Rebuilding after graduating All-American center Chantelle Anderson and All-Conference point guard Ashley McElhiney, the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team suffered this season’s first loss, 79-57, at the University of Miami.
Second-year coach Melanie Balcomb made it clear afterward that the trouncing had been personal.
“I just got my butt kicked by my old college coach,” she said.
Why, junior Abi Ramsey asked, had Balcomb not dropped this potentially motivating bomb before the game?
“Because it’s not about me,” Balcomb replied. “It’s about you.”
For a time, the thought wasn’t reassuring. This year’s ’Dores staggered through mid-season like the town sot, losing turnovers by the dozen, making myriad defensive lapses to spawn easy opposition baskets and finding new ways to achieve other mistakes.
It was hardly surprising, however. The team is laden with six freshmen, and its premiere three-point shooter, Ramsey, was suspended for the season’s first nine games for violating team rules. Then one of its two most dominating inside players, 6-foot-3 senior Jenni Benningfield, went out with a stress-fractured foot and had to be used sparingly when she returned. The most disruptive absence came after freshman Dee Davis stepped into the crucial point guard slot succeeding McElhiney, then went out for weeks with another stressed foot.
Balcomb counseled calm. Coaching a program that the near-legendary Jim Foster raised to lofty expectations in the pitbull-eat-pitbull Southeastern Conference, she persevered with a new system that added the fastbreak and more hurry-up to the Foster-style half-court offense. She patched together lineups from game to game until the regulars returned, then endured the working off of their rustiness and reconstruction of their confidence and cohesion. The early harvests were ragged victories and a string of four consecutive losses that got scary.
Then, almost too late, it began to gel. Another freshman, 6-foot-3 Carla Thomas, started playing like a future All-American. In mid-February, after getting massacred a month earlier in Knoxville and on the verge of tanking themselves out of a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the ’Dores battled No. 4 Tennessee to the wire in a six-point loss at Memorial Gym. Four nights later, against No. 15 LSU on the road, they snapped their four-game losing streak by swarming the tough Tigers and winning by six. Three nights later, they won by eight at No. 14 Auburn, thenhaving clawed back into the Associated Press Top 25came home to level Mississippi State 87-64. In the season closer, they went on the road again to smack South Carolina 62-41.
This week, flying well under the radar, they enter the SEC Tournament at Gaylord Entertainment Center on course to strafe conference-topping Tennessee, LSU and Auburn.
After nearly two years, though, the pilot remains comparatively unknown, mostly by her own design. In a Scene interview that Balcomb says she nearly refused because of its focus on her rather than the team, the 41-year-old talked candidly about a job whose adrenaline level and degree of difficulty run somewhere between those of high-wire walker and combat medic.
Her approach differs widely from that of her peers. Last year, some observers (including, sometimes, this one) wondered why she didn’t compromise rather than make Anderson and McElhiney learn a whole new system going into their final and most promising season. Last week, in a column about Vanderbilt men’s coach Kevin Stallings, The Tennessean said she had driven “several good people away from her program” and “failed to make a single friend in the media.”
Balcomb does have a few new people on her staff this year, including a new media manager and a new director of basketball operations, and she did lose a good player in junior Tia Battle, who gave up a Vanderbilt scholarship to follow Jim Foster to his new team at Ohio State (and who did not return a Scene call last week).
But in an interview a couple of weeks before the Tennessean commentary, Balcomb could scarcely have been more accommodating in providing views of her profession, one being: “Coaching women is different from coaching men. You first have to show ’em you care.”
She loves watching men’s college basketball, she says, but “hates” pro games because their stars no longer “try or play defense.” She appears unimpressed by collegiate showboats, too, especially full-fledged adult ones in street clothes who throw tantrums in front of the players’ benches. The kind who in that loss at Miami would have used her personal ammunition in a heartbeat.
“I don’t want to give you an example,” she says prudently, “but there are a lot of programs where it’s about that coach, and they make it about them. They’re very demonstrative. I’m not going to stomp around and have all the attention on me. I’m never gonna make it about me.”
She “isn’t a screamer and hollerer in practices,” confirms Stephanie Norman, who has known “Mel” for 15 years and came to Nashville from Oregon to assist her. Balcomb is “intense and deliberate,” Norman goes on, “but there isn’t a lot of ranting and raving. When she does speak, the kids listen, and she has something to say. In my mind, she’s one of the brightest young, innovative coaches. She’s very focused on letting the kids have a life and not just making this a basketball factory. Her morals or ethics and the style of game she tries to coach were big factors motivating me to come out here.”
