Collen's return big deal for media, not Commodores

Tom Collen, who spent one day as Vanderbilt's women's basketball coach in 2002, brings his Louisville team to Nashville Friday, as Vanderbilt hosts a two-day tournament at Memorial Gym. The Commodores (2-0) open Friday with a first-round matchup vs. Samford at 2 pm CT, followed by Princeton-Louisville at 4 pm.

The Vanderbilt Tournament to be held Friday and Saturday in Memorial Gym features four teams: Samford (2-0), Princeton (0-1), Louisville (1-2), and Vanderbilt (2-0). It also features an abundance of story lines.

The roster of Samford University, Vanderbilt's first-round opponent, features six players from Tennessee, including three from the Nashville area. Freshman forward Veronica Pike played at Franklin Road Academy; freshman guard Tish Pilkerton played at Father Ryan; and sophomore guard Chelsee Insell played for the Green Wave of Gallatin.

Head Coach Melanie Balcomb has a family connection to Princeton. She grew up in New Jersey, and her father, who coached high school boys' basketball for 30 years, was also an assistant coach in the men's program at Princeton University for four years under Pete Carrill.

But the irresistible story line for Nashville media and fans is the return to Nashville of Tom Collen. Collen, who was hired and un-hired as the women's basketball coach in a span of 48 hours in May 2002, is now the head coach at the University of Louisville, the fourth team participating in the tournament.

Collen was one of the central figures in the protracted coaching search that followed former coach Jim Foster's departure to Ohio State, following Vanderbilt's Elite Eight finish in the NCAA tournament in April, 2002.

A coaching vacancy at a perennially strong program in the SEC naturally attracted attention, but as the search dragged out into the slow news season in the sports world, it became attractive fodder for Internet message boards, sports talk on the radio, and the local press.

It appeared that the drama was at an end when former Director of Athletics Todd Turner announced the hiring of Tom Collen, the head coach at Colorado State University.

But the peace was short-lived. Within 24 hours of Collen's hiring, The Tennessean newspaper published a printed copy of an old resume, which was at odds with the credentials he described at the press conference announcing his hiring. As quickly as he had arrived, he was gone.

The buzz on the Internet and on the airwaves became a roar, as Vanderbilt started the search for a new head coach once again, which ultimately resulted in the hiring of Melanie Balcomb four weeks later.

Given that history, it's perfectly natural that fans and members of the Nashville media would be thinking about Tom Collen's return to Nashville.

But if you ask Head Coach Melanie Balcomb where it stands on the list of things she's thinking about this weekend, it isn't low on the list. It isn't on the list at all.

"I'm just worried about getting our freshmen ready to play their first home game and getting ready to play Samford on Friday," said Balcomb after practice on Wednesday. "It's just about us right now."

Senior captain Hillary Hager (right) says that the players aren't thinking about it either.

"There had been talk previously before the season started," says Hager. "When he first got the job there, it was like, whoa, he's coaching there and we could possibly play them in our tournament.

"But as to that being in our minds right now, no, no one's brought it up, no one's thought about that, but what is in our mind is the fact that we want to beat Samford on Friday so we have a chance to play Louisville-- if they win their game-- because they kicked our butts last year at their place. That's definitely on our minds."

It isn't surprising that the team isn't thinking about Collen or his brief tenure at Vanderbilt. Out of the 14 players currently on Vanderbilt's roster, only six of them were enrolled at Vanderbilt at the time. And since the spring semester was winding down when he was hired, all but three had already left town.

"I had a final exam so I couldn't attend the press conference, but Abi, Ashley Earley, Ashley McElhiney and I had met with him briefly prior to that press conference," says Hager. "Very briefly."

With the final exams approaching and the new basketball season just getting underway, there's plenty of other stuff to occupy their thoughts this week.

"We only have a week and a half left of school, and teachers tend to pile stuff on," says Hager. "And the final stretch is a lot of final papers and presentations in addition to your final exam. So people have a lot of work now."

And after struggling to two wins in Vermont last weekend, Hager and her teammates are looking forward to their first two home games this weekend.

"I think we're going to play a lot looser," she says. "Those first two games weren't pretty but we made a lot of improvements from the first game to the second game defensively, doing some things that we've been practicing that we just didn't do in the first game.

"And I think we're looking to have fun, to play with confidence and get it done defensively in our matchup and in our man, and then just to play kind of free on offense, not to play uptight And I think we'll do that. It's our home court, and we love to play there."

The tournament opens on Friday with a first-round matchup between Vanderbilt and Samford University at 2 pm CT, followed by Princeton versus Louisville at 4 pm.

The losers of the first round game will play on Saturday at 1 p.m., followed by the championship game at 3 p.m. Top Stories