The Volleyball Life with Guest Chris Tamas

Chris McGown: Welcome to the Volleyball Life Podcast from Gold Medal Squared. I’m Chris McGown. Yes, my voice is extra deep this week. I spent a couple of ten-hour gym days back-to-back in Northern Virginia with NVVA and Rodrigo Gomez. I got to coach some fun teams but it’ll do a number on your voice.

In any case, our guest today is Chris Tamas. He’s the new head coach at the University of Illinois. Chris was an assistant with University of Nebraska where they had gone to… they won the National Championship and then were in the final four last year. He’s taken on a new program and he’s the third coach we’re talking to in the series of that, what it’s like to inherit a program and to be there. Chris in his particular case as the first time head coach, and he talks a little bit about that and a little bit about his priorities and his intentions and his approach going into a new program, meeting the athletes and figuring out what the best way to proceed is. We think you’ll love the program. Thanks for joining us and enjoy the show.

All right, welcome back to the Volleyball Life Podcast. I’m Chris McGown. Joining me as we’ve talked about is Chris Tamas, the new head coach at the University of Illinois. Chris, how is it going?

Chris Tamas: I’m doing well. A little busy, a little overwhelmed but it’s been really good.

Chris McGown: I have to imagine… yeah, when you say a little busy, I… for sure know the feeling. I remember the first time I got a head coaching job, just this overwhelming feeling of trying to figure everything out, exactly what’s going on, what’s required. That can get pretty intense.

Chris Tamas: Absolutely. Yeah, I think everyone has always told me. It’s just another world and I just had a baby in January too. That didn’t make it any easier. But it’s the best way I can describe it is you’re having a baby. Everyone tells you how difficult it is that your life is going to change and all the stuff about that. You don’t really realize it until you’re actually given the program and that you need to, like you said, figure all these things out. It’s not just about maybe coaching; you’re working with your small group anymore. All of a sudden, everyone needs your attention and need to address a lot of things administratively and on the court.

All of a sudden you go from having a couple of players and you’re managing your position to having 9, 10, 11 plus people depending on your roster size just taking care of everyone, making sure everyone knows that you’re available and they’re formed.

Chris McGown: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about how this went down. I know obviously having worked a lot with you guys in Nebraska that you were tied in there pretty tightly. You’ve been great for them and they’ve done, from our conversations, a wonderful job of taking care of you there but suddenly now you’re not there. How did that all go down?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. It wasn’t really on my radar, actually. I was at a tournament recruiting with Nebraska a couple of weeks prior to the initial conversation with Illinois and people were asking me, “Hey, are you going to go for the job? Are you looking at this job? That job?” I was like, “No, I’m pretty good and we had a good relationship with John and he was great to us and we have a nice situation just kind of where we are setup.” I just explained and had a little bit more of a limited role. It gave me a lot more time to spend with my family and I was just in a good spot. Obviously, Nebraska is one of the top programs in the country. It’s one of the top programs in the country and we were very comfortable. I got the phone call or I got the email saying, “Hey, would you like to interview?” I told John that I was going to be at Nebraska for extended period of time. I called John… or actually texted them. All I texted them was, “Hey, you have a second,” and he goes, “Is it Illinois or Hawaii?” It’s Illinois. I said, “How do you know this? Did someone call you and tell you they’re going to call me?” He’s like, “No, I just had a feeling they would contact you.” I got the email and John and I talked about and John just said, “Normally, if it was any other job, I would say yeah you should stay here. These jobs don’t open up very often and you should go. You said you’re ready. You should go check it out and see what they have to say.

He really encouraged me to go look at that and went from there. I did phone interview on Tuesday. They flew me out on Wednesday. Interviewed on Wednesday and into Thursday and then they hired me at the end of… or they gave me the offer at the end of Thursday afternoon. From Monday to Thursday, that’s pretty much what was my timeframe period in this job.

Chris McGown: Not…

Chris Tamas: It’s very unexpected.

Chris McGown: Yeah. No time at all, that’s amazing, just a couple of thoughts. Number one is… and you’ll find it out yourself now in a hurry. Part of being a big time program, if you’re the head coach there, the expectation is that your assistants are going to move on. It’s pretty rare that really high quality assistants like you stay in a program for a long period of time because there’s going to be interest from other people. The fact that you guys were able to be together for a few years and do that was pretty special. But yeah, I think that’s just the way of life. In big time college coaching is your assistants are going to move on. I think people are probably prepared for that.

Chris Tamas: Yeah.

