Oct. 8, 2013
By Pete LaFleur (’90)
Very few athletes have the chance to achieve their dreams before the age of 25. Debbie Brown – who has spent nearly 25 seasons as head coach of the Notre Dame women’s volleyball program – is one such person.
Sort of, with one big caveat.
As a 22-year old, in the fall of 1979, Brown (then Debra Landreth) and her U.S. National teammates had secured a spot in the 1980 Olympic field. No previous American women’s volleyball team had formally qualified for the Olympics. Not only were the 15 players poised to realize their personal dreams, they also were destined to be an inspiration for the nation’s amateur sports movement.
Those dreams received a surprising jolt on Jan. 23, 1980. It was then that President Jimmy Carter informed the nation, and the world, that he had issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union: the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month.
That month passed, and so did another. In mid-March, Carter reaffirmed the intended boycott. Brown and her teammates still held out hope that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) could broker a compromise, or that possibly the war in Afghanistan would take a favorable shift.
American athletes ultimately endured a painstaking, three-month period in limbo, training all the while as they hoped against hope that the boycott could be averted. But in mid-April, the USOC voted to uphold Carter’s mandate. The American athletes would be staying home, thousands of miles from Moscow, where their Olympic dreams should have played out.
Game over, before the Games even began.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
The 1980 boycott – understandingly Brown’s “most disappointing event of my athletic career, we all were just crushed” – has left lingering scars for all those it affected. But, refreshingly so, Brown’s post-boycott story is one that is not tinged by bitterness; rather, it is a story of faith, friendship and family. It is a story that pumps out inspiration, not depression.
It’s a story that needs to be fully appreciated, in order to understand the path that Brown took en route to arriving at Notre Dame back in the summer of 1991.
Fast forward 22 years beyond the boycott, on a brisk early January day in South Bend. Brown – bundled up in an all-white official issue jogging suit, with matching gloves and knit cap – was front and center on the edge of the Notre Dame campus. Selected to participate in the ceremonial 2002 Olympic Torch Relay, Brown took her turn in transporting the iconic symbol of the eternal flame, participating in the tradition-rich event, as a former Olympian. Her parents and other family members, including sons Connor and Ryan (now both students at Notre Dame), were on hand to witness the special moment.
“To share that with family and friends was a great thrill,” says Brown. “Obviously, anything involving the Olympics is a big deal to me.”
Buoyed by a deep faith that first took root during her collegiate days at USC, Brown’s trust in a higher power provided solace during the post-boycott fallout. She also clung to an enduring appreciation for all that she and her teammates already had achieved up to that point.
“The boycott was a valuable lesson that there is so much we don’t have control over,” explains Brown, a co-captain on that 1980 U.S. team. “I had things all planned out and playing in the Olympics was part of that. But my plans did not line up with what happened, and I learned to have trust and faith in God.
“In my heart I will always wonder, because I truly believe we would have medaled. But I’m not bitter. The relationships with my teammates and the journey we took together was phenomenal and I learned a lot about myself, teamwork and perseverance.”
Young at Heart, Strong in Faith
Despite being nearly 40 years removed from her high school graduation, Brown still maintains her trademark youthful spirit and an undying sense of adventure. On team visits to Hawaii, she always has been a big fan of tooling around the island on mopeds. Recently for a couple years, she even brought her own form of transportation – often packing a longboard skateboard in her checked baggage.
“On some longer road trips, Debbie and [current associate head coach] Robin Davis sometimes would go skateboarding if we had had some down time. No way, I never tried it, too afraid I was going to fall and hurt myself,” laughs Chantal Porter, now in her 17th season working with the women’s volleyball program’s as its athletic trainer.
“One thing about Deb all these years is that she is so very young at heart and is really about making the experience good for the players. She leads by example and doesn’t shy away from getting in there and doing the things they do. When we were in Slovenia, there was a team-bonding exercise and you had to climb up a pole and stand on top of it. Debbie was the first one to step up and do that.
“She just does a great job encouraging the players to get out of their comfort zone, so they can experience so many great things.”
A trademark Brown moment kicked off the team’s 2006 arrival in Hawaii. The travel party had departed South Bend at 5:00 a.m., arriving in the islands some 14 hours later (mid-afternoon local time). With most of the group dragging their heels, ready for a nap, Brown was overflowing with energy and ready to greet the day. The team hit the beach and Brown was the group’s clear-cut best surfer, outshining her varsity athletes, all of them nearly 30 years younger than their vibrant coach.
