Developing your ideal career path is about being prepared for the next step, knowing when to take risks, and understanding what’s right for you. Here, five coaches discuss how they’ve navigated the profession.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: kb@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.11, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1411/righttrack.htm

If you start asking coaches how they navigated their career paths, you’ll quickly realize there are as many routes as there are coaches. Some, like Lisa Love, former Head Coach at the University of Southern California and current Vice President of University Athletics at Arizona State University, view the path as a ladder and the ultimate goal is to reach the top rung. By the time she took her first job as a high school volleyball coach, Love knew how she wanted to finish her career: working as the athletic director at a large university.

For others, the journey involves finding challenges by staying right where they are, growing with the sport and the school. Louise Crocco, Head Coach at Fort Lauderdale’s Cardinal Gibbons High School, found her ideal job immediately after college and has never looked elsewhere.

Still others choose to move from the high school ranks to college or college to high school, or to simply examine opportunities as they arise. In this article, we talk to five veteran coaches who took five very different paths in their lifework. They talk about the twists and turns of their careers, sharing advice for taking risks, building on past experiences, creating new opportunities, and strategizing to land the next job.

Dave Shondell
Head Coach, Purdue University
After working as an Indiana public school physical education teacher and volleyball coach for 23 years, Dave Shondell snared his dream job in 2003, making the leap from high school to NCAA Division I. Now in his fourth year as Head Coach at Purdue, Shondell has completely turned the program around, earning NCAA Tournament berths the last three seasons. And he’s convinced he’s found the perfect fit.

“Before I came to Purdue, I was coaching high school volleyball, running the Munciana Volleyball Club, broadcasting basketball games on the radio, and raising a family, so I was being pulled in a lot of different directions,” says Shondell. “It’s been great to take a job where I have only one focus: to build the best college volleyball program in the nation. There’s still a lot of coaching, organizing, traveling, and working with young people, but it’s a much different lifestyle and I’m really enjoying it.”

Shondell points to his past experiences as the key to his present success. After growing up in a volleyball family—his father was a coach, as are two of his brothers—Shondell proved himself by posting a 167-63 record at Daleville High School and a 428-52 record at Muncie Central High School. Along the way, his teams won four Indiana state titles, clearly demonstrating his ability to lead on the court.

Running one of the most successful club programs in the country taught him the importance of organization and time management. Raising three daughters and a son has made him a better motivator for his players and a better communicator with their parents. But none of it would have been enough if Shondell hadn’t carefully planned a way to win the Purdue job.

His strategy had four distinct parts, each designed to address his weakest point and show off his greatest strengths. The biggest hole in his resume was his lack of college coaching experience. So at the start of the application process, Shondell enlisted help from friends in the Division I coaching ranks, whom he’d met through recruiting and AVCA conventions. Some of the biggest names in college coaching, including John Dunning, Mick Haley, Mike Hebert, and Russ Rose, wrote letters on his behalf, which they sent to Purdue’s Athletic Director, Senior Woman Administrator, and Search Committee Chair.

Second, Shondell networked with contacts in Purdue’s athletic booster club and on the team—at the time, an alumna of the Munciana Volleyball Club was a starting player. He let these people know he’d applied for the position and asked for their support.

Third, to emphasize his ability to recruit from the region, Shondell asked the top 15 or 20 Indiana high school coaches and many prominent club coaches around the country to write or call the Purdue athletic department, explaining their hesitation to send athletes to the program in the past and offering to reverse that advice if Shondell were given the job. “I knew Purdue was concerned that they weren’t getting the best players in Indiana,” says Shondell. “With all these high school coaches recommending me for the job, Purdue had to understand that if they didn’t hire me, getting those Indiana players would be even harder.”

For the interview, Shondell created a 30-page PowerPoint presentation outlining week-by-week plans for his first year on the job. “By doing that, I made it very evident that I wasn’t just some high school coach who didn’t know anything about how to run a college volleyball program,” he says. “The presentation was very detailed, explaining what I was going to do, starting with that first week—who I would meet with, how I was going to write letters to alumnae, and how I planned to communicate my approach to the team. I had to make them understand I had a legitimate plan to turn the program around.”

