Vanderbilt coaches Tim Corbin, Geoff Macdonald, and John Williamson sit down with Zac Ellis to share what it takes to win a national championship.
What does it take to win a national championship?
Three head coaches at Vanderbilt can answer that question from firsthand experience. Bowling coach John Williamson lays claim to the first NCAA title in Vanderbilt athletics history (2007) and its most recent (2018). Baseball coach Tim Corbin took home the 2014 title with a win in the College World Series, and women’s tennis coach Geoff Macdonald broke through with an NCAA championship the next year in 2015.
VUCommodores.com, in partnership with PNC, sat down with all three head coaches to reflect on the process of bringing home a national championship. Check out the video above for an extended conversation with the coaches, as well.
1. How difficult is it to win a national title?
I think it’s extremely difficult to do. But there has to be something about your team at the end that, when you’re doing it, it feels easy. There’s an interesting dichotomy, because if you have the right team, it isn’t that hard. We’ve had teams that were more talented than our two NCAA championship teams. But for whatever reason, chemistry or whatever, things didn’t click the same way that it did for the two that won.
This past spring, when we got to the NCAA Tournament and things started unfolding, it felt like we were trying not to put the cart before the horse. There have been years we’ve gotten to the tournament and I’ve thought it was going to be hard. This year, those thoughts didn’t enter my head.
It’s extremely difficult. To even get into the hunt of winning a national championship, whether it’s the final 16 or the final eight or final four, you get to a point where it’s so, so difficult. In our case with baseball, you’ve got 300 teams, so to be the best of the 300 teams and be the last team standing, it takes a tremendous amount of skill, patience and luck. Things need to fall right. You need to stay uninjured and the harmony of the team needs to move in a positive direction all year.
It takes extraordinary good fortune in some tough moments. Things have to break your way. Last spring, we lost in the NCAA title match by a slim margin. But we could’ve lost earlier matches that got us there. When we won the championship in 2015, the come-from-behind win over Florida in the Elite Eight was like Lazarus rising. Florida’s coaches thought they had us beat — they were flashing thumbs up and things like that. