Weekly Conversation: UT volleyball coach mellows but remains motivated

Chris Catanach’s passion for the game remains strong after winning third national title.
Published December 4 2018

The University of Tampa volleyball team, which just captured the program’s third NCAA Division II national championship, might be the best-kept secret on the Tampa Bay area sports scene.

In the 35-season tenure of Coach Chris Catanach, the Spartans have done nothing but win — usually in a big way. Catanach (1,073-200) has guided 33 of his teams into the NCAA Tournament.

He’s considered volleyball royalty on the national scene, but his low-key, self-effacing manner helps him remain one of the guys around UT’s Martinez Sports Center.

Catanach, 57, spoke with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Joey Johnston about the thrills, demands and sacrifices necessary to become a career coach.

When a veteran college coach wins a national championship, they usually get two questions. Can you repeat? Are you considering retirement? What do you say to both?

Well, I have never succeeded at repeating (winning two straight national titles), so that would be great. I wouldn’t put anything past this group. Retirement? I have been trying to figure out my end game for some time now. Maybe at 62, that would be a good time. Five more years. I want to retire when I’m young enough to enjoy other things. But my challenge is I don’t have any major hobbies. This is what I do. And I still love it.

How did you get this job?

I was a (volleyball) student assistant, a grunt. I did whatever was needed. I certainly wasn’t qualified to be a head coach. I became a (UT) admissions rep after graduation. Linda, who became my wife, was a player and she told me the UT coach was leaving. I wanted the job. I was in Kentucky visiting high-school students and I drove straight back. I went to the athletic director (Bob Birenkott) and had nothing to sell, other than my passion for volleyball. He saw something in me. I was 22. Crazy.

UT athletics were a bit different then, right?

Well, Bob Birenkott said I could coach volleyball, but he also wanted me to coach men’s and women’s tennis. And there were other tasks. We had a carnival on campus to raise money. I was put in charge of the custodial service. I had to hire people to clean up. Yep, that’s how it started.

You’ve had so much success. People might wonder why you never left UT for the so-called greener pastures. Why have you stayed?

I closed that door years ago. Mary Wise (University of Florida coach) used to tell me, “I get the call every year. I just need to know. Would you be interested (in Division I)?” Of course, there was a time when it was yes. But UT is a wonderful place to work.

I’m not less competitive by not going (to a Division I job). I’m just more experienced and smart enough to know that’s not a better move. I’ve had many Division I coaches tell me, “I would love your job.’’ You get to a point where the ego goes away and you know you have a great gig, a great lifestyle. I’d be foolish to chase something else. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Some coaches never realize that and leave the place where they really should be.

When you coach anything for 35 seasons, is it possible to stay the same? Have you changed a lot?

I think I spent 10 years trying to move on and 10 years trying to coach like everybody else. The rest of the time, it has been controlling my thoughts and feelings, looking out for the kids, trying not to destroy anybody in the process. Volleyball doesn’t define me like it used to. I feel bad there was a time when I allowed it to consume me. I just never stopped and it got out of control. I have better perspective.

One of your former All-American players, Melissa Vanderhall, was murdered before last season. How did her death affect your program? How did it affect you?

The Melissa tragedy threw us into a tailspin last year. Even though our (current) kids didn’t really know her personally, it put a cloud over the program. I hadn’t talked to Melissa much in recent years, but it was hard to see that happen to such a young life and a great person. I have always been an emotional coach.

Sometimes, I’m really tough on them. But I think I have mellowed a ton in the last two years. We were trailing 14-7 in the fourth set (of the national-championship match), getting close to being eliminated. The kids were playing hard, but feeling this angst and disappointment. I didn’t tear them up. I just said to myself, “They are not failing here.’’

I wouldn’t have been that way in other years. I think it stemmed from the reality check of what happened to Melissa. You have to appreciate the little things.

Coming home after winning a national championship, what little things are you appreciating now?

I’ve been getting good nights of sleep. I get to play basketball at lunch. Now I’ve got an expense report that will probably take me a week to do. We’ve got to organize our banquet and get the (championship) rings set up. And we’ve been working all along at taking the team to Europe (Portugal and Spain) next summer. It doesn’t stop. But you know what? I love it. I’m happy. This is where I need to be.

The Weekly Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]

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