Dec. 12, 2012
Vanderbilt's women's head basketball coach Melanie Balcomb is about to eclipse a record that will put her first on an "all-time" list. And it is not her first "first" on an all-time list. Balcomb is just 12 wins from becoming Vanderbilt's all-time winningest women's basketball coach passing Jim Foster. She left Xavier in 2002 for Nashville as the Musketeers all-time winningest women's basketball coach (135-78). That record has since been erased by her replacement at Xavier, Kevin McGuff.
"I haven't accomplished that yet so let's not jump the gun," joked Balcomb. "It sounds like I'll need quite a few wins to get there this year. If that does happen, I've been blessed to be around a lot of good people and great players. My staff and support staff have helped me be successful. I've just been very blessed and I hope that does happen, but I will be the last to know. I won't be focused on that."
Balcomb entered the 2012-13 season as her 11th at Vanderbilt with a 238-94 record. The current Commodores are 7-3 updating her record at 245-97. Foster was 256-99 (1992-2002) in 11 seasons. Balcomb was born in Princeton, N.J and attended Hightstown High School, but was introduced to basketball by her father, Alan. Alan Balcomb was a boy's varsity coach at South Brunswick (N.J.) High School for 30 years and an assistant for four years at Princeton University under Pete Carril.
"My being a coach and coaching is all encompassing; its kind of a lifestyle," said Balcomb. "I always compare it to military families that pass it down. Coaching is a lot in the same way. Everybody in the family is a part of it. It's not like a 9 to 5 job. When I was a little girl, I would see my dad at practice in a gym and went to all his games. Then he would come home and watch film. Back in the day you had one television and 8 mm reels.
"He'd sit in the living room and watch film. I was just always around it. Watching sports and basketball in my family was a big deal. My brother ended up playing for my dad. I went to every game even through high school that my dad coached. My mom went to home and away games. She took my sister and me. I always had a basketball in my hand. It was comfortable for me and it still is today.
"My dad laid down asphalt in the side of the yard and built a half-court. We had one basket and put lights up. We used to shovel the snow, shoot with our gloves on and all that stuff you don't hear about anymore. We used to have a New Year's Day game. It was my dad and me against my sister (Carrie) and brother (Alan). It was a traditional rivalry. Everything was centered on sports. We played all sports, but with my dad being a basketball coach--basketball was the sport."
On a wall at the Hightstown gymnasium, Balcomb is listed as one of the all-time scorers in the school's history and her jersey number was retired in 1996. She was a star guard that played an aggressive style of basketball.
"I didn't want to be stereotyped," Balcomb said. "I was one of those people that likes to be different. I didn't want to be that typical shooter. I wasn't a great shooter though I scored a lot of points. I played more of an aggressive, driving style. I played point guard and off guard then I'd drive and score. I was very aggressive. I just loved playing and competing. I was that type of player that was always attacking.
"My high school team wasn't very good. Our opponents had a box-and-one on me nearly every night, which made it more difficult. But I thought simply being a shooter was boring and I didn't want to be that. I tried to play in leagues where there were a lot of great athletes. I played on teams where I was the only girl and tried to play off the dribble. Girls don't play like the guys do, pickup and play off the dribble.
"My dad always had camps. I went to his camps and played against boys. I played with my brother and the boys in the neighborhood. I was always the only girl. I used to play noon hoops at Jadwin Gym [Princeton's home court] and Carril would speak at my dad's clinics. That's how we got to know Pete. He would laugh and walked into the gym and say that girl is kicking you guy's butt and I'd be the only girl on the court.
"I played more like a guy. I try to recruit girls like that now that played pickup games with boys. I'd ask if they had brothers they played against or did they play at the `Y' or at a boys and girls club. If you just played against girls, you are probably going to be that kid that didn't play very well off the move or off the dribble."
Vanderbilt Assistant Coach Vicki Picott prepped at the same high school that produced Balcomb and came to Vanderbilt with her fellow New Jerseyan in 2002 as an assistant coach after two seasons at Xavier. Picott broke Balcomb's high school basketball records. Her jersey number is also retired.
Balcomb's basketball years did not end in high school. Her older sister had a tennis scholarship at Auburn and her brother was on a baseball scholarship at Georgia Southern.
