Glenn Nelson, Princeton's Ultimate Winner
He sits, arms crossed, in the seat closest to the scorers’ table and says nothing. One point for his team, one point for the other, and he says nothing either way. If you were simply watching him, you wouldn’t know whether his was the team that had just scored. You wouldn’t have a clue.
And then it happens. One of his starters, the one who would eventually set Princeton volleyball history, takes a perfect set and hits the ball long.
“PARKER!” he shrieks. She looks his way, raises a hand to accept responsibility and goes back to her position.
The coach made his point, but it doesn’t mean he’s finished. He adds something under his breath that only a few people hear. You know who they are. They’re the ones laughing. He probably wondered how a team as terrible as his was winning at all, or something in that vein. It may not be ha-ha funny, but it’s almost impossible not to laugh after the way he says it.
Then the ball is served, and his arms are crossed again. No words. He just stares again.
The first time you see a Princeton volleyball match, you can’t help but be struck by the Tigers’ head coach. Glenn Nelson doesn’t coach the way everybody else does, and you might think it’s because he doesn’t care. Or that he doesn’t know what to say. Maybe you leave wondering how this team with the unique coach just won all the big points to clinch an exciting victory.
And if you do, he’s OK with that. He’s not looking for popularity or acceptance. His passion is the play and the players.
Oh, and if you did leave one of his wins feeling that way, you probably aren’t alone. People have had 562 chances to leave wondering just how Nelson’s crew pulled out another win. No other coach in Princeton history has given that many opportunities.
Nelson went to Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., as a combo guard for the basketball team. He made close friends there, but they played for the volleyball team. He was drawn to the sport and began playing as a leftside hitter. His teammates taught him the game, and he was hooked.
Orange Coast is a two-year school, but not for Nelson. Once his stint was finished, he took enough classes to play another year of volleyball.
And play, and play, and play.
“That’s when it really happened,” Nelson says. “We were on the beach in the morning, we had practice or games in the afternoon and we were in the Huntington Beach Rec Center at night. We did that for about a year.”
By the end, not only was the sport in his blood, but he had grown into a good player. Not satisfied to stop there, he traveled across the country and played for a United States Volleyball Association (USVBA) team called, ironically, the Princeton Volleyball Club. They played out of Dillon Gym, which would be his home away from home for decades to come.
Nelson was playing and working for a school recreation department. He wasn’t sure what would come next, but he was having fun.
Then he suffered a terrible injury, which led to an even worse medical condition. And he considered it one of the best things that ever happened to him.
His brief-but-intense volleyball career ended when he broke his pelvis during a match. As if the injury wasn’t bad enough, it led to a staph infection that destroyed his right hip and left him limping for the next quarter century.
Wanting to stay in the sport and knowing he would now need a bachelor’s degree to have a full-time career, Nelson traveled 15 minutes outside of Princeton and finished his undergraduate degree at Trenton State College (now known as The College of New Jersey). He accepted a coaching position at the Division III program and found immediately that he had a passion for the job.
“Once I started coaching, I think I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Nelson says. “I often think about that, and I honestly don’t think I would have gotten into coaching if I hadn’t been injured. That’s why I say the injury was, athletically, the worst thing to ever happen to me, and professionally, it was probably the best thing. I don’t know if I would have ever gone back and graduated college.”
Nelson’s move to the sideline caught the attention of Princeton head coach Susana Occhi. She knew of him because the Tiger men, whom she also coached, would scrimmage the USVBA team that Nelson played for. She was impressed and offered him a job at Princeton in 1979 as the men’s head and women’s assistant coach.
Three years later, Occhi took a sabbatical to open a health club in Argentina. She chose to stay, and then-athletic director Bob Myslik offered the head position for both teams to Nelson. A beautiful, and sometimes bizarre, relationship had officially begun.
Nelson might be (mostly) level-headed now, but he wasn’t always that way.
“When I was young, I threw a few chairs,” he says. “I raved like a lunatic every time the ref made a bad call. I’ve calmed down quite a bit. I decided it didn’t do any good. It’s just the learning curve you had to go through as a coach.”
That learning curve eventually led to heavier teaching in practice. He has five rules, the do’s and don’t’s, and five keys to victory that he bases everything around. They are...
“I’m not saying what they are,” Nelson says. “So don’t ask.”
Whatever his secret doctrine is, he believes his players can pick it up. After all, they were accepted to the top academic institution in the nation. Chances are, they can remember 10 rules about a game they’ve been playing for years.
“The fact is, I get to work with these kids that are the cream of the crop,” Nelson said. “I’ve said this before, the kids that come here have been doing things as correctly as possible all their lives, and as a coach, you want to get your players to do things as correctly as possible. Now these kids may not jump three feet in the air, but they’ll do things as correctly as possible. That’s half your job right there.”