The strategy worked and Purdue hired him. Four years later, Shondell believes the process taught him the importance of working well with other people. “How you treat people is enormously important when you’re trying to make that next big step,” he says. “Had I not had really good relationships with so many coaches, there’s no way I could have gotten this job. I firmly believe that everything you do in life is either going to help you or hurt you.

“I learned that when you want something as much as I wanted this job, you’ve got to work really, really hard to get it,” continues Shondell. “I wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned, and to do that, I needed a lot of people behind me.”

Louise Crocco
Head Coach and Athletic Director, Cardinal Gibbons High School, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Growing up in Albany, N.Y., in the 1950s, Louise Crocco had no opportunities to play in organized competition. As far as she knew, girls’ sports simply didn’t exist. But when her family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she started attending Cardinal Gibbons High School, Crocco discovered a whole new world. Encouraged by principal Sister Marie Schramko (who still works at the school at the age of 92), Crocco quickly became captain of the girls’ volleyball, softball, and basketball teams. And though she’d never considered the possibility before, she began to think about a coaching career.

“Sister Marie thought I’d be good at it, and that coaching and teaching would be very satisfying for me,” says Crocco, who graduated from Cardinal Gibbons in 1965 and Florida Atlantic University in 1969. “But when I went to college, I found that women weren’t allowed to take coaching courses. It was really frustrating, to not be able to take a class in something I was planning as my career.”

While Crocco was in college, Cardinal Gibbons kept a job open for her. When she returned to her alma mater after graduation in 1969, she immediately went to work teaching health and fitness and coaching basketball, softball, and volleyball. In 1982, she became Athletic Director, a position she still holds along with being Head Volleyball Coach.

“Working at your alma mater is one of the most satisfying things you can do, because you already love the school,” says Crocco. “You can see how far the program has come, and you know your contribution is going to mean something very special. When you look into the stands and see your former players coming back to watch their children on the court, you know you’ve made a difference in their lives.”

Without coursework in coaching, Crocco is largely self-taught, learning from experience and by regularly attending coaching clinics around the country. In her 38 years at Cardinal Gibbons, she’s lead the volleyball team to 17 state championships, compiled a 1,072-118 (.900) record, and been named Florida Athletic Coaches Association Coach of the Year 18 times. In 2005, she was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame.

During her tenure, she’s kept herself challenged by continually broadening her responsibilities. Crocco recently took charge of athletics fundraising for the department and served on the rules committee of the Florida High School Athletics Association from 1993-96 and on the AVCA Board of Directors from 1998-2000. Over the years, she’s received a handful of offers to coach at the college level, but has always turned them down to stay at Cardinal Gibbons.

“When I first started, it never occurred to me that I might spend my whole career here,” says Crocco, who has no plans to retire any time soon. “I feel I’ve come full circle since I arrived. I love this age group, and having new students every year keeps the job fresh.

“I’ve also enjoyed being a part of the evolution of female athletics,” continues Crocco. “The acceptance of female athletes and female coaches has grown tremendously. Nowadays girls can grow up with a total commitment to sports and can look forward to one day making a living through athletics—for me, that’s incredible to see.”

Lisa Love
Vice President of University Athletics, Arizona State University
Lisa Love is one of only a handful of females who are athletic directors at schools with NCAA Division I-A football teams. But before she achieved that career distinction, she paid her dues. After coaching four years at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas and seven years at the University of Texas-Arlington, Love was Head Coach at the University of Southern California for 10 years. She also served as Associate Athletic Director at USC, Chair of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Committee, Vice President of the Pac-10 Conference, and President of the AVCA.

“In college, I was one of the fortunate ones who knew exactly what I wanted to do,” says Love. “I had my eye on coaching, so I earned an undergraduate degree in physical education. Then, when I started coaching, I thought that athletic administration was appealing, so I obtained a master’s degree in education administration. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘At some point, I’d love to be the athletic director of a major Division I-A institution. And the cards have fallen into place—I couldn’t have dreamed it any better.”

With each opportunity, Love struggled with the decision to leave her existing job. But she recognized the importance of advancing toward her goal when she had the chance. “When a new position opens, you can’t control the timing,” says Love. “Opportunities just present themselves and you have to exercise some wisdom when they come. I left each position kicking and screaming—that’s how hard it was. But I realized that no matter how much I loved what I was doing, turning down these chances would be unwise.