"My sister was the state's single's champ in high school in New Jersey," said Balcomb. "My brother was next and played baseball. I was very close to my brother and went to Georgia Southern. They had tryouts back then and it was AIAW [Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women]. I just went there to watch my brother play. The coach heard I was a Top 10 recruit from my class out of Jersey. She asked me to practice with them and offered me a basketball scholarship.
"I left Georgia Southern after one year and transferred to Trenton State [presently The College of New Jersey]. I was really homesick. It was a culture shock to me. I was 17 and real young when I went to school. I tried to hang out with my brother and his friends, but I really had a tough time adjusting to the culture. I grew up 45 minutes out of Philadelphia and New York. My brother was in a different situation because they recruited nationally and were really good. His roommates were from New York and New Jersey. They recruited in the northeast. I struggled socially and not basketball-wise. I decided to transfer home."
Balcomb thrived at Trenton State. She was named to the all-State College team, NJAIAW all-Conference Second Team and scored 1,099 points (11th all-time). Balcomb is also listed all-time in steals and assists with only three years of playing time.
"This was AIAW and during my time two things happened that I think was interesting historically," said Balcomb. "There was a time it was AIAW and NCAA. Some women's programs joined the NCAA and some had not. There was one year where there was an NCAA and an AIAW national champ. After that year everybody went into the NCAA. The other thing that happened historically in my junior year they made the basketball smaller for the women. We didn't have a 3-point line. I keep laughing and telling my players I would have had a lot more points with a 3-point line."
When Title IX became federal law in 1972, the United States government wanted women's sports in high school and college to become equal to the men's competition. Vanderbilt began playing basketball for the women in 1977-78. The transition for women's college basketball was slow and difficult in earning an athletic scholarship.
"Back then it was rare to get a scholarship and there weren't many out there," Balcomb said. "They had mass tryouts. I tried out at Old Dominion and N.C. State and they'd give out one or two scholarships. Though I played Division III college basketball, we played a lot of Division I schools. You didn't have big budgets so you played local teams. Our biggest rival was Rider. That's because they are also in Trenton. But we didn't know that they were Division I and we were Division III. It didn't matter to anybody.
"That's very different than it is today. The reason people didn't give out scholarships, they didn't have a recruiting budget. They had tryouts and brought everybody to them. My dad was a coach and he kept saying these coaches would come and see me. You are a great player. I averaged about 26 points a game in high school and a very good player, but nobody came to my games to recruit me. My dad had the mindset of a men's coach and said I didn't need to go to all those tryouts. When you are one of 300 people nobody is going to notice you."
After graduating from Trenton State, Balcomb was in a dilemma. She did not want to give up the game of basketball as a player. And with basketball being the family business it seemed natural for her to enter the coaching profession.
"I wanted to play basketball, but there wasn't any place for me to play once I was finished in college," said Balcomb. "There was no WNBA and I wasn't good enough to be in the Olympics. That was always my goal. Kids today never say their goal is to be in the Olympics. I said it because it was the only way I could keep playing basketball. I might have gone overseas to some poor league where nobody could communicate with me, which I was not going to do.
"Now you can go overseas and make good money as a women's player. Through technology you can still stay close to your family. If was too far for me to go to Georgia Southern, I certainly wasn't going overseas [Balcomb laughing]. The day my games were over, I went to the intramural gym and played everyday until my college ended. I couldn't believe it. I had to stop playing basketball. I just loved it."
Balcomb did become an assistant coach at Niagara University (1985-89), Ohio University (1989-90) and Providence College (1990-93). She gained her first head coaching position at Ashland (Ohio) University (1993-95). In her first season, Ashland matched its best record in school's history at 18-9 while recording its first winning season in the Great Lakes Valley Conference (11-7).
"My experience at Providence was the best I had at a very high level," said Balcomb. "We won the BIG EAST and beat Connecticut in the BIG EAST championship. They went on that year to the Final Four for the first time, which was [Geno] Auriemma's break through year. We had beaten them in the conference tournament so I won a BIG EAST championship there as an assistant coach. We led the country in scoring where we averaged 97 points a game.
"I had learned a lot from Rick Pitino [Providence men's coach] all that stuff like fast break, pressing and things that Pitino did at Providence. It was a great learning experience for me. Then we went on to the NCAA and lost to Wisconsin in the second round. That is one of the philosophies I carried over to run and be aggressive on offense. We put up a lot of points. We usually come in first or second in scoring in every league I've been in."
