Sometime back in 1983 I took a second job with the Pittsburgh Penguins. No, I wasn’t tapped to be a two-way center ready to clean up rebounds in the defensive end and lead the rush up ice. I was a passionate member of the telemarketing department, using my love of the game to huck season tickets to folks that had shown interest in hockey by purchasing single game tickets the past year. Unfortunately there weren’t may great leads, and quite frankly, the team wasn’t very good. Still, I made a few extra bucks and enjoyed coming to work at the Civic Arena.
Then at some point during the 1983 campaign the Penguins hierarchy decided a first selection in the 1984 draft was worth more than a strong finish to the season. I’m certain that wasn’t thrilling to the two dozen people I had sold ticket plans to, but the result was the selection of the most electric hockey player to every wear a Pens uniform. Mario Lemieux. Mario changed everything about hockey in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. The decision to “take a dive” for the chance to draft him still has lasting effects thirty-seven years later, and will likely have impacts for many years to come.
Sometimes things just line up. Back then, it was being in the right place at the right time. Having a season to figure out what techniques helped me sell tickets to customers was helpful, but drafting and signing an athlete of Mario’s stature was all the telemarketing team needed to have an amazing summer. We sold a lot of season ticket plans and working in the basement of the Civic Arena was the most fun and best second job I’ve ever had.
So, if you haven’t already ask yourself why is this story important, hang in there, I’m about to make that leap.
Mario burst onto the scene in 1984. It took until 1991 for the Penguins to reach the pinnacle of hockey success, the Stanley Cup Championship. During that time and in the subsequent years, hockey gained popularity. New ice rinks were built, new clubs were formed, and the game became part of the fabric of the city of Pittsburgh and throughout the Western Pennsylvania region. Hockey in the 412 is here to stay, and I see opportunity for another favorite sport to cement it’s place locally in the next few months for similar reasons.
Volleyball. In Pittsburgh.
I was in the seats last weekend as the Pitt Panthers took on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the backend of a home and home series that saw Pitt dominate at Penn State on Friday night. It was the first time since 1980 that the Panthers won a match at PSU’s Rec Hall. The focus then shifted to Pitt’s Petersen Event’s Center on Sunday where the #4 Lady Lions would try to avenge the loss to #6 Pitt.
The win at Penn State was no fluke. Pitt has a talented core and deep bench. They battled hard and gave 5,195 of us reason to believe this is a program to reckon with. They dropped a five set loss, but gained ground in the rankings. This week, Pitt moves up to #4 and Penn State drops to #5. The ACC schedule is next on the agenda, and the Panthers won’t likely meet another ranked opponent until Oct 6th vs Florida State(23) or Louisville(unranked at this time) Oct 27. The time is now to keep the pedal down and the momentum up.
Have I seen this before? It took Mario seven years to reach the top and Coach Dan Fisher is in his seventh year coaching the Panthers. Nationally volleyball is at an all-time high in participation and in availability of viewing matches. The ACC Network is in it’s first season and volleyball is currently center stage there. Here in Pittsburgh high school season is in full swing, and soon enough preparations for the NCAA Final Four will be underway. Are we again in the right place at the right time? I think so.
So, am I comparing Dan Fisher to Mario Lemieux? Kind of.
Mario’s arrival trumpeted the beginning of an era but even with “Le Magnifique” as its nucleus the Penguins took seven years to put in place a team around him capable of competing at the highest level. Honestly, some of the teams Lemieux played on in the first few years here were terrible. Volleyball games also cannot be won by having a single superstar player. In volleyball the person at the center is the coach, and like Lemieux’s slow steady climb it has taken Fisher about the same amount of time to perfect his lineup. But this is volleyball. Is there a blueprint for success we could tap into?
In Lincoln Nebraska, in the middle of the country, the seeds of volleyball were successfully sewn. Now, the Cornhuskers sell out the nearly 8,000 Devaney Center built almost exclusively for volleyball. Coach John Cook has guided the Huskers for the last 20 years deftly through the minefield that is Big 10 volleyball. His record at Nebraska is 560-75, sporting an amazing .882 winning percentage. But even Cook will admit he wasn’t the architect of Nebraska Volleyball. That honor goes to Terry Pettit. Coach Pettit guided the Huskers from 1977 to 1999. His record of 694-148 is an equally astonishing .820 winning percentage. How did Pettit build a program that’s success continues to this day? Coach Pettit explains in his excellent book, Talent, and The Secret Life of Teams…
”There is a coaching staff that has a clear understanding of the combined strengths of the athletes, the institution, and the culture of the local community, and finds creative ways to leverage those strengths. And somewhere along the sideline there is a coach who is willing to take risks; willing to look out over the bow of the boat before she has even recruited the right rowers for the right positions, to look farther across the water than anyone else can see, and say in a voice foolish in its confidence, “The National Championship is where we are going.” And she has to continue to say it while passing through waves of injured athletes, lost recruits, disappointing losses, and the perception of others that she is not making headway.”
Pettit’s observations are interesting. Do they apply to Coach Fisher and his staff at Pitt? That remains to be seen, but I like what I am seeing so far this year. It seems that the core of this team is able, and as a unit, they are buying into the vision Fisher has for them. How do we as fans and supporters build on their on court success to insure lasting quality and the growth of volleyball throughout Western Pennsylvania? Coach Dave Shondell, Head Volleyball Coach at Purdue University has built that in West Lafayette, and he shared his thoughts on that with me recently…
”Develop relationships.” Shondell suggests, “The head coach must put himself/herself out there. Recruit the students to attend. Recruit the community to attend. Go out and support other teams at your school as a team. Be humble. Be unselfish. Attend events at the dorms. Welcome the freshmen when they arrive. Go into the stands before every match to meet and thank the fans. Use social media daily to promote your team. Be kind. Don’t get frustrated. Build a great product. Win. Accept responsibility for failure. Never be upset with your fans or potential fans. Offer to pay for the fan’s ticket. Invite key people on campus and in the community to attend on your dime. Get on the microphone after big matches and thank the fans. Those are a few things I try to do.” Great advice from Coach Shondell, a man I have found to care so much about the growth of the game.
So, is Dan Fisher comparable to Mario Lemieux, and have I seen this before? Not exactly, but this is surely our time to shine as a volleyball community in Pittsburgh. How cool is it that the destination is HERE? Let’s make sure we enjoy the ride. We already have knowledgeable and passionate coaches in our club programs and high schools. That means we also have parents invested in showing their athletes how the “big kids” play. Getting them out to a match at Fitzgerald Field House should be easy! Keeping them coming there should be priority one.