Stage is set for a trophy Horns can dig
Texas, long on the elite level, is eager to shed that also-ran label.
the Oct. 8 regular-season match in Louisville had special meaning.
It wasn’t because Jerritt Elliott’s Longhorns had some great rivalry with the Cardinals. Elliott arranged that match in the 22,000-seat KFC Yum Center because it’s the venue for this year’s Final Four.
He was correct to plan ahead, because his Texas volleyball teams have been among the most consistent in the country. At most schools, he would be celebrated for that consistency. But Texas isn’t most schools. At Texas, championships are celebrated and runners-up are merely debated.
Elliott has most of the credentials that matter. Eight consecutive Elite Eights. Four Final Fours now, over the past five seasons. And a bevy of AllAmericans who have come through his program. But there’s one thing missing: a national championship.
Three times in the previous four years, the Longhorns made it to the Final Four. And three times they returned to Austin without the hardware. That monkey on his back is getting heavier.
“How many times do you have to go to a Final Four before it goes from a monkey to a gorilla?” Elliott asked reporters Monday.
There are no guarantees of making it to the national semifinals year in and year out, and Elliott’s players fully understand the stakes. They also know how much a championship would mean to their head coach, who has been denied a title time and time again.
“I think it’s pretty big for him,” said middle blocker
The AllCentex Volleyball Team,
A list of this season’s all-district selections,
Khat Bell. “He expects a lot out of us, and that’s to perform as much as he liked to coach us the entire season. We’re going in with our heads level because we’ve worked our butts off the entire season.”
Texas (27-4) has breezed through the NCAA tournament and has lost only one set en route to this week’s Final Four. There is enough experience on this club to believe, once again, that this could be the year. The No. 3-seeded Horns will be favored to beat firsttime national semifinalist Michigan to advance to the finals against either top-seeded Penn State or Oregon.
But will the weekend in Louisville be one of first-time celebration or familiar frustration? Elliott follows sports and knows he’s not the first coach to struggle before finally breaking through to win it all. He identifies with basketball’s Roy Williams, who coached Kansas to four Final Fours, falling short each time before eventually winning two titles at North Carolina.
There’s something to be said for getting there, even on a title-hungry campus that views championships as a true mark of success.
I asked Elliott if the accomplishment of consistently making it to Final Fours and Elite Eights can sometimes be overlooked in the quest for national championships.
“It’s a great point,” he said. “I wish the media would focus on that sometimes.”
At the same time, he understands the difference between being really good and being great. Until Elliott wins a title, he will be considered a really good coach.
“Obviously, you want to win, but you’ve got to take some reflection about watching your women grow and developing into confident young women, learning how to communicate and being happy in who they are,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for, ultimately.
“Yes, the wins and losses — that’s why we’re here at Texas, obviously— but you look at what the big scope and what the important picture on this is.”
Texas has come oh so close to bringing it home on several occasions, particularly the 2009 club, which had unbeaten Penn State down two sets to none. Alas, the Horns couldn’t hold the lead, and the Nittany Lions roared back to win in five. Losing 15-13 in the fifth set that night in Tampa — that’s the one moment that gets the most replays in Elliott’s mind.
“Obviously, you think about it because you want to learn from those experiences,” he said. “I’ve thought about it in the past, but it has no bearing on what we’re doing now. It’s a different team. And we’ll be prepared.”
The one thing a coach must do is not tweak a process too much when a program gets so close to winning. Aside from moving the team to a hotel closer to the tournament venue, Elliott has stuck with basically the same schedule as past Final Fours. His team is comfortable with the expectations and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. After a huge win over USC in the regional final, the celebration was tame. Just hugs and high fives. They know the mission is far from over.
“They’re sick of getting there and not winning,” Elliott said.
Getting there may be half the fun, but Elliott knows it’s no longer fun to come back emptyhanded. It’s time to take the next step and win one.