Approximately six short months ago, Vanderbilt's women's basketball program was in a state of turmoil-- or at least one might have presumed so by reading the VandyMania women's basketball message board. The tumultuous month of May, 2002 brought a stream of traffic on the forum not seen before nor since. (Honestly, to read some of those near-hysterical posts, you'd have thought that Vanderbilt might have to shut down the entire program and board up Memorial Gym.)
It all started, you'll recall, when Vanderbilt Director of Athletics Todd Turner brought in Colorado State's Tom Collen, with great fanfare, to replace the departed Jim Foster. The star-crossed Collen held the job for all of one day-- once a local newspaper discovered that Collen had (ahem) enhanced his resume, the school forced him to resign. The search for a new coach, which seemed to fans to have taken an inordinately long time to complete, was back on again.
Six months after the May maelstrom, I am pleased to report that the clouds have lifted, and the sun is once again shining brightly over stately Memorial Gym. The painful period had a happy ending. Turner, who was able to keep his head when all around were losing theirs, stuck to his methodical hiring process. Ultimately he found his ma-- er, woman in the person of Xavier University's Melanie Balcomb.
Mention women's basketball around McGugin Center these days, and all you'll get is smiles. The air is thick with eager anticipation. Six short months after the fiasco that some fans thought had surely wrecked the program, no one associated with the women's hoops program is giving any thought to resumes... they're thinking strictly about resuming. As in, getting on with the business left unfinished last March in Ames, Iowa.
"It was very difficult not having a coach for a long time," says 6-6 Naismith Award candidate Chantelle Anderson. "But we're done with it. We ended up with a coach that we're very happy with, and that was the end of that."
The reasons why Foster would up and leave a Top Ten program for Ohio State after 11 great seasons are as mystifying now as they were six months ago. What's clear, however, is that Foster left behind some talent for his successor. He left behind a team that won 30 games and an SEC Tournament Championship in 2001-02... a team fresh off two straight trips to the Elite Eight... and a team that includes, in Anderson and Ashley McElhiney, two of the finest seniors ever to play for the school.
Balcomb will be the first to admit that she will be the beneficiary this year of Foster's sustained success-- but along with it, of course, comes the burden of high expectations. And along with this unique opportunity to coach at Vanderbilt came a unique challenge for Balcomb-- that of winning the hearts a tightly-knit group of young women who were used to doing things a certain way.
"When we finally got a coach, we were very happy, but we were also very nervous," said Anderson. "We didn't know what to expect at all. Coach Balcomb has done a great job of coming in and making us feel comfortable and letting us get to know her."
"Once the decision was made, and was final, there was only so much dwelling on it you can do," said diminutive point guard Ashley McElhiney, who seemed to have almost a Vulcan mind-meld relationship with Foster. "You have to take that next step.
"I had an open mind about the transition. Coach Balcomb made it so easy for me to have that same relationship with her that I had with Coach Foster. Every day we're around her, we learn more and more."
Make no mistake, the players had some huge adjustments to make. The team will have an entirely new look and feel under Balcomb. Gone is Foster's staid, patient halfcourt offense that sometimes slowed the pace to a crawl. Where Foster's offensive strategy was to apply the brakes... Balcomb wants to step on the accelerator. It's an up-tempo approach that should bring more energy to Ingram Court, more playing time for reserves, and more excitement for fans.
"There are some similarities," points out McElhiney. "We're going to be running, yes, but if the shot's not there, then we're going to run our half-court set. We're still going to be a half-court team. We're still going to be a structured team, not just running wild, and free to do whatever. I think everyone will probably put up more shots than last year. That's the goal with the running game-- if you have an open shot, you take it."
Some five months after accepting the job, Balcomb, though still learning her way around Memorial, has jumped in with both feet. She has taken a no-nonsense, highly professional approach to running the team-- though she's not afraid to have a little fun occasionally. She has made a splash with fans. She wowed the press at SEC Media Days. She has taken her team on an unforgettable European trip. She has landed an initial recruiting class which at least two pundits have proclaimed the best in the nation (probably the first time that's ever happened for a Vanderbilt team in any sport).
Perhaps most importantly, she seems to buy innately into the Vanderbilt ideals of academic, athletic and social excellence.
Balcomb won't be another Jim Foster, nor will she attempt to be. All she has asked of her players is that they give her a chance to win a place in their hearts. And that's all she asks of fans.
Oh yes, there are likely to be snags along the way, but the initial indicators are all good. The players have handled the difficult transition with the dignity and maturity one would expect of a group of Vanderbilt student-athletes.