Brown was raised in the Methodist religion but “did not go to church very much through her high school years.” That all changed during her playing career at USC, when some teammates and other friends helped her redefine her faith.
“While at USC, I started to gain a greater understanding for the fundamentals of the Christian faith,” says Brown. “I wanted to grow within my religion and it has been a continual development. I made a profession of faith and commitment that has sustained me throughout my life.”
Over the course of Brown’s coaching career, she has been involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and as a Young Life supporter and local committee member. “I’ve always felt it’s important to support young people to stand strong in their faith, stand up for what they believe in and make good choices when going through high school and college, because those can be tough times.”
A Coach and a Friend
Her former players also value the aspects of Brown’s personality cherished by her longtime friends. Back in the late 1990s, standout outside hitter Jaimie Lee (’98) was shifted to setter during her junior season, after the team’s lone setter had suffered a season-ending injury.
“I had never played setter in my life, but Debbie believed in me and my capabilities as a player blossomed because of it,” says Lee.
“The belief Debbie had in me didn’t just impact the player, it changed the person. I learned values from her that I’m not sure I could have learned from anyone else: growing in the `uncomfortable zone,’ being committed to and trusting a process, and installing the belief that I could demand more of myself than I ever knew was possible.”
Brown and Lee’s relationship as coach and player has evolved into simply becoming two close, adult friends.
“Debbie `walks the talk’ as a woman of faith and it emanates in everything she does. She carries herself with great humility and honesty and is a tremendous role model,” says Lee. “I hope in my own life to pay it forward and be the type of mentor to someone else that Debbie has been to me.
“When I look back on every storm I’ve walked through in my life, Debbie has been there with a patient ear, words of encouragement and sometimes even tough love. It’s the sign of a genuine friend when they can share in the highs but not abandon you in the lows. Debbie has absolutely been a rock of a friend.”
Dropping the Hammer
You may not know it by looking at her now, but back in the day Debbie Landreth-Brown could smack the volleyball with authority. The 5-foot-8 right side hitter regularly delivered spikes that left indelible marks on the memories – and bodies – of opponents and teammates alike.
“Deb was hands-down the hardest American hitter of that era. The power she could muster up in that skinny arm was unreal,” says former teammate and longtime close friend Laurie Flachmeier Corbelli, now the head coach at Texas A&M. “My husband John used to scrimmage with us, and he was afraid that Deb was gonna take his head off.
“A few years earlier when he played at UCSB, John would drive down to USC to watch Deb’s team play. He was so amazed at their skill level and power. They dominated.”
All successful marriages can be traced to common bonds and obstacles overcome. For John and Laurie Corbelli, they shared one unique, frightful experience during the 1970s: staring down an incoming volleyball blast from Debbie Landreth.
“I blocked Deb once, which was a miracle in itself,” says Laurie Corbelli. “But the ball hit my elbow so hard that I was out of practice for about two weeks with an injury.”
Brown credits her background as a softball catcher with developing “a really strong arm,” in addition to helping with leg strength. “Those two benefits from softball really helped me to become a strong, good volleyball player,” she says.
Former teammate Sue Woodstra – who was Brown’s “pepper” (warm-up) partner for five years – always was challenged when on the other side of the net. “It was a test of courage to block or dig a ball Deb hit, because she hit with such power,” says Woodstra. “She also was a tough player, extremely competitive and a great leader.”
Corbelli’s appreciation for her former teammate and longtime close friend goes beyond her thunderous hitting. “These days, most players specialize but Deb was one of the best all-around players of that time,” says the current Aggies coach.
“Deb was a great defender, passer, attacker, blocker, server, you name it. She was competing against the best in the world as a teenager in high school, and it’s believed that one doesn’t peak in our sport until their 30s – amazing.”
It All Started in “The Second”
Debra Landreth grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo, located a couple miles north of Manhattan Beach and south of Los Angeles International Airport. The youngest of Charlie and Dorothy Landreth’s five children, she was not the only El Segundo product who went on athletic stardom – as future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett was a 1971 graduate of El Segundo High School (the eventual Kansas City Royals third baseman was a senior when the youngest Landreth kid was a freshman).
Organized sports for young girls were fairly limited during the late 1960s. In her early days, Deb Landreth gravitated to softball and was a star catcher in the local Bobby Sox league. She did not begin playing organized volleyball until her freshman year of high school and then picked up basketball as a sophomore.