“That doesn’t mean you have to jump at every opportunity that presents itself,” she continues. “You have to listen to your instincts, and that voice could either tell you, ‘Think carefully before you give up this opportunity’ or ‘This is not the opportunity for you.’ If something speaks to you, it’s important to listen.”

As much as she loved coaching volleyball—she stopped at the end of the 1999 season—Love has never swayed from her dreams of getting into administration. She’s enjoyed seeking out greater challenges and larger responsibilities, and for anyone thinking about making a similar move, Love has some advice.

“If you’re considering a career in administration, get involved in committee work to serve your department, your school, or your profession,” she says. “Gain exposure. Build a network. Volunteer. Extend your perspective beyond your current realms. Take classes. Broaden your knowledge base with an advanced degree, not only as a resume builder, but as a way to expand your perspective outside the coaching profession. And each step of the way, make sure to give 110 percent.

“The keys to being a good administrator are communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, which are essentially the same skills you need as a coach,” continues Love. “There are many different avenues into athletics administration, but they all begin with communication. You need to know how to build a successful administrative team, just like you’d build a successful volleyball team.”

With responsibility at Arizona State for 22 teams and a multi-million dollar budget, Love still thinks often of her beginnings as a high school coach. In her only regret, she wishes she’d had the chance to become an assistant coach before being a head coach, and wonders what she might have learned working under the supervision of a more experienced mentor.

But even without that experience, Love applies all the lessons of the past to the challenges of her dream job. “Every step along the way brings you an invaluable perspective,” she says. “Whatever level you’re aiming for, understanding athletics with all its pressures, passions, frustrations, and rewards will help build your frame of reference and help you make decisions that help you succeed in your career.

“Don’t settle for anything,” she adds. “As long as you have the opportunity to experiment, keep taking those risks.”

Mary Buczek
Head Volleyball Coach, The Lovett School, Atlanta, Ga.
The passion and dedication to climbing the career ladder Love describes is something Mary Buczek subscribed to for 15 years. But two years ago, she realized that wasn’t truly the best path for her.

From 1990, when she took her first job as an Assistant Coach at the University of Kentucky, to 2000, when she became Head Coach at the University of Georgia, Buczek diligently worked her way up the coaching rungs. In between, she had been an Assistant Coach at the University of North Carolina and the University of Florida and been Head Coach at Wake Forest University. But by 2005, with a five-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, trying to balance work and home had become impossible.

“One day, my son asked if he was going to get a new mother, because I was never around the house,” she says. “And at three years old, my daughter would point at airplanes and say, ‘That’s where my mommy lives.’ During the season, I would leave the house on a Thursday morning, come back on Sunday night, and if I was lucky, I might get to see my kids again before I left for work again on Monday morning. I found myself crying before every road trip. I knew it was time for a change.”

The strain had been building for eight years, ever since Buczek had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 29, while she was Head Coach at Wake Forest. Throughout her treatments, she never thought about quitting coaching, but when her son was born two years later, on the day she was scheduled to begin her job at Georgia, Buczek felt her priorities shifting. Taking only two weeks off, Buczek reported to work in Athens while her husband stayed in Greensboro, where he was Assistant Lacrosse Coach at the University of North Carolina.

Three months later, she was pregnant again, and as the pressure increased, her husband quit his job to become a full-time stay-at-home father. For role models of coaching mothers, Buczek looked to Kathy DeBoer and Mary Wise, but with the birth of her second child, the struggle to maintain a healthy balance grew even more difficult. When she was with her team, Buczek felt guilty about being away from her family. When she was with her family, she felt guilty about not giving more to her athletes. So at the close of the 2004 season, with a 82-69 record in five years at Georgia, Buczek jumped off the ladder, retiring from college volleyball.

“In 15 years of college coaching, I feel I accomplished a lot, and I don’t have any regrets,” says Buczek. “I played for and worked with some of the best coaches in the country, and I became a head coach at the top level of the college game—just as I’d always wanted. Before, I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t want to be a college coach. But it was time to put my family first.”

Before Buczek resigned, her husband had become Head Lacrosse Coach at the Lovett School, a private K-12 college-prep day school in Atlanta. A month later, Lovett’s head volleyball coaching position opened up and Buczek took it, coaching at the high school level for the first time in her life.