In two seasons at Ashland, Balcomb was 28-26. While an assistant at Ohio, Balcomb was working the state searching for recruits. She developed a working relationship with the high school coaches in the Buckeye State. Ashland was a Division II school. Balcomb earned a reputation for being a tireless recruiter and became the recruiting coordinator at Ohio.
"There were some college coaches that knew I wanted to be a head coach," said Balcomb. "We had done well at Providence like winning the BIG EAST. I went back to Ohio and used those experiences and connections I had in Ohio for that one year. I really tried to use that in the interview for Ashland. That helped me get the job. While at Providence I signed some kids from Ohio to play there. I knew I could recruit in the state. It is a huge state with a lot of players.
"My goal was to become a head coach by the time I was 30 years old. And I was 30. I had been an assistant at low Division I and then highest-level Division I at Providence. And I had spent eight years as an assistant coach at different places. I felt like I was ready. I had the experience and took my time. I wasn't in a hurry. I felt confident. When I took the job [Ashland] I had no assistants except for a graduate assistant. I had to do everything that I had done as an assistant plus a head coach. I did all the individual work during the day then I coached in the afternoon and went recruiting and scouting."
Balcomb left Ashland for the head coaching position at Xavier in Cincinnati. Her seven-year record was 135-78 with an appearance in the WNIT (1997-98) and three trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1998-99 (second round), 1999-2000 (first round) and 2000-01 (Elite Eight). That Elite Eight squad was 31-3 on the year.
While in Cincinnati, Balcomb won two Atlantic 10 Tournament championships (2000 and 2001), one regular season championship (2001) and named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year (2001). Balcomb was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. The highlight of her tenure at Xavier was beating Tennessee and Pat Summitt in the Sweet Sixteen to advance to the Elite Eight in 2001.
"We had a really good freshman class that went to postseason in the WNIT one year," said Balcomb. "They went as sophomores and juniors and by the time they were seniors they had played together for four years. They were ready to win at the highest level. We had an incredible year. We opened up our new arena that season [Cintas Center] beating Vanderbilt who had Chantelle Anderson.
"We beat Louisville, Clemson and then we were ready to play Tennessee in the NCAA. I think they were looking past us. They thought they were going to play Purdue or Notre Dame and overlooked us. We played Tennessee in Birmingham and I had no idea at the time that the headquarters of the SEC was in Birmingham. The placed was packed with orange. We had one section from Xavier. We led the whole game and with two minutes to go she [Summitt] put in her walk-ons and stopped fouling so she wouldn't lose by 20 points. We beat them by 15 points. They had [Chamique] Holdsclaw and those people were really good."
When Foster resigned after the 2001-02 season, the Vanderbilt administration went on a massive search across the country to find his replacement. Tom Collen (Colorado State) had been selected, but after 24 hours he resigned due to a discrepancy in his resume. The hiring process was reopened. Balcomb had applied for the job, but was not interviewed.
"My staff [at Xavier] and I were celebrating a birthday for somebody on my staff and they said who would take that job now," said Balcomb. "And I said, `I would.' They looked at me like you are kidding. I said, yes, somebody without an ego. They all laughed insanely and I said it's still a great job. Everybody would know you weren't their first choice and an ego person would not be able to handle that.
"I had played in Division III and coached in Division II. I don't have a big ego. That was the job I wanted. I still felt I was a strong candidate. That's when I started to go after the job. I talked to Brad Bates [Vandy associate athletic director] at length and I felt they should have interviewed me since I had the credentials. I had beaten Pat [Summitt]. And if I beat their rival, why wouldn't I be considered for this job. I remember Brad Bates telling me that they really liked my confidence at that point."
Since arriving on the Vanderbilt campus in 2002, Balcomb has led the Commodores to the NCAA Tournament in each of her 10 coaching seasons. This includes four Sweet Sixteen's, three SEC Tournament championships and ten 20-win seasons. So what does Balcomb attribute her great success as a basketball coach?
"I have to credit my players and staff," said Balcomb. "I think your team is a reflection of yourself when you are the leader. If you ask my family or friends I would hope the first quality they would say about me is that I am consistent. They call me `Steady Eddie.' We've been very good consistently. Now we are trying to go from consistently good to great. We are not trying to be steady; we are trying to be a lot better.