It did not take long for volleyball to supplant softball as her favorite sport.
“Softball was too static, and in basketball, truth to told, too much running,” laughs Brown, whose current Notre Dame roster includes four Californians, among them 2011 El Segundo High School graduate Toni Alugbue.
“I found volleyball to be the most challenging, I never got bored with it. I loved the combination of being explosive, quick and strong, and I enjoyed understanding the different strategies.”
Today’s California youth volleyball scene is brimming with elite-level clubs, allowing year-round play. In Landreth’s youth, there was no such club network to supplement player development. Regular summer camps sponsored by area colleges were years away. And beach volleyball? – there was nothing approaching the competitiveness and organization of today’s scene in the southern California sand.
Despite that scarcity of opportunity, Landreth fortuitously managed to catch the “volleyball fever” during the summer of 1972. It was then that the future collegiate national player of the year attended a regional camp sponsored by the United States Volleyball Association (USVBA).
It was then that the seed was planted. It was the birth of an Olympic dream.
Catching the Fever
The summer of 1972 coincided with the XX Olympiad, being held in Munich. Even though the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball teams had failed to qualify, there still was excitement that came with any Olympic year. And there even was a former Olympian who spoke to Landreth and her fellow summer campers.
“[Mike O’Hara] had competed with the U.S. men’s volleyball team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and he spoke to us about what an honor it was to represent the U.S.,” recalls Brown.
“He was so passionate, telling us about that feeling when you put on the Team USA jersey. His words really inspired me. I told myself that’s what I wanted to do.”
The director of that summer camp was a young upstart, Marv Dunphy, who a year later would begin his 40-year coaching career with the Pepperdine men’s volleyball program. Dunphy later coached the U.S. men’s team that won the 1988 Olympic gold medal.
Landreth’s love for volleyball continued to grow and she returned to the USVBA Region 13 camp in 1973. It was then, 40 years ago, that she met fellow promising player Woodstra. The two have remained the closest of friends – “like sisters,” says Brown – over the past four decades.
During the ensuing senior season, the future Debbie Brown began to plot her future within the sport. The spunky rightside hitter led El Segundo into the 1973 CIF state playoffs, where she unknowingly was taking part in an audition of sorts. Members of USA Volleyball were at the CIF event, essentially on a recruiting trip to begin assembling candidates for what the first women’s volleyball junior national team.
Shortly thereafter, in November of 1973, Landreth tried out and was named for that initial junior national team (as was Woodstra), earning one of the 10 prized roster spots from a 125-player pool. That inaugural team trained locally with coach Chuck Erbe, competing in area adult leagues and even in Canada and Mexico. Half of the 10 – team captain Landreth, Woodstra, setter Debbie Green, Terry Place and Carolyn Becker – remained teammates in later years, both at USC and with the full national team.
Taking Things to Another Level
Brown and her siblings always had full support and encouragement from their parents, but it took Charlie Landreth a while to get the swing of what high-level volleyball was all about.
“My dad’s vision of the sport was more limited to family reunions and picnic volleyball,” laughs Brown. “Once my dad got to really understand volleyball, he appreciated why I liked it so much. He saw the high skill level and was impressed with how we were progressing. He became a huge fan.”
A couple months after graduating from El Segundo in 1974, Landreth earned a tryout for the full U.S. National Team. Not yet old enough to vote, the 17-year-old earned a spot on the team that placed 12th at the 1974 World Championship in Mexico. Landreth, Woodstra and Green comprised the core members, along with Paula Dittmer, Leslie Knudsen and Roxanne Elias. Others on the ’74 roster included future U.S. National Team members Laurel Brassey, Colleen Boyd and Lisa Vogelsang.
With no established year-round national team training, Landreth returned to the junior national program in 1975 and enrolled at USC in the fall of ’76. Another important chapter in her life was about to begin.
Brown ultimately spent only three semesters at USC, before joining the national team for the new year-round training. But those two collegiate seasons – encompassing the 1976 and ’77 AIAW national championships – remain legendary to this day (NCAA competition for women did not begin until ’81).
Landreth had plenty of familiar faces around her at USC, with Green – widely regarded as the greatest setter in U.S. women’s volleyball history – running a 1977 offense that also included Dittmer and Place. One year later, they were joined at USC by four more members of the fledgling junior national team: Woodstra, Becker, Lynne Luedke and Star Clark. Erbe served as head coach, providing an even smoother transition.