“This job allows me to do what I know best and what I love, which is coaching volleyball,” says Buczek, whose two children now attend Lovett. “I miss the level of athlete I worked with in college, but I’m still teaching the game and still competing for championships. Plus, I can have lunch with my husband, I can be with my children, and we can all travel to school together. Taking this job was a great decision, and my quality of life has risen tremendously.”

Among her new challenges, Buczek teaches five classes of health and physical education every day, and is surprised at how much she enjoys being a middle school teacher, affecting the lives and self-confidence of pre-teenage girls. After years of mapping out her career, step-by-step, she’s broken the habit of making plans.

“People ask if I ever think about going back to college coaching, but I really don’t,” says Buczek. “It’s important to have goals, but life brings changes. Lovett has turned out to be a perfect way to make family our number one priority. Our plan is to stay right here, and if anything changes down the road, it’s going to be my husband’s turn to pursue his career, because he gave up college coaching so I could take the job at Georgia.

“There’s a concern that a lot of women are making a choice like mine and getting out of college coaching,” she continues. “There is more that universities could be doing to better support their female coaches, but finding that balance is always going to be difficult. If you ask the coaches who’ve succeeded, you’ll find that their spouses were able to pick up the slack at home, just like my husband did. But everyone is different, and if you’re trying to think this through, you have to decide what’s most important for you.”

Pete Waite
Head Coach, University of Wisconsin
As a freshman at Ball State University in 1977, Pete Waite majored in education and played on the school’s nationally ranked men’s volleyball team. He did not have an exact career plan, but he did know he wanted to teach, coach, and stay dedicated to the sport. And that he has done, carefully using his experiences to find that next perfect job.

After graduating in 1981, Waite taught industrial arts at a high school in Wisconsin and then at a middle school in Indiana, and coached anywhere he could. He spent three summers as a volleyball camp coach and three years as a high school coach, followed by three years as a club coach, two years as a junior college coach, and two years as Assistant Coach at Illinois State University. From there, he made the leap to Head Coach at Northern Illinois University, where he was the winningest volleyball coach in the history of the program, leading the Huskies to eight regular season conference titles in 11 years.

“It was a steady, step-by-step progression—never looking too far ahead and taking care of one thing at a time,” says Waite. “It’s a lot like the way I coach my team, concentrating on the next match, then focusing on the match after that. Sometimes life takes a turn, so you need to be flexible. I took each opportunity as it arose and followed it to the next level along the way.”

For Waite, the two keys for moving up the coaching ladder are passion and patience. “Coaching is definitely something you have to have a passion for, because it’s going to take up a lot of your time,” he says. “Anybody who wants to rise to the next level also needs to be patient. You need to put in your time in the gym, because you learn things at every stage along the way. Working in camps, club, high school, and junior college gave me the background I needed for coaching at the college level.”

During Waite’s tenure in Dekalb, Northern Illinois moved from the North Star Conference to the Mid-Continent Conference to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference to the Mid-American Conference in 1997. By then, as his team earned a ranking of 15th in the nation and his children grew closer to college age, Waite felt he was ready for a new challenge. In 1999, he accepted the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin, moving back to Madison, where his parents and his wife’s parents live.

“This is a perfect fit for us, because our kids have always loved this city and the volleyball program provides me with all the things I’ve been looking for,” says Waite, whose sons are currently in school at Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “Every season that you walk into a job, you’ve got new challenges, new personnel, and new situations. That’s what I enjoy, and my next challenge is to get us to the Final Four again.”

Waite credits experience and hard work with helping him land the Wisconsin job, and encourages his assistant coaches to seek more and more responsibility. “Learn as much as you can about all aspects of coaching,” he advises. “If you haven’t recruited, scouted, or worked on a budget, take advantage of any opportunities to do those things. Seek out speaking engagements. Work closely with athletes on the court. Attend coaching clinics, work at other program’s camps, and study everything that goes on behind the scenes.

“Learn from coaches who’ve gone before you,” continues Waite. “And save your money and invest it wisely, because if you’re thinking about moving at some point, you may need that cushion. And always make sure coaching is something you enjoy. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to like what I was doing and find some success. Now that my boys are in college, I’ve got an opportunity to focus even more on my job, and I’m really enjoying it.”