do what they do well, we're going to be in some matches and we're going to have a chance to win."
2014 is about excitement and surprises
Fans accustomed to coming to the Pavilion at Comcast Center for their volleyball fix will be in for a bit of a surprise. At least five of Maryland's home matches will be located elsewhere. The Terps will play four times in the main gym at Comcast but I'll let the coach tell you about what may be the most exciting development, "We'll be playing Rutgers in Ritchie Coliseum." So here's a chance to revisit some nostalgic moments at the old gym on Route 1.
Why is Aird taking this approach? "I want to go through a year and get a feel for what's going to be right for the future of the program. My gut feeling is that the Pavilion (at Comcast Center) will be too small. and that the main gym will be too big. Ritchie is in a different place and is currently not configured to have us there on a regular basis. I don't know what the best answer is going to be. As for this year, I think we'll be able to package some of the nostalgia for Ritchie but put it together with the fact that it's right next to Fraternity Row so that could make an exciting and fun night." Aird has other plans in the works but was reluctant to reveal them at this early date.
To 2015 and Beyond!
By now you've noticed that Coach Aird has a long term plan for the success of Maryland volleyball. Some of this came about out of necessity. "We were in a situation coming in where we had very limited scholarships available until 2016. So my first class in its entirety will be 2016. Coming into this season, I knew we needed a setter so I went out and got one. I thought we needed a little bit of help in the back row so I went out and got a player there. Then I honored three scholarships to players the previous staff had identified that wanted to come in."
But the real excitement begins in 2016. Aird said, "I'm thrilled with what we've been able to do in 3 or 4 months with that class so far." And with good reason. Aird is invading B1G country and getting commitments from players with offers from schools like Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan St. and Illinois. The coach can't disclose the names of these recruits but a search of the Twitterverse led to these revelations:
For 2016, All-American Outside hitter Gia Milana had this to say on Twitter.
Here are some of Milana's highlights:
Said the coach, "Every kid that we've really wanted that has come to visit Maryland, we've got. They've said I want to be here and I want to be a part of it."
Blazing a trail
Just as Brenda Frese did in her early years, Steve Aird is looking for athletes who want to make their own mark, athletes who want to say they started a movement. He tells them, "We haven't played a match in the B1G. If you go the the B1G programs, they've written their chapters. They have All-Americans, they've won titles, they've gone to the NCAAs. We have history and we have good history. I was talking with Janice and I was telling her about one of our recruits and she said we've never been able to pull a top ten - top 20 kid even though we won some ACC titles. But there's a difference between winning a conference and being nationally relevant and Maryland is going to be nationally relevant." And in the B1G, you don't need to win the conference to be nationally relevant as NCAA finalist Wisconsin (4th in the B1G in 2013) and Elite Eight squad Purdue (6th in the conference) showed.
We're in the gambling profession
Looking at some of the athletes who have committed to Maryland, I wondered about Aird's thought process in looking at girls who are just entering their junior year of high school. "We're in the gambling profession," he answered. "I'm pro gambling. I have to be. I'm looking at a 15 year old and trying to figure out how good she's going to be when she's 21 and if that's not gambling, then I don't know what gambling is."
Thoughts about a startup business
This how the coach looks at Maryland volleyball: "To me it's a startup business. And to be successful you need three things: a template, drive and support. I've got the template because I've won and I've been around a program that does it better than anyone else. The drive I've got. The staff around me is great. The last bullet is support. And if we get all three we'll be fine. If any of them fall off, we won't be."
Aird and his staff have not only been all over the country recruiting, they've thrown themselves headlong into the Maryland Terrapins community. Look around. You'll see them on campus. You'll see them on Fraternity Row. You'll see them supporting other Terps sports. "All I want to do is help Maryland Athletics," Aird told me as our lunch was ending. "I want every coach to know that my staff and I are willing to do whatever we can to help them. On the flip side, I need them to act like volleyball matters. And they have. Brenda's been great, Tillman's been great, Turgeon's been great. I've met with Edsall 3 or 4 times. Turgeon helped me write an email to a guy he knew back home to help us with a recruit. For an athletic department to go big, you have to have that sense. You have to have all hands on deck."
In closing, members of the jury
I asked if he had a final message for the Terrapins' fan base. And the loquacious coach indeed did, "Here's what I want people to start thinking about: Have you ever been to a Maryland volleyball match? No? Well, come one time. Even if we lose, you'll see a team where the kids are flying around and smiling and taking big swings - a team that going to competitive and full of energy. If at the end of the night you don't think those kids are fun to watch, if you don't love watching them play, if come to me and tell me you didn't enjoy it, I'll have no problem if you don't come back. But you won't say any of that and you will come back."
And with that he was off to meet another recruit.