The 1976 and ’77 USC teams combined to compile a 72-1 record, with the 1977 team (38-0) being the only unbeaten collegiate women’s national champion until the Misty May-led 1998 Long Beach State squad. Landreth received the collegiate game’s highest honor, as 1976 Mikasa Best All-Around player of the year, and repeated that lofty status in ’77.
Brown’s first season at USC included an historic win over rival UCLA, in the famed L.A. Sports Arena. A previously unheard-of large crowd, numbering 3,000-plus, was on hand to see the Women of Troy beat the Bruins for the first time in program history.
Later in ’76, USC beat UCLA again to claim the national title, with the Green-to-Brown combination besting a Bruins squad that included fellow national-team player Knudsen, plus other stars such as Terry Condon and Nina Grouwinkel Mathies (now in her 31st season as head coach at Pepperdine).
Landreth had trained with the U.S. National Team during the summer of 1977, interestingly in a town named Pasadena … Texas. The team trained in the L.A. area for a couple months in 1980, before moving the entire operation. The destination: Colorado Springs, and the Olympic Training Center.
Yet another key segment of her life – on both a professional and personal level – was about to unfold for Landreth, whose last name would be changing within a couple of years.
Training with a Purpose
The U.S. women’s volleyball contingent – directed by legendary coach Arie Selinger – became the first team ever to take up residence at the USOC Training Center. The confined and focused atmosphere was long overdue, if the Americans were ever going to catch up with the elite volleyball nations.
Visualize a seven-days-a-week setting, somewhere between a lively “volleyball sorority” and a grueling training regiment that would make Rocky Balboa proud during his days working out in the Russian wilderness. No, these young female volleyball players were not tossing around logs and pulling sleighs, but they trained hard, nearly every day for six months, with a clear and unified purpose.
After spending six transformative months together, the U.S. team entered a new stratosphere by placing fifth at the 1978 World Championship, held in the former U.S.S.R. The only teams that finished higher than the Americans were regional rival Cuba, Japan, the host Soviet Union and South Korea.
Shortly after the World Championship, in the fall of 1978, the now fine-tuned U.S. National Team crisscrossed the nation with the Japanese National Team: 28 matches in 26 days and 24 cities.
“That tour was a huge validation, we won 20 of 28 matches against a Japanese team that had just won Olympic gold,” explains Brown. “We always knew we had the athletes to compete with the best, but we had been lacking the consistent training and cohesive play.
“After only six months in Colorado, we finally had our act together and figured things out. We were a team to be reckoned with.”
A “Heavy Medal” Favorite
When Brown utters the words “heavy medal favorite,” she is not referencing a popular song by Metallica. Rather, she is reflecting back on the U.S. women’s volleyball team’s chances for earning gold, silver or bronze at the 1980 Olympic Games.
The American women had yet to earn one of the coveted eight spots in the Olympic volleyball field. That all finally changed during the zonal qualifying phase in 1979. For the first time, the United States women had formally qualified for a spot in the Olympic competition.
“We were on a roll throughout 1979 and had beaten everybody in the world, with the exception of Cuba,” recalls Brown. “There was no doubt in any of our minds that we would be right in the thick of the Olympic medal contention.”
Anyone who watched broadcasts of the 1984 Olympics surely remembers the exploits of American athletes such as Mary Lou Retton and the basketball Dream Team. Flo Hyman also was such a transcendent figure, even for non-volleyball fans.
The 6-foot-5 outside hitter Hyman had been a teammate of Brown’s on the 1980 Olympic-qualifying team and she went on to be a worldwide volleyball star, playing in Japan as the first American player to receive a big contract overseas. But on Jan. 24, 1986, the volleyball world was stunned by Hyman’s sudden death, after collapsing on the bench due to undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.
Woodstra – who along with fellow two-time Olympian Rita Crockett also was playing in Japan – passed along the tragic news to Brown.
“None of us could believe it when Flo suddenly died, halfway around the world,” recalls Brown. “I had really looked up to her and she was a bighearted person who always made me feel very at ease. She had a genuinely warm smile that I will never forget – it was infectious. And of course her play was a thing of inspiration.
“Back then there simply weren’t a lot of 6-5 women around, and with the national team we could rarely make substitutions, so Flo had to be a good all-around player. We had grueling defensive practices that had to be a unique challenge for her. But she had such a big arm and tremendous reach. She jumped high and hit angles that no players had ever seen before. Flo was dominant, a huge name in volleyball still to this day.”
