Thursday, March 26, 2009

One In A Million

To define Glenn Nelson only as the winningest coach in Princeton athletics history doesn't even begin to define the man that TigerBlog happily worked with for 18 of his incredible 58 seasons at Princeton. Yes, he won; he won a lot. He probably won more than anybody else ever will.

But to those who had the privilege to get to know him, he was about far more than wins.

TB came to Princeton as an intern in 1998 and was assigned women's volleyball as one of his first sports. Having played on a CYO team in the seventh grade, I at least knew the basic rules of the sport, but had no idea what to expect. I walked up to him before a preseason practice, readying myself for entry into the professional world, and introduced myself.

"Cuz, damn glad to meet you."

That was about it. I was ready to discuss his expectations of a media guide. He wasn't; he didn't want one. He knew where he was recruiting, he had contacts and he knew which tournaments to attend. No 20-page pamphlet was going to compare to his ability to find talent, call them and draw their interest. One of the nation's best liberos in the last five years, Jenny McReynolds, said she was asleep when Nelson first called and was too tired to be interested in talking more volleyball.

She got on the phone, was laughing almost immediately and talked almost no volleyball. A couple years later, she was named the National Libero of the Year as a member of the Princeton Tigers.

When Nelson got the talent to Princeton, he knew what to do with it. Unlike most coaches, who pace the sidelines during matches, call out where to serve and what plays to run, Nelson teaches his players at practice and expects them to think on the court. He can sit like a mannequin for 15 minutes, watching play and muttering to himself (and those lucky enough to be within earshot), but when he saw something he didn't like... well, everybody in the building heard it. He would stand, scream and sit. Mannequin time again. (He'll go into retirement with thousands of unused timeouts in his pocket and at least one broken cane in the trash can.)

But the man could coach volleyball. His women won 11 Ivy League titles, including two that TB was lucky enough to cover. The 1999-00 champion was a team that featured an undersized outside hitter named Sabrina King, whose contributions to the program over the last decade can neither be understated or unappreciated. The team was sent to BYU, where the Tigers would face the seventh-seeded Cougars.

Before TB left, he spoke with his then-roommate Matt Ciciarelli, who had covered Penn State women's volleyball and was well aware of what elite NCAA volleyball teams were like. We discussed what reasonable expectations were for Princeton and decided that 14 total points (these were the pre-rally scoring days) was a legitimate goal. Now, if you tell almost any coach that you expect them to lose handily in the NCAA tournament, you're not likely to engender any warm feelings.

There isn't a phony bone in Glenn Nelson's body, though. When TB told him that "goal," Nelson thought it was hysterical that two people even had this conversation. Two days later, in the third game of a match Princeton trailed 15-5, 15-5, 11-3, TB was the only nervous person in the building, hoping to see the Tigers get that 14th point.

It came on a long hit from a BYU player. TB smiled and looked towards the Princeton bench, where the realization that this was going to be a quick loss had long been realized. Yet, there was Nelson, pointing in my direction, standing and pumping his fist like his team had just won an Olympic gold.

It is one of many memorable tales that anybody who was lucky enough to really know the man could share. He spent one summer, inexplicably, with an accent he liked from a movie. At the end of the summer, he got rid of it; obviously, three months is about the shelf life for fake accents. He'd rather be on a golf course than almost anywhere, and despite a missed diagnosis on his hip decades earlier that cost him his ability to move without pain, he is money around the greens. His tennis battles with Pete Carril in the bowels of Jadwin Gym, where the Hall of Fame basketball coach hoped a cigar and a drop shot could undo Nelson, were the stuff of legend.

Oftentimes, his hysterical personality and laid-back demeanor masked his coaching brilliance. His teams didn't win titles every year, and undoubtedly there were players who didn't really "get" him, but each man and woman who played volleyball at Princeton over the last three decades graduated with a true understanding of how to play the game.

He deflects attention from himself -- TB can guarantee that he will NEVER read this blog entry -- and his sport is not one that will garner national attention. That doesn't matter. Talk to somebody who Nelson impacted, and you're guaranteed a steady stream of great stories. Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 called Glenn the "face of Princeton volleyball," and he's absolutely right.

But he's also the heart and soul of it, too, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of alumni who will be nostalgic upon hearing the news. Whether they are sad he is leaving or happy that he can spend more time working on his long irons, they will recall their own favorite memories of a man who will likely remain atop the victory mountain at Princeton for many years to come.

Thanks, Glenn. You are one in a million. A great coach, a great friend and a true institution at Princeton athletics, you are irreplaceable and unforgettable.

Hit 'em straight.

(To read the official release of Glenn Nelson's retirement, which details his long list of accomplishments as the head coach of both the men's and women's volleyball teams, please click here.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Story.
I played against Coach in the 70's and have been friends ever since. He is a truly unique individual that gave his all to Princeton Volleyball. Dillon gym should be renamed for Coach Nelson. The winningest coach in history needs to be honored. Hopefully, the Administration will do the right thing.