"I think in the next couple of years we have an opportunity to do that particularly because we are getting better players. I've coached some really good players. I think one of the best things we do in this program is develop players. What I needed to do better was recruiting. That's what I've focused on the last two years to go from good to great. We have really focused on the recruiting piece. I think we are doing great things, but we need the next level players to get to the next level."
Of the three SEC Tournament championships (2004, 2007, 2009) the Commodores have won under Balcomb's guidance, one stands out as the most memorable.
"My first SEC championship was definitely my favorite one," said Balcomb. "There were no expectations to win it. We were a young group. The MVP of that tournament was Carla Thomas who was a freshman. That was my first recruiting class Dee Davis and Carla Thomas. They played awesome as freshmen.
"We had a really good mix of freshmen and upper class players with Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager. And we did it in Nashville and had a great crowd. We were down by 22 points at halftime against Georgia. Georgia had beaten Tennessee the night before. They were blowing us out and we came back and won by seven."
Vanderbilt has beaten the perennial SEC and national champions Vols eight times in its history. Balcomb won two of those games in 2009 and 2012--both in Nashville. With those pair of victories over the Lady Vols and the NCAA Tournament appearances, which game stands out to Balcomb as the most memorable game in her time at Vanderbilt?
"I don't know if we've played that game yet," said Balcomb. "I expect to beat Tennessee here. If we ever beat them down there it might be that game, which is what we are trying to do this year. When we've beaten them here twice, I thought that is what we should do. I loved my team that beat Auburn when Auburn won the league one year [2008-09] and we came in second. We beat Auburn twice and the second time for the [SEC Tournament] championship. That was one of the most enjoyable games I've ever had.
"Just because they had the superstar in DeWanna Bonner and we shut her down. They beat everybody, but they couldn't beat us. I don't think there was one great game. I wish I could say it was Tennessee. I haven't felt that way and I'm hoping that game is yet to happen."
There has never been a woman to coach a men's basketball team in NCAA Division I. Those debates surfaced seriously at Tennessee when Summitt's name was mentioned a few times when there was a head coaching vacancy in the men's program. And there are men that coach women's basketball teams. But it could work for a woman to coach a men's team in Division I?
"I don't know why it couldn't," said Balcomb. "Men have dominated athletics over such a long period of time so that change would be difficult. It is like having a woman president. We voted to have a black male before we could have a woman, which there is nothing wrong with that. It's like the first woman thing. They are still afraid to have that first woman. If we had one, and she was successful, then maybe that would open the door to have more. But if Pat [Summitt] wasn't going to be the first, I don't know who is. Nobody has been given that chance. I don't see why it couldn't happen. Just giving someone that opportunity. I don't know."
Vanderbilt is the only private university in the SEC with the smallest enrollment and alumni base. Since the Jim Foster era, Vanderbilt women's basketball has been a prominent team that ranks consistently each year in the Top 25. Balcomb was asked if it is difficult to recruit at Vanderbilt even with its winning tradition.
"Recruiting is tough because you have great academics that people use that against you," said Balcomb. "They say to kids you can't be good at both athletics and academics. If you are a basketball player and you want to be really good and want to play in the WNBA or overseas you don't want academics to be hard. You are 15, 16 or 17 years old making these decisions. You think I want school to be easy so I'm going to school for sports.
"At Vanderbilt you have to get a special kid that is driven academically as well as athletically and is okay working really hard at both. That is a very rare kid. There are not that many kids out there. You're recruiting base is smaller not just because of their test scores or grades that makes it smaller, but then do they want to work hard at both? Do they want to get a great degree or would they rather it be easier in the classroom?
"My recruiting changes when I get transcripts. My recruiting changes when I meet with kids and I figure out do they want to work hard in the classroom and on the court. There are not that many people out there that are Vanderbilt-type kids. The universities we play against can sign any kid that graduates from high school. Our recruiting base is smaller."
In July 2012, Balcomb's contract was extended through 2017. She has averaged 23 wins per season in her 10 years at Vanderbilt. So look for her soon-to-be all-time winning record to quickly increase and last for decades.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber's new book "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History" is available at Amazon.com and area Nashville bookstores. The book includes two chapters on Vanderbilt women's basketball history.