Six members of the 1980 Olympic Team – Brown, Woodstra, Green, Hyman, the explosive and powerful Crockett, and backup setter Laurel Brassey-Iverson – have gone on to earn the prestigious “All-Time Great” designation from USA Volleyball. Brown’s experience playing alongside such elite players, plus her other various teammates over the years, made a profound impact on her current coaching career.
Transition to the Bench
During her time in Colorado Springs, Landreth met and started dating a local sportswriter, Dennis Brown. The couple later married in August of 1981 and began their life together in Tempe, Ariz., where Debbie served eight seasons on the women’s volleyball staff at Arizona State (six as head coach).
Even before the 1980 boycott, Brown had made plans to join Dale Flickinger’s ASU staff that fall. Flickinger – a part-time coach who held other responsibilities within the athletics department – arranged for Brown to essentially become a “scholarship” assistant coach, and she was able to complete her bachelor’s degree in education over the next two years.
Following her graduation in 1982, Brown spent the next year as an assistant at a nearby community college before returning to become Arizona State’s head coach in 1983, when the program transitioned to being led by a full-time coach (although Brown had no paid assistants).
A few years earlier during her short time at USC, Brown quickly realized she likely would want to return to the collegiate game as a coach. While other future college coaches such as Corbelli and Woodstra continued playing past the 1980 boycott, Brown’s baptism into coaching came sooner rather than later.
“Looking back at my first season as a head coach, I was so green,” recalls Brown. “I knew the game and was passionate about teaching the skills, but I knew nothing about recruiting and budgeting. I still was very confident – I guess at that point I didn’t know how to feel any different..”
A couple days into her head coaching career, Brown followed up on a tip from Flickinger to begin recruiting an athletically-gifted, but raw, high school player from southern California, future three-time Olympian Tammy Webb. Brown signed Webb and the standout middle blocker went on to form the cornerstone of the Arizona State program.
Brown’s formative years were shaped by playing for two Hall of Fame coaches: Erbe (later Michigan State’s head coach from 1993-2004) and Selinger. Each instilled distinct lessons into their players, many of them future coaches.
“Chuck Erbe taught me the game’s fundamentals and was a very good technical coach, while Arie Selinger was a very strong tactical coach and taught me the thinking side of the game,” explains Brown.
“They were huge influences for the foundation that I needed to be a successful coach. I learned a lot of good things and some things that I knew I probably would do differently.”
In the late 1980s, Brown felt the need to try coaching on the national-team level and became an assistant to Terry Liskevych (currently head coach at Oregon State). Her two years in that position included being a member of the coaching staff at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and with the bronze-medal team at the 1990 World Championship in China.
“My time as an assistant with the national team was incredibly valuable to my development,” says Brown. “I learned a lot about scouting, preparing for specific teams, and the importance of coaching each person differently, to bring out the best in them.”
A Return to Campus Life
Brown gained one other key insight as a national-team assistant: her talents and desires were best-suited for the college game.
“I loved being part of something much bigger than just a volleyball team, and a university environment also provided the opportunity to see individuals really grow and mature,” explains the veteran of 34 total college volleyball seasons, as a player, assistant and head coach.
“I enjoy the newness and excitement that each season brings, with arriving freshmen and different team dynamics. I also love the camaraderie of an athletic department, where you can rejoice in the success of others who are working towards similar goals.”
From 1974-90, Brown’s volleyball career had see-sawed between various national teams and collegiate programs. Now, with the decade of the 1990s fully in front of her, she was ready to commit to a career in the college coaching ranks. She was well-prepared, shaped by the her experiences playing alongside so many elite teammates and for several legendary coaches.
“When you know at a young age that you want to go into coaching, you naturally pay more attention to things that your coaches do,” says Brown. “I often would walk away from a practice thinking `I need to remember that as something I want to do in coaching’ or `oh man, I will never do that.’
“You take away lessons about how your coaches motivated or disciplined you, or simply how they talked to you. The longer you are in the sport, the more appreciation you gain for your old coaches.”
A Coach and a Mom
Brown started her coaching career six years before Corbelli embarked on hers, but it was Corbelli, along with husband John, who had the earlier experience as coaching parents. Their daughter Rachel was born in 1991, when Laurie was head coach at Santa Clara and John at south-Bay rival San Jose State. Brown had been hesitant to start her own family while still coaching, but her longtime friend helped convince her otherwise.
