Feb. 29, 2016
By John Heisler
It’s because it’s the University of Notre Dame.
Why does second-year Irish volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin think his team has a solid chance to be good in 2016?
Because it’s Notre Dame.
Why does he think the Irish will recruit well on a consistent basis?
Because it’s Notre Dame.
Why does he think the Irish ultimately should expect to consistently qualify for NCAA Final Fours in volleyball?
Because it’s Notre Dame.
Why does he believe it’s worth reserving dates for the Irish to play host to early-round NCAA Championship matches at home in December 2016?
Because it’s Notre Dame.
McLaughlin is not a graduate and he spent only a single season as a Notre Dame assistant back in 1996. He’s now about six weeks past the one-year anniversary of his hiring as Irish head coach. Yet, ask him just about any question about the state of his volleyball program, and at some point his answer comes back to the same thing.
He believes the Irish will be successful because it’s Notre Dame.
At first blush, it would appear McLaughlin didn’t have much fun during the fall of 2015.
His initial season on the sidelines in South Bend produced only seven victories. The Irish ended up 2-18 in Atlantic Coast Conference play and over one stretch did not win a match for six weeks, dropping a dozen in succession.
That couldn’t have been easy for McLaughlin who not only watched his fellow Irish Olympic sport coaches merit fall headlines (both soccer teams played in multiple rounds of the NCAA Championships and Molly Seidel won the individual NCAA cross country title) but also saw his previous program at Washington win the Pacific-12 Conference title and rank number one in the country at the end of the regular season.
Think McLaughlin, whose resume includes both men’s and women’s NCAA volleyball crowns, has even a hint of a regret about leaving Seattle and returning to Notre Dame?
Not a chance. In fact, he relishes “the process,” as he refers to it–and there are marked similarities between the challenges he faces with the Irish program and those he eventually mastered at both Kansas State and Washington.
Walk into McLaughlin’s Joyce Center office and, below a video screen, there’s a large yellow Post-it note with red capital letters that reads:
“Is somebody outworking or outsmarting us?”
It may be February–and the 2016 season opener is six months away–but Notre Dame’s head coach already has his game face on and he’s unabashedly bullish about his team and program.
“In my career you respond to situations,” offers McLaughlin. “I’ve been in this situation a couple of other times in my life. My eyes were wide open–I knew the state of the program. But I also know it’s Notre Dame and every other team here is competing for a championship.”
It comes back to Notre Dame–and it comes from a conversation he had recently with former Irish football coach Lou Holtz.
“The pot of gold is going to be bigger at Notre Dame. Coach Holtz told me that,” says McLaughlin. “He said, `If you do what you do, it’ll be bigger at Notre Dame and you’re going to be more successful. It’s part of the deal.’
“So the potential to be in that class is what I responded to. I want to be part of that again. The process is the process–the more you do it the better you get at it. We’ve been here before and we’re not going to change the process. My belief is that because it’s Notre Dame it becomes a better process.”
There’s that Notre Dame name again.
“But it’s still a process and you are recruiting kids that want to win at the highest level. The kids looking at Notre Dame–there’s an expectation they have to embrace, just like I have. Embracing that process of becoming a champion is very difficult. We’re teaching the kids here about that process–it’s not an inherent thing, it’s something you learn how to do. The important thing is that we’re at a place where you can achieve that.
“We’ve made small improvements for sure–not enough of them, there’s still so much more out there. They’ve got to buy in and understand the values. The determination, the commitment, the discipline, the consistency–you have to develop all that. Then the improvement will come and the wins will come. Unless we are winning and improving and getting the wins, it’s not the way it should be at Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame, again.
“But we made some progress. The intent every day is just to get a little bit better–we can’t get too far down the road or we’re going to be lost today. The kids are starting to understand how to maximize their abilities right now. It’s a great lesson–it’s really hard. But it’s the greatest lesson in life–you reap what you sow. It’s not just about working hard, it’s about working in the right areas.”