Chris McGown: Then the other thought is as you were evaluating the opportunity, they flew you out, what were the meetings like? What were the things that you needed on your end to know or to get a feel for to be able to make this decision? You always want to feel like, “Hey, I know enough now. I can make a good decision based on everything that I’ve got going.” When you went out there, they were trying to learn about you obviously to some degree. But also I think you’re trying to learn about them. What was the things that you were trying to learn?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. I think that the big question I probably met with 15 to 16 different people when I was here, academics, administration, people that work in our medicine department. The question I got from everyone was why Illinois? Why did I want to come here? I answered the way I did and then I kind of reversed it on them. I asked them why Illinois, why should I come here. They gave me some good answers, the answers that I got throughout the whole time was, “Hey, the people here are amazing.” We have a new AD who has been here for a year. They said he has a vision and the way he’s executing it is really good. I think when you’re looking at a program, you want an AD who believes in not only you, but you want someone who’s there for your whole department and will support at every program that you have and will just uplift everyone in the department, not just concerned about volleyball but cares for all sports because it just helps boost the morale and everyone is happy about what they’re doing. It’s a place where everyone wants to be.

I think that was the bigger issue that I was looking at. Like I said, our situation in Nebraska was very comfortable. That was probably the hardest part about leaving Nebraska is that we knew we had a great situation there and we just had to have that same feeling when we came here. Yeah, like I said, it happens. I’m here. I’m glad we did it.

Chris McGown: That’s interesting. I think one of the things that I’ve heard, I don’t know, just when evaluating this kind of job, these opportunities would come up. I’ve heard people give advice to other people about these things. Effectively, some of the advice is are you heading into a situation where you can be successful? For you, I’m going to go and make some assumptions here. For Illinois, it’s got to mean are we in a situation where we can compete for national championships? What were the indicators that that might be the case?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. I think some of the indicators kind of how our recruiting works is we’re way far away from the next class coming in and we’re always looking at that age range. Whether good or bad, that’s just the way it is. You’re looking to what the future plan is for facilities and for what your academic program and you’re always looking at how you can recruit to the area and we’re at a top 10 public institution in the United States in terms of just their overall academics. They excel on business and engineering. They’re very good in those fields. You want to always look at the academic profiles because at the end of the day the players that we coach have to get jobs. Actually, volleyball doesn’t last forever. It’s a big part of what they’re going to do in college. I think the academic portion is a huge chunk. If I were a parent, I would make sure that my son or daughter would take a look at that very seriously when they’re making the decision.

Secondly, I think you’re just looking again what they are looking at to improve your current situation and just what the plans are, what you’re going to do. Not that it needs to be an arms race with facilities and everything like that because it is right now. I just think you just have to feel like you’re supported and you’re going to get what you need to be successful and make sure that you travel and setup properly. Your people that are working here are good in their fields and you’re just looking at the whole package when you’re talking about all that stuff.

I think coming from men’s volleyball, we don’t get a lot in general. I would’ve felt comfortable in a lot of different situations. I feel that that prepared me for being anywhere, really. We’ve bounced around… if you look at my resume; we bounced around quite a bit. It wasn’t ever planned that way. But I’ve worked with some programs that had literally nothing. Then I have also worked at the top where we’ve had everything. The court is still not hundred square feet and that’s still the same height. It’s still the game. It’s some extra stuff here and there. It’s great but I also think it is still about the people and how good the people are that surround you and your program.

Chris McGown: All right. As you got to meet the athletes and started getting about the business of volleyball, what was your process there? What were your priorities?

Chris Tamas: Well, unfortunately, we’re in the transfer area as well. My first priority was obviously to meet the team, the current team and the second priority was to talk to all the recruits that were incoming. We have nine of them this year. We have nine here and we have nine incoming, which is a fairly large group to come in in one year. Luckily, I’ve had to do that twice in my career but once at UC Riverside and once at Cal Poly. I have some experience with that.

Chris McGown: Are all nine incoming freshmen or there are some transfers combined with those nine?

Chris Tamas: All freshmen.

Chris McGown: Nine incoming freshmen, all right.

Chris Tamas: Yeah. Good luck to me. No, it’ll be fun. My first priority was just to say, “Hey, I’m here. I’m the coach. This is what I think about the sport and how we’re going to operate and maybe some certain systems things that we would maybe implement and that I would want to do with them. Then just to address those things to larger group. Then probably right after that, I started connecting with everyone individually to make sure that they’re good and they knew who I was. It wasn’t like, “Hey, are you going to stay?” It was just more like, “Hey, this is what it takes.” I think the good thing about transitioning from Nebraska to here is that I had intimate knowledge of what they did last year, over the last two years and having been in Minnesota before. I knew the system that they were running and I definitely have my ideas of how I would change that and I’ve got to explain that to them. I think they’ve been on board with the changes that we’ve done in the gym. I remember that when I explained it and then we’ve had a few weeks to work with in the gym. We’ve been making improvements, which is great to see. I think that’s a big deal as well. You just make sure everyone feels good about what’s going on. I just have to be there to support them and be available to them if they need to talk to me, so, so far so good.

Chris McGown: Yeah. I was chuckling and thinking to myself like how… you’ve seen all these kids play and you know all their strengths and weaknesses. That must be interesting. You’ve seen hours and hours of film about all of them to go into meetings and go, “Yeah, your slide foot in Ro. five isn’t very good.”

When you went about the process of getting to know the athletes, obviously it’s going to be ongoing. But was there anything deliberate that you specifically, “I want to do this… have this kind of meeting or ask these questions”? Or was it just much more, “Hey, we’re going to put ourselves in close proximity in a room together and just talk and see where it goes”?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. Actually, I had a list of five questions that I came out there. I just want to meet you guys for ten minutes each, so I’m just going to ask you five questions. I think it was… what are the one or two best things about the program, what are the one or two worse things about the program, what do you need from us… what do you need for me as a head coach or us a staff, who are the leaders on this team and what happened… in your opinion, what happen last year? I don’t think, they missed the playoffs and they had a underperforming year. So, I got some of those five questions after observing all of that. I told them, I said, “I would take about two weeks to observe what’s going on here, and then we’ll have meetings as time goes on.” I just kind of addressed bigger issues of… the biggest answer I got from… what are the worse things or what happened last year was lack of trust and communication. I can address that to the whole team. You just go about and you’re trying to attack the important things first and then I think the rest of the stuff will sort out. Yeah. Definitely individually first and then address them as a team-for-team issues.

Chris McGown: Okay. Moving forward… obviously, there’s a lot more to go. When do you guys start your spring block, 20-hour block?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. We’re two weeks away from that. I want to say March 14th/15th week, and whatever that is.

Chris McGown: You’re pretty close to jump into that. What are your priorities as you start moving into that block based on what you’ve seen today and what you know about the athletes? What are the big things that you guys will be working on?

Chris Tamas: Well, I think one is we have a very small group here. We got nine kids. I’ve actually done that at Cal Poly with what we had in spring. I think it’s improving the individual. First, it would be a high priority for me. We have our two-hour week. We’ve done that and we’re just working on technique. We’re not really competing that much right now. Luckily, we do have one person in every position. I have a setter. I have an outside, I have three pin hitters, I’ve got two middles and I’ve got three DSs. Luckily, we have those positions to work on team items. But right now, we’re just working on, “Hey, this is what I want our passing to look like. Let’s make a little more angles here. Let’s get off some of these things that maybe you’ve done before. Blocking wise, we’re probably going to maybe scheme a little bit more than read, attacking wise, let’s have a nice little double arm lift and just emphasizing those things right now and then as we get into full on spring, we’ll put some… probably a lot of situational training to run the gap-go and defend it pretty much and work on that.

Right now it’s just exciting. Like I said an overwhelming side that you get into this job to coach volleyball as you start this. We’re in a big recruiting phase. You have a little time as possible to take up volleyball. You don’t get to plan practice as much as you want to. But I think it’s been good and the girls have been responsive for what we’ve been doing right now.

Chris McGown: When you started looking at filling out your staff, what was your thought process there? What were you looking for in terms of just people that I want around me in terms of skill set, in terms of personality, in terms of abilities, what were the important things for you there?

Chris Tamas: Yeah, I think the best staffs that I’ve been on are just the ones that trust each other the most. We are an example for how we want our team to operate. I want our team to operate with open and honest communication. I need a staff that’s going to have open and honest communication with me. They’re able to see that as something that they can follow. That was probably the biggest thing for me. I was lucky enough that Jason Mansfield was here. He’d been at Stanford for 14, 15 years and I have known him and his brother for about the same amount of time. He luckily had wanted to stay and the girls liked them and it was an easy decision just to retain him so he’s on staff. Then my other assistant coach is they got announced I think five minutes ago. Her name is Rashinda Reed. I played professionally the same year with her in Finland and we met there. We didn’t really hangout that much there, but we started to coaching the same year and as we went along our coaching past, we had connected over philosophy of how to operate within teams and style of play and some other things.