“I did not see how I could be a mom and a coach at the same time – I just did not think it was possible,” says Brown. “Laurie spent a lot of time talking to me and kept assuring me it can be done.
“Laurie and I have benefitted from that bond of being mothers and coaches. She has been a great sounding board for me and I’ve tried to be the same for her when we’ve had our struggles, trying to keep the balance and make it all work.”
The Brown family welcomed their first child, Connor, in 1993, followed in ’95 by brother Ryan. The pair became regular fixtures at Notre Dame home matches, and even some road events.
“Of course we knew there would be challenging times due to my travel schedule,” says Debbie. “But Dennis was willing to make it work and he often was at home taking care of two small guys. That bond created with Dennis and the boys is pretty special.
“You can say `we will make it work’ but you really have no idea about all the aspects that parenting involves. Dennis figured he could do it and did it very well.”
Knowing that her time away was hard on her sons, Brown insisted on making a clear-cut distinction between her work and family life.
“I always was very protective of my time at home and with my kids,” says Connor and Ryan’s mom. “I rarely took work home, I did not want it to continually be an interruption.”
Brown also placed a priority on being a part of her sons’ various youth activities, soccer when they were younger and then basketball and baseball through their days at Saint Joseph’s High School.
“Having a mom who was a coach really helped during our own sports involvement,” says Connor. “I was better able to understand the coaching side of the games that I was playing and that enhanced the experience.”
In fact, the elder Brown son plans to dabble in some coaching of his own down the road.
“One of the things I’m most looking forward to in life is being able to coach my kids in little league baseball.” he says. “I feel like I know the mentality a coach should have and will be excited to do that.”
Connor and Ryan Brown never played competitive volleyball but they have developed into a “pretty solid tandem outdoors,” says Connor. “But it’s tough for both of us to play in a lesser-quality, unstructured game at a picnic or graduation party – we get a little frustrated.”
Like Mother, Like Father
The Brown brothers naturally exhibit different character traits that they share with one parent or another. Connor clearly inherited his mother’s adventurous side – and they recently shared quite a daring activity.
“A couple summers ago, my mom and I went skydiving, and yes she did jump out first,” says Connor. “I always loved roller coasters and stuff like that, and she was always right there next to me.
“I’m most like my dad because we both have an unreal sense of humor. Actually, don’t tell him I said that, it will go to his head.”
The younger Brown brother claims to have inherited his mom’s competitive drive and always has “enjoyed talking to my mom about why she did certain things in her coaching with substitutions and strategies.” But their sports similarities end there.
“I kid around with people when they ask if I got my mom’s athletic ability by saying that I hope I have my mom’s but realistically I probably have my dad’s,” jokes Ryan. “Actually my dad was still a really good athlete, just not up to Olympic standards.”
Ryan Brown did develop a unique talent in his younger days, memorizing his mom’s team rosters with Rainman-like efficiency.
“I always made it a goal to know the name and number of every player,” says Ryan. “Recently, one of her assistant coaches was quizzing me on player numbers from the late ’90s and early 2000s, and I remembered them all.”
Passing it On
Just as Corbelli had done for her, Brown now passes along reassurances to female coaches considering motherhood.
“Deb taught me that faith and family should be cornerstones, and that in the right situation it’s possible for women to balance being great coaches with being great moms and wives,” says former Notre Dame assistant coach Louella Lovely Maxwell, now an assistant at the Air Force Academy, where her husband is stationed.
“With so many of my coaching friends leaving the profession to focus on their families, Deb has been a great mentor and continuously encourages me to find a good balance.”
Former Notre Dame player Adrianna Stasiuk (’08), who often helped babysit Connor and Ryan Brown during her career, possibly provides the best summary of Brown’s impact as a mother. “Nothing speaks more highly or shows more accurately Debbie’s quality of character than the fact that her sons are so well behaved and smart,” says Stasiuk, who played on the 2005 Notre Dame team that reached No. 5 in the national rankings. “It’s very impressive the high caliber of young men they have grown up to be.”
A New Beginning
After leaving her national-team coaching position in the fall of 1990, Brown was thrilled to see a “golden” opportunity open shortly thereafter. The Browns, then living in San Diego, had sketched out a wish list of potential college programs . Notre Dame certainly was on that list, and the head coaching position suddenly became open midway through the 1990 season.
