Sept. 25, 2014
By Adam Van Brimmer
– This story first appeared in the August issue of the Buzz magazine
Forced to make a coaching change, Theresa Wenzel chose to make a culture change.
Georgia Tech’s senior woman administrator recommended Michelle Collier as Georgia Tech’s next volleyball coach in March as much for Collier’s presence as her success. Born and raised in Brazil, where the approach to athletics is more free-flowing than technical, Collier would bring a new level of energy and camaraderie, Wenzel reasoned, to a program in need of a boost.
Collier had accomplished just that at Florida’s Jacksonville University. She inherited a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons only to go 30-4 and make the NCAA tournament in just her second year leading the Dolphins.
“That fast a turnaround is indicative of how she can set a culture and a tone for a program,” Wenzel said. “She got those girls to buy in and then helped them perform at their best.”
Collier sees the same potential in the Georgia Tech program. Her predecessor, Tonya Johnson, is a high-caliber recruiter, and Collier inherits a talented team with nine freshmen and sophomores. The Yellow Jackets will have at least four new starters in their lineup come the August 29 season opener and the young roster promises spirited competition for those spots.
The team embraced Collier’s practice approach – short, fast-paced sessions in which each player works on every skill in the game – during spring workouts. Yellow Jackets’ senior Courtney Felinski says she expects Georgia Tech to be better prepared and display strong chemistry this fall.
“She works your butt off for the entire practice, but it is a fun style, and when you’re done, you’re done,” Felinski said. “Here the trend has been to break things down into technical pieces. The new philosophy is to learn by playing, by getting to know the game better. It’s been refreshing.”
Been there, taught that
Collier’s storied playing career resonates with her new players as well. Collier played professionally around the world, earning league MVP honors in Indonesia and the best foreign player award in a league in Cyprus. And her collegiate career is well-documented in the NCAA and South Florida record books: She ranks fifth all-time in kills at the Division I level and is South Florida’s career leader in both kills and digs.
Her abilities and experiences give her what Wenzel calls “a swagger” that oozes self-assuredness.
Collier admits her background as a player influences her coaching. Much like two other Georgia Tech women coaches who were playing legends in their sports – swimming coach Courtney Shealy Hart and women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph, both All-Americans – Collier has that drive that comes only from being raised on competition.
“I’m not nearly as fiery as a coach as I was as a player, but I am just as competitive,” Collier said. “I have to be more reasonable and use my mind and not just my heart. The heart still plays a big part, though, especially since there are few situations that come up with a player that I haven’t experienced myself.”
Collier’s background allowed her to recognize a hunger for success in her new team. Georgia Tech emerged as one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top programs in the 1990s and early-2000s, making eight NCAA tournaments in an 11-year span. Johnson built on that success in her first two seasons, winning 40 matches and making the 2009 NCAA tournament. The program lost that momentum, though, posting losing records in two of the next three seasons. Johnson left in February to return to the University of Texas, where she worked prior to coming to Georgia Tech.
“We needed to make a lot of changes,” Felinski said. “We trust coach Collier and her staff and trust their system.”
Georgia Tech’s success under Collier is dependent on the players’ ability to develop trust in each other, according to the coach.
Chemistry can be fleeting in team sports, particularly in those that have grown more and more specialized in recent decades. Like volleyball. Hitters hit. Setters set. Blockers block. And defensive specialists defend. Breakdowns in one discipline can lead to harsh words and finger pointing from others on the team.
Collier strives to avoid those situations by insisting on cross-training during practice. She prided herself on being an all-around player – an outside hitter who excelled defensively – and understands the many benefits of versatility.
“I want my players comfortable with every part of the game,” she said. “It is important to have and know your strengths, but it is equally important to build skills and confidence in your weaknesses. And once you see how hard other positions are to play, you respect that position more and understand the challenges more.”
One challenge Collier need not worry about meeting is generating excitement about Georgia Tech volleyball on game day. The Yellow Jackets play in one of college volleyball’s more special venues at O’Keefe Gymnasium. The 2,000-seat arena’s cozy confines have been likened to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium during Blue Devil basketball games.
While she has yet to witness a match at O’Keefe, Collier anticipates the atmosphere being similar to what she experienced growing up in Recife, Brazil.
“The atmosphere has a passion about it you can feel,” she said. “The girls talk about sleepless nights and how special it is to play there. I can’t wait, and I want to make sure we play as hard as we can for the fans.”