I think she’ll be a great recruiting coordinator for me. She’s very personable and she’s very organized. I think that will help me a lot too. Our DataVolley or Davo is Jenni Bolduc who used to help out with the national team back in 2011 and ’12, I believe. As you know, my wife was on the national team, Jen Tamas or Jen Joins at that time. We have some familiarity with her. That’s great because I just think it helps and I know she’s very good at what she does. She also will tell you like it is, which is great to have. Who’s going to fill out my staff was going to be my wife, Jen. She’s going to be our volunteer assistant. We always tell people we got the best volunteer system in the country. She was 2008 Olympian and obviously I trust her more than anyone. It’ll be a nice staff in that regard.

Chris McGown: Yeah. Speaking of volunteer coaches, it was always… I always wondered a little bit about that when I was at BYU because I wondered if they really just wanted my dad that came as the volunteer assistant or if they wanted me. You’ve got to be asking yourself, “Did they really just wanted Jen in here or do they actually want me?”

Chris Tamas: Yeah. Well, you have a valid question. My answer is I don’t care.

Chris McGown: Yeah. It doesn’t matter. Yeah.

Chris Tamas: It doesn’t matter. I think you’re just looking at trying to do the best you can with what you got. I think Jen and I together, again, it just goes to as a good example. If I was outside looking in, I’d say, yeah, as a married couple we’re not working full time together. There’s no concern where we’re going to go off on our own. We’re very aware of that when we’re working together too. We’re not married when we coach, believe me. We’re good enough about separating that out. But I think it’s also good and healthy for the team to see an example of a healthy relationship. Again, if I’m an outsider looking in or if I’m the parent looking for someone to come here to Illinois, then, hey, I would want to send my daughter to the situation where you have a married couple working and obviously showing how communication and ultimately love should work.

Chris McGown: That’s awesome. As you get going here with the new staff, are you guys doing anything in terms of just trying to become better as a staff together? Any kind of, for a lack of a better word, management training or just… I hate these terms, team building, that sort of thing. But if nothing else, just trying to learn more about each other and do things. You’re doing anything deliberate on that end?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. I think right now it’s just we’re in the phase of getting to know each other on a deeper level and just hanging out. It’s going on recruiting trips and going to have dinner and meeting together for maybe a couple of drinks later at night and just talking shop, really. I always think the best way to do it is put people who have the same passion in the same room and let them go. It’s not really, “Hey, we need to talk about this.” We’re in the office for decent amount of hours but we get a lot of work done and then we meet after hours and that’s when we actually talk about a lot of things that we’re going to do. At some point, we are going to sit down and talk about, “Hey, what terminology we’re going to use? Just make sure we’re talking the same way, give them the same message, keep me posted on the meetings with players or anything like that. But for right now, it’s just… let’s be united in our passion for the sport right now.

Chris McGown: All right. Fun stuff. Well, I really appreciate your time. I know you’re getting after busy here. Yeah. Where can we find out more about Illinois volleyball?

Chris Tamas: Yeah. You come to our website. I believe it’s Fightingillini.com and follow me on Twitter @Coach Tamas and try to keep it. I try to keep it fun on Twitter. Some of the girls are…driving them a little bit on Twitter. You can follow me there. Yeah, I think now that we’re in age of information. So, there’s a lot of stuff out there that you can follow us at Illini Volleyball for Twitter and everything else that’s out there. Yeah, just take a look. If you want to contact me and say hi, I’m ctamas@Illinois.edu, and that’s T-A-M-A-S. Just so we’re not confused. Yeah, I’m just excited for everything and I appreciate the time. The more we can get the word out there about us and who we are, it’s good for us and good for the sport. I appreciate the time and I know you guys have done a lot for me over the course of my coaching career as well. I appreciate you guys doing this.

Chris McGown: Yeah. When I heard about this, I was really, really excited for you. I can’t wait to see all the good stuff that’s going to happen up there and looking forward to… yeah, just watching you and seeing it go. Thanks again for your time. Yeah, best of luck. We’ll be in touch.

Chris Tamas: All right. I appreciate, Chris.

Chris McGown: Yeah. See you!

Chris McGown: If you want more podcast, video, articles and other volleyball instructional resources, you can find us at Goldmedalsquared.com, on our YouTube channel, on Facebook, Instagram and on Twitter. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the latest interviews, news and other promotions. Thanks for listening and we hope to meet you in person at one of our camps or clinics.