Dick Rosenthal, a former Notre Dame two-sport star and the athletics director at the time, ultimately narrowed his search and Brown came aboard in 1991 as the third head coach in Irish volleyball program history.
“We felt so welcomed at Notre Dame from the start, with tremendous support from the administration,” says Brown, who owns nearly 650 career wins in 29 total seasons as a collegiate head coach.
Brown’s career has seen numerous changes to the college game. Points used to be scored only when serving while individual sets (previously called games) went to 15, then to 30 when rally scoring (point scored on every play) was introduced and now have settled at 25. Substitution rules have evolved, and the position of libero did not debut in the college game until 2002.
“The game keeps evolving and you have to stay up with that,” says Brown. “I love going to our convention and hearing different coaches speak. You always can learn things from different people’s viewpoint.”
New Perspective: Notre Dame Parent
Debbie and Dennis Brown have been at Notre Dame for nearly a quarter century, with Dennis currently serving as University spokesman and an assistant vice president. It would seem that the Browns knew Notre Dame inside and out, but that perspective gained a new dimension in the fall of 2012: that of Notre Dame parents.
Their son Connor had considered attending DePauw in Greencastle, Ind., where he had an offer to play baseball on the Division III level. Ultimately, the Brown’s oldest child opted to stay closer to home, as did brother Ryan – who started his freshman year a couple months ago.
“It’s true, when you become a parent of a Notre Dame student you get a more intimate look at the university, and a more meaningful understanding” says the proud ND mom. “Even at Freshman Orientation, which lived up to its great reputation, we felt very welcomed as Notre Dame parents.
“We know our boys are going to be well taken care of at Notre Dame and will benefit greatly from that sense of community, family and genuine concern for the individual as a whole person. They will experience tremendous all-around growth. It even was helpful to meet the rector and get a greater understanding of the campus dorm life.”
Connor Brown is content with his college decision. “All the traditions I saw growing up, I’m now a part of them, and it’s a cool thing,” says the appreciative oldest child.
As for son number two, Ryan Brown had made it clear that he would not be following in his brother’s footsteps.
“When Connor decided, Ryan told us `I am not going to Notre Dame, don’t try to convince me’ and we told him that was fine, it was his choice,” recalls Debbie. “After Connor had been in school for a month, Ryan was able to spend a little bit of time with him, got to know his friends and see what campus was like.
“After that, Ryan came home one night and admitted `yeah I want to go to Notre Dame too.’ They both worked very hard in their studies to put themselves in position to attend Notre Dame.”
Ryan Brown – who calls Notre Dame his “second home for the first 18 years of my life” – says that academic preparedness was not the only thing that prepared him and his brother for becoming Notre Dame undergraduates.
“Our parents made a big point of schoolwork being most important, but it also was important how we carried ourselves when playing sports and interacting with others,” says the younger Brown brother.
“One time I got in a big fight with my parents, I had been disrespectful. They didn’t let me play in a basketball league championship. They cared a lot more about me being a good person and a good student.”
Program on a Mission
It’s only fitting that Brown’s volleyball program serves as a microcosm of that broader campus profile.
“I fully believe in the mission of the University for helping develop well-rounded young people,” says Brown. “When freshmen join our team, they are amazingly mature and responsible – but four years later, it’s even more amazing how much they have grown.”
Maxwell hopes to possibly direct her own college program one day, knowing that her four years at Notre Dame laid an important foundation.
“Deb Brown taught me so many valuable things that I have in my `coaching tool belt,’ primarily with that focus on providing a complete collegiate journey for our student-athletes,” says Maxwell. “This focus includes mentoring in very formative years, helping them grow in relationships and within the overall balance of their lives, and even fitting in special opportunities while traveling, such as exploring unique and historic places.
“Another fundamental thing I learned from Deb was, in recruiting, we always focused on what Notre Dame had to offer. We did not recruit in a negative fashion against others schools and Deb taught me how to really get to know a potential recruit – even how to watch their interactions before and after matches, which can tell you a lot about them as individuals.”
Three Peas in a Pod
Brown has maintained deep bonds of friendship with many of her former teammates, most notably Woodstra and Corbelli, who made a slightly later arrival into the national-team scene. Both of the close friends were set to be in Brown’s 1991 wedding party, but a late schedule chance had them playing halfway around the globe in Japan on the date of the wedding.
Years later, Woodstra was able to serve as Corbellis’s maid of honor, and Brown became godmother to Russell Corbelli, who was born in 1994. In recent years, all three of the longtime friends have embarked on group family vacations, including jaunts to Hawaii and Yosemite National Park.