Like their coach, Balcomb’s players appear smart and well spokenand the furthest thing from shrinking violets.
“We’re more determined now,” Jenni Benningfield told the Scene when the season got dicey. “I think we’re really excited and feel the challenge.”
The other starting senior, Hillary Hagera med-school candidate whose threes kept Vanderbilt in games during stints when her teammates were strugglingnotes that a complete Commodore resurrection after mid-season is not unprecedented. In her freshman year, they lost five in a row but went on to the Elite Eight in the 64-team NCAAs.
The players seem approving of their coach. Benningfield says Balcomb is “a little more personally involved” with the team than Foster was. Five-foot-10 junior Ashley Earley, an undersized rebounding wizard, says Balcomb “is a motivator and an encourager” who’ll “get onto you, too, when it’s time.”
Balcomb’s father, Alan Balcomb, coached high school for decades before joining the staff at Princeton. His daughter was so good at Hightstown, N.J., High that she is in its Hall of Fame. After an abortive debut at Georgia Southern University, the 5-foot-5 guard came home to Trenton State College to score more than 1,500 points and set yet unbroken assists and steals records.
After graduation, she says, she never considered another line of work.
“I was brought up in a coaching family, and I believe it was passed on. There were my brother and sister and I, and we all played three sports. We went to all my dad’s games, and after games we’d come home and watch film. So I understand the whole thing.”
A top-10 New Jersey high school player in 1980, she accepted a scholarship from her brother’s alma mater, Georgia Southern, only to find herself “in culture shock: I grew up 45 minutes out of New York City.” To this day, the only music she can’t listen to, she says, is country. Her Georgia Southern teammates all hailed from nearby and called her “Jersey” or “Yankee.” “To be honest with you,” she says, “I said I’d never move back to the South.”
Retreating to Trenton State near her hometown, she not only starred on the hardwood but was an Academic All-American. She then assisted at Niagara University and Providence, stepped up to her first bossing job at Ashland University in Ohio, and went on to build Xavier in Cincinnati into a powerhouse, reaching the NCAA Tournament four years out of seven, making the Elite Eight once, and beating five SEC teams, including Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Her defeat of the Vols, she hints, may have put her in Vanderbilt’s sights after Foster decamped. For her, the looming image of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt wasn’t dismaying.
“You gotta remember that I had just played her with success,” Balcomb says. “I think it was important for Vanderbilt to hire somebody who wasn’t intimidated.”
But what about the hiree, the self-described “Jersey girl” who vowed never to move South? She wanted to win a national championship, she says, and she found she had to ascend to another level to do it. And although she had interviewed widely for jobs outside the South, nothing “felt right”until, surprisingly enough, Nashville.
“It was more metropolitan than I ever expected,” she recalls. “I think the Music City [flavor] has a lot to do with that. At Vanderbilt, 83 percent of our students are from out-of-state, and we have professors who are the best in the world. When they offered me the job and asked if I had any questions, I said, 'Just one: Do I have to like country music?’ They said, 'Absolutely not.’ ”
There were other appealing things too. Vanderbilt had a rich tradition of “really” supporting women’s basketball. Plus, “Coming from the private schools that I had been associated with, I wanted a place that had good academics. I wanted integrity first; I didn’t want to ever have to change and do things the wrong way. Vanderbilt gave me that.”
Balcomb is unmarried, and her incessant travel to away games and on recruiting treks hasn’t allowed her even to have a pet, she says. (She “tried fish once, but they all ate each other.”)
Besides parents and siblings, her family is her team. She wears a pair of diamond earrings from the not-wealthy parents of a Xavier player who underwent open-heart surgery and got prolonged attention from her and the trainer. Years past graduation, she says, players ask her to be in their weddings and call and e-mail her with each major step in their lives.
There’s a downside, of course. Coaching 18- to 22-year-olds is nerve-wracking. “You’re accountable for every time a kid goes out at night,” she says, “and you’re worried all the time.”
With Anderson and McElhiney, her first season may not have been representative. The current one seems to be the first in which the Commodores began taking on their coach’s personality: that of a low-profile but tough battler who stays in your face until she wins.
“Team chemistry has been my No. 1 thing,” she says. “They have to learn to care for each other on and off the court; then they’ll not want to let each other down. If they also don’t want to let me or my staff down, that’s icing on the cake.” The team, she says, must “take ownership” of its destiny. “At game-time,” she warns, “your players better own it.”
FYI, SEC: This batch apparently took final possession two-and-a-half weeks ago.