He’s not just barking orders from the sidelines at practice. The man with the limp, whose athletic career was cut short and never walked regularly afterwards, was out there with them for years.
The injury never took away his pure athleticism. On the golf course, he is a magician near the green. On the tennis court, he could beat you with his serve and volley alone. And on the volleyball court, he could still find ways to beat you.
“He used to play with us, and even with his limp, he'd still whip on us,” former volleyball player and current Hollywood star Dean Cain ’88 says. “He was tough. He was a fantastic athlete. Because of his injury, he had to learn all different aspects of the game. He's such a smart coach.”
His smarts and toughness may have helped him on the path to the Princeton record he set this season, but he achieved a national milestone a decade ago. He became the only volleyball coach to lead both a men’s and women’s team to the NCAA tournament in the same year when his teams claimed a pair of league titles in the 1997-98 season.
The women’s championship was undoubtedly special, but the men’s one holds more significance. Only four teams make the NCAA championship in men’s volleyball, and one spot is reserved for the winner of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA). Nineteen times out of 20, that team is Penn State.
That’s not a cliché either. In the last 20 years, Penn State has lost a grand total of one EIVA postseason match. It was in the 1998 semifinal to Princeton, which claimed a 3-0 win en route to its only league crown.
“My memory is that they didn’t make mistakes and played well late in games,” says longtime Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik, who led the Nittany Lions to the 2006 NCAA championship match. “They were a fun team to play because to beat them you had to play your best at big points of the game. They were a great bunch of guys that competed hard and complemented each other very well.
“Playing the Tigers at the end of the year is different than playing them at the beginning of the year. Glenn has them playing their best late in the season.”
There wasn’t a Hoosiers ending. Princeton faced Pepperdine in the NCAA semifinal and was soundly beaten. Nelson wasn’t shocked. He knew which the far superior team was, and in the end, he knows a team with the five rules and the five keys doesn’t hold up against a team that jumps much higher and hits much harder.
Fortunately, his teams typically compete on an even playing field. The Ivy League consists of eight programs choosing from ultimately a small pool of players who can be both accepted to the program and can play four years without a single athletic scholarship to assist.
Nelson has been coaching in the Ivy League for 26 years, and his teams have won 10 championships. No other school is within three of Nelson during that time period, and no current league coach has even half as many wins as Nelson does.
His recruiting methods are unorthodox, to say the least. He has had one media guide produced in the last decade; these are used mainly as recruiting brochures by most coaches. He uses contacts, mostly in California, to learn of players, and he doesn’t pressure them to choose Princeton. Like he did with Henritze, the unanimous 2007 Ivy League Player of the Year, he simply lays out the reasons.
“Coach asked me if I wanted to go to a top academic school,” Henritze said. “Do you want to play for a winning program? Do you want to have a life outside of volleyball?
“Then he went and played golf.”
While Henritze might end up being his most honored recruit in 26 years, his most important one came from California in the late ’90s. She was an undersized outside hitter that probably didn’t get a look from any major school simply based on height.
Sabrina King would lead Princeton to three Ivy League championships and earned Ivy Player of the Year honors in 1999, and she thrived in Nelson’s system throughout her entire career.
“He understands that it's important that the players are happy,” King said. “It doesn't matter how many drills they do or weights they lift. If they don't enjoy it, they won't strive as hard as they could.”
Following a year away after graduation, King returned to Princeton as Nelson’s assistant coach. She handles every major administrative duty, including all of recruiting, and has been the quiet driving force of the program during this championship run.
"The credit goes to the players, and then to Sabrina King, who recruited them," Nelson said the night Princeton locked up its fifth trip to the NCAA tournament. “So I'm really third in line.”
Third in line, but first at Princeton.
Cindy Cohen was the longtime softball coach at Princeton, where she led the Tigers to 12 Ivy League championships and a pair of trips to the Women’s College World Series, a destination no other Ivy League team has ever reached.
Pete Carril is a legend at the University, where he served as the face of the basketball program during decades of success. The professor still visits his old classroom, Jadwin Gym, and he is held in such high esteem that no member of the staff refers to him as anything but ‘Coach,’ including people who hadn’t even sent out college applications when Carril guided the 1996 team past UCLA.
Cohen and Carril were 1-2 on the wins list at Princeton two years ago. They were arguably the most well-known and well-respected female and male coaches in Orange and Black lore.
And neither is surprised that they were passed by the man whose office hours are typically determined by the weather forecast and tee time availability.
“I'm not a big volleyball person, but I know he's extremely dedicated to the sport,” said Carril, a favorite tennis opponent of Nelson’s. “He fools you. He fools around a lot, but he's dead serious when it comes to volleyball.”