Spend only a few minutes with the Brown-Woodstra-Corbelli triumvirate and it becomes very clear that they love being in each other’s company. They can reconnect at a moment’s notice. And, yes, they each think the other two have amazing senses of humor. You get the idea: lots of laughter, all the time.
“The fact that Laurie, Sue and I have been in coaching so long has only helped our friendship to blossom, and made the bond that much stronger,” notes Brown.
Woodstra grew up in the San Bernardino suburb of Colton, roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles. While training with the Junior National Team, she often found herself hanging out with Debbie and her expansive family.
“I spent many weekends at the Landreth household during those days, experiencing neighborhood games and other frivolity,” recalls Woodstra. “They are a very loving, boisterous and generous family.”
Woodstra – who recently retired from coaching, after stints at Pittsburgh, California and Humboldt State – appreciates the simple fact that Brown is “the same person as when I met her 35 years ago, she just doesn’t act on those crazy ideas quite as often.
“Deb always has been the type of person who makes people want to follow her, I think because she is so comfortable with herself, and not at all in an egotistical way. The decisions she makes always have a sense of purpose, she has great empathy and is a tremendous listener, so effective as a collector of information.”
Like her two close friends, Corbelli attended college in her home state and was a member of back-to-back national championship teams, at Texas Lutheran in 1974 and ’75 (followed by USC’s pair of titles). She first joined the national team in 1976 but quickly developed a close bond with her teammate then known as Debbie Landreth.
“The thing I most admire and appreciate about Deb is the discipline she has to maintain the things in her life that she treasures,” says Corbelli. “She remembers little things about a friend’s life, knows how important a reunion or trip together would be and heads up the planning, and she gets in contact when she’s thinking of you or has a feeling that you might need a friend at that time. I’ve received some of the kindest e-mails from Deb, usually arriving at the perfect time.”
Charlie Landreth passed away almost four years ago, a tough moment to be sure for wife Dorothy and all five Landreth kids.
“Debbie also inspires me to be a better wife and daughter,” continues Corbelli. “She calls her elderly mother in Los Angeles every night. Every night. That just amazes me. That example helped me make a decision to contact my 80-year-old mom as often as possible, even if it’s just to say hello and I’m thinking of you.
“Yet another special thing about Debbie is that she always asks me if I am enjoying my team, am I having fun with then? On the days when I’m frustrated, I remember how fortunate I am to be a coach. Deb always reminds me to enjoy our teams, because we won’t have them forever.”
Reunion of Champions
A special reunion event – the first (and only, it turned out) Tournament of Champions – was held at Notre Dame as part of the 1997 college volleyball field. Corbelli was there with her Texas A&M team, as was Woodstra with her Cal squad, along with Brown’s Notre Dame team and the University of New Mexico, coached by yet another 1980 Olympic team player (Brassey-Iverson). Two other members of the 1980 team – Diane McCormick French and Sharon Furlong – also flew in for the special reunion event.
(Coaching against each other proved too difficult, so plans for future editions of the tournament were scrapped).
Fourteen years earlier, Brown and Brassey-Iverson had made their debuts as collegiate head coaches, coincidentally matching wits on opposing benches that day.
When the U.S. women’s volleyball team won the 1984 Olympic silver medal, remaining veterans from the jilted 1980 team – most notably Woodstra, Corbelli, Green, Hyman and Crockett – experienced conflicting emotions.
“When we were out there, finally competing for that Olympic medal, it was very difficult at times because many of our former 1980 teammates were there in the stands, instead of beside us on the playing surface,” recalls Woodstra.
But for Brown, one of those watching from afar (at least metaphorically), the experience of seeing so many close friends realize their own Olympic dreams provided a tremendous vicarious thrill.
“For some, the people that they are closest to are their friends from high school or college. For me, it’s my teammates from the national team,” says Brown.
“We made a commitment as a group and there was such a strong faith and belief in what we were going to accomplish. The bonds were so strong and I know that the boycott experience helped so many of us get through situations later in our lives that maybe we wouldn’t of handled as well.
“If I ever have needed anything from any of them, in a heartbeat they would do whatever they could for me. It’s rare to have those types of friends, maybe one or two, but we have this larger group that is incredibly strong and will support each other through anything.
“For me, that’s worth any Olympic gold medal or anything further that we could have achieved together.”