Once McLaughlin gets going he can barely contain himself:
“The return will come, it will come. The greatest example I can provide to our kids is what happened at Kansas State–we were ninth (in the Big 12), then sixth, then fifth, then fourth, then second and first. Then at Washington we went from one win, to 11 wins, to 20 wins, to the (NCAA) Final Four, to winning a championship, then back to the Final Four again.
“The first part of winning is making changes–the way we think, our emotions, in our preparation in everything you do. That’s how you win. Today I told our team, `We won the day because we moved forward.’ Then we have to grab onto that–it can’t be a feeling, because feelings come and go. We measure everything, we can see it on tape, we made some changes in our behavior and our mechanics and now we’ve got to be better tomorrow than we were today. That’s as basic as you can get it.”
Now, McLaughlin is on to recruiting:
“I can tell you this–it’s not my name, it’s Notre Dame. Kids are interested in Notre Dame because of what this place is about. It will be, at some point one of the very few places where we can be the best both academically and athletically. We haven’t gotten there in volleyball–but academically and socially we are there. They are becoming more successful because of their involvement at the University of Notre Dame.”
Why does McLaughlin believe all this so emphatically? He says it’s because he gets 32 more emails a day than at any other place he’s been “and that’s because it’s Notre Dame.”
There’s only so much McLaughlin and his staff can do right now with their current roster. To start the semester the Irish were limited to eight hours of work per week (six hours of strength and conditioning, only two hours of actual on-court volleyball practice). Then there’s a 35-day spring season where the team can work 20 hours per week–with four play dates included.
“One of the greatest things is that kids are coming in asking to watch more film. We got a text yesterday, `Can we leave the nets up so we get more time on our own?’ They want to do what the basketball teams do–they want to be in late getting those extra shots up.”
The Irish may be coming off three consecutive losing seasons, but that seems to be lost on McLaughlin.
“We have to expect to get to the tournament right now–the process will take care of it. We want kids that want to get to the Final Four every year. It’s hard to comprehend and it’s hard to see it right now, but the way we address practice every day, the wins will come and we will get there. Then some day you wake up and you’re in the Final Four because of the work. We did one-10th last year of what you have to do to get to a Final Four, in terms of our commitment to do all the things we need to do. It’s hard but that’s what makes it so great.
“I asked one recruit, `What do you want out of this experience? What do you really want out of this? What are you willing to do?’ She came back to me and said, `I want to be challenged.’ There’s no magic there–you get out of it what you put into it. You have to learn how to go hard every play and that’s not human nature. I’ve asked our kids a different way. Everyone wants to become great. What are you willing to suffer? What pain are you willing to embrace? They don’t know it yet, but it’s worth it.”
Notre Dame’s coach is not shy about his expectations:
“We are not successful here unless we get to a Final Four. That’s because we’re at Notre Dame. If you can’t embrace that you shouldn’t be here. There are 250 schools in the country where you could do a little of this, a little of that–no, at Notre Dame you do it full tilt.
“You are learning the most fundamental lesson–you can’t give up, you’ve got to keep going. It’s not going to get better until you make it better. You can’t go, `Woe is me,’ and pat the kids on the back. You have to be very factual in your approach. You can’t say things that don’t mean anything. Sometimes the truth hurts, but people can handle the truth. Then you understand it when you have these breakthroughs. It becomes more meaningful.
“I have to be very factual: We are not good enough. We are not going to be good enough until we become good enough, and that’s about changing our behavior and everything we do. Losing hurts, but you can be very introspective and learn from it. Sometimes going home last fall it was tough, but I’ve been there before. We left a program at Kansas State that was in the Sweet 16, and we went to Washington and got our butts handed to us. It was hard. But you hold course and it’s richer in the end. The richness is from the improvements you make–it’s empowering.
“Losing stinks, it’s never any good. But I looked at the faces of the kids at the end of the year and there was more pain and anguish. That was a good thing because they were starting to commit at a higher level. Then when you lose, the harder it hurts. They were invested and they didn’t give up and I admire that in people.
“We’ve got to take it to the next level. We measure it, and we didn’t meet any of our standards with great regularity.”
McLaughlin is almost finished with his pep talk now.
“But we’re going to do that this year at Notre Dame.”