Sept. 16, 2010
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida State University women’s volleyball coach Chris Poole reinvigorated a struggling Seminoles program when he took over as head coach in 2008. Known for turning around an FSU squad that was once an afterthought, Poole’s honorary evening this Friday night proves that he is a man who has worked near-miracles before.
On Friday night, the down-to-earth, successful innovator will be recognized as one of four members being inducted into the Arkansas State University Hall of Fame, being honored for his ability to breathe life into a sport that used to have no meaning in the Razorback State.
Poole’s journey to coaching consummation began as head coach at Arkansas State in 1987. It was his second head job after leaving Arkansas Tech after one season, and the year certainly was a learning experience for one of the youngest mentors in Division I volleyball. Like many successful coaches, Poole endured his share of growing pains in his first season coaching ASU.
“At the time I was hired the third week of July in 1987,” Poole said. “I was one of — if not the youngest — Division I head volleyball coaches in the country. This was before the day of e-mail, facebook and cell phones. I literally had to leave messages with parents on when we were starting practice in August of that season.”
Much like the mid-1980s technology, Poole’s penchant for winning and bringing in better recruits evolved over time. However, the development period for the ASU volleyball program was much sooner than expected, with Poole guiding the Indians (now known as the Red Wolves) to a stunning 41-1 record in his second year. The incredible surge marked a 33-win improvement from an 8-24 season before, believed to be one of the largest turnarounds in collegiate volleyball history.
What made the feat even more impressive was that the little-known ASU program had never finished over .500 before Poole’s arrival. The head coach who now sports 610 career victories changed the identity of the sport by simply changing the way things were done.
“The focus had primarily been on recruiting in-state and bordering states,” Poole said about his predecessors’ tactics. “They had never spent much time recruiting nationally. I made the decision to open up the recruiting to go after the best players throughout the country, rather than limiting it to only the best in the area. We were still lucky that there were a few great players in the area at the time that we were able to keep home, but we also mixed in a healthy group of players throughout the country that took our volleyball IQ on the court to a completely different level.”
It seems that any team can show a marked improvement over the course of a year, but the true measure of building a winning program is sustaining that success. Poole proved that he could continuously lead ASU to both American South and Sun Belt Conference championships, averaging 40 wins over the next four years.
Although Poole’s program was making plenty of headway throughout the state, ASU was forced to fight for national respect when it came to the NCAA postseason. Poole’s stint in the American South Conference (1987-90) and Sun Belt Conference (1991-92) originally meant no automatic bids, providing a major roadblock for a team that defeated some of the country’s best competition annually.
“During that time period, only 32 teams made the NCAA Tournament,” Poole added. “Most of those bids were going to teams west of Colorado as volleyball was biggest on the west coast during that time period. About half of those were automatic bids, so there were only about 15 at-large berths from 1988-1991. Although we were knocking off Top 25 teams every year, there were just so few spots open to make the tournament.”
Poole’s relentless effort in guiding his teams to conference titles and nationally-renowned wins finally made the NCAA committee take notice. As ASU amassed 40-plus wins from 1988-89 and a 39-win campaign in 1990, the program was at least welcomed with open arms to the NIVC, a 16-team consolation field that is similar to the NIT format in college basketball.
But another breakthrough occurred in 1992, when ASU’s consistency against the rest of the country’s top teams led to the program’s first automatic NCAA postseason berth after yet another conference title.
“Of the 16 matches played (in the 1992 postseason), we went to Long Beach State for the first round and while we did not win the match, we were the only match in the first round of the tournament that went four games,” Poole stated. “It was a competitive match and served notice nationally that volleyball was improving in the South.”
Much like his teams at FSU and Arkansas (1994-2007), Poole prides himself on playing one of the country’s tougher schedules. He held that same philosophy in guiding ASU’s immeasurable turnaround, looking to play the country’s best programs no matter where they were.
“We were never afraid to play a tough schedule. We drove everywhere we played at the time, so if we had a conference match at Lamar (in Beaumont, Texas), we would also play a match that weekend with Top 25 Houston,” Poole said. “If we were playing Western Kentucky in a match, we would drive over the same weekend and play Kentucky and Louisville (both Top 25 teams at the time).
“While we only had the money to drive, we always went out of our way to pick up the best competition in the area while we were playing conference matches. It was not easy on the players, but it was the only way to pick up the top level teams. They would not come to Arkansas State for fear of being upset. If we wanted to play them, we had to find a way to schedule them mixed in with our conference traveling, which meant at times even playing those matches the night before we would play a best conference match.”
The enormous sacrifice paid huge dividends for Poole and the program, which increased its scholarship total from 4.0 in his first season to around seven when he left in 1992. He also gained an appreciation for his line of work when he handled nearly every task involved in an athletic program, from trainer to equipment duties.
“I had no full time assistant coach,” Poole remembered. “I washed the laundry, bought the equipment, drove the bus when needed, and taped ankles. I was lucky when I added a Graduate Assistant during my last two years at ASU and had a student trainer that started traveling. It was a humble beginning for a young coach and I was very blessed with players that would run through the wall for the program.”
And now his gratifying journey at ASU culminates with a celebrated induction into the school’s Hall of Fame. As the school’s career coaching leader in winning percentage, Poole is more than grateful for his six seasons at ASU that helped pave the way for what has been a fulfilling coaching career thus far.
“Most coaches think of the Hall of Fame as an honor they receive at the end of their career or in the last place they coach,” Poole added. “I am very honored that Arkansas State was willing to give me my first Division I position and that they think enough of the program we built to place me in their Hall of Fame. I learned a lot about coaching, winning and building relationships during those six years.”