“I always got the sense his players were loyal, just like I thought mine were,” said Cohen, currently an associate director of athletics at William Paterson College. “I’m sure there were some people who didn't agree with us, but I thought we got the most out of them. I was always passionate about the game and the kids, and it’s hard to do that over time. The hardest thing is to maintain that drive, and I always got the sense he never lost that passion.”
“Glenn is the Van Gogh of the coaching staff,” said director of athletics Gary Walters ’67, referring to the artist that both he and Cain feel bears a strong resemblance to Nelson. “He is unconventional, uncanny, unorthodox and somewhat eccentric, but he is also incredibly insightful and improvisational as a coach. He has great feel for the game in the way that an artist has a feel for painting a portrait. He's an original. He has an unusual coaching talent who has withstood the test of time.
“He is fun to play for, and fun to be around.”
Too often, people confuse Nelson’s laid-back style with a lack of passion. Just because he is fun to be around, even (gasp) fun to play for, he can still be a tough, demanding coach that demands excellence from everybody around.
Yes, he can sit at a match for minutes at a time without a single movement. But then the opposing setter double-touches a ball, the referee doesn’t call it, and the mannequin makes his move.
Because of the injury, he can’t just stand up. Instead, it takes on something of a Broadway production. The legs swing around. He rises, arms in the air, and stares daggers into one official, then the other.
“Chuck!” he yells (it’s not a name, it’s volleyball lingo, or maybe Nelson lingo... it can all get confusing at times). “CHUCK!”
Arms still spread wide, he looks more stunned than angry, almost offended the call was missed. He sits down, still muttering under his breath, still making everybody around his laugh at the upcoming commentary. It’s volleyball, one of his passions, and it has been soiled by this call. He hates that, and he lets everybody know.
Yes, after 26 years, he’s still passionate for the game.
And for the kids who play it.
Jenny McReynolds once led the NCAA in digs and was voted the CVU.com National Libero of the Year. Princeton wasn’t even on her radar when Nelson called her. Actually, even the schools that were on her radar weren’t when he called.
She was napping when her mother woke her and handed her the phone.
“The last thing I wanted to do was get on the phone and talk to a boring coach about volleyball, but I had to do what I had to do,” the 2007 senior co-captain said. “When I spoke to Coach, my mood immediately spun 180 degrees. I was laughing, and I wasn't talking to a boring coach, and I wasn't even talking about volleyball. What really made an impression on me was the fact that he was asking me about what was going on in my life and everything else other than volleyball.”
Nelson treats all of his players the exact same. He makes them laugh. He makes them work. He makes them enjoy the game.
And make no mistake, he makes them better.
McReynolds was an outside hitter when she came to Princeton, and Nelson taught her the libero position well enough to help her earn national recognition.
“I had never played that position before, and it was Coach who taught me the ins and outs and fundamentals of that position to the point where it was my job to get every ball up and ‘play defense like a maniac!’”, she said. “Another aspect that Coach has specifically improved is my knowledge of the game as a whole and what the sport and the game is all about. He really makes playing volleyball fun and competitive in a good way. Not once in my Princeton career have I not looked forward to going to practice. They are fun, stress-free, competitive and tough.”
He has the absolute respect of his players because they know that, when he speaks, he doesn’t lie to them. A healthy percent of that may be unprintable (the P.C. movement never quite made it to his office at Dillon Gym, where a game of darts is always an option), but they know that the truth is always in his comments.
“He shoots straight with all of us,” Henritze said. “Some coaches try to do that, but they might not criticize somebody. Coach will criticize all of us.”
He didn’t need to do much criticizing this season, but that didn’t stop him from doing so anyway. He really did wonder aloud during a handful of matches how his team was winning at all, and he’s not afraid to call out a player after a missed block, a bad set or a hit out of bounds.
But he also wasn’t afraid to praise the 2007 team after the regular season ended.
“This is the best team I’ve ever coached,” Nelson said. “There’s no question.”
The team started 2-3. It enters Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round match against Delaware with a 22-3 record. If you were never good with math, that’s 20 straight wins. They faced a pair of five-game matches in the Ivy League and came up with the goods both times, including a crucial 3-2 win at Dartmouth that truly established Princeton as the team to beat.
“You have to hit winners or aces to beat them,” Dartmouth coach Ann Marie Larese said after the season. “They lost some tough matches [in previous seasons] that maybe they felt they shouldn’t have lost, and that’s a great motivator and great experience-builder. They are the most consistent team in our conference. What you see is what you get from them. I thought they had the best team in the conference in terms of personnel and consistency.”
Nelson demands that consistency from his players. Nothing bothers him more than a team that beats itself. Beneath the California-cool façade is a competitor who, after his 26-year learning curve, still hates to lose.
Fortunately, he wins a lot more than he loses.
And he’s won more at Princeton than anybody ever has.
And quite possibly more than anybody ever will.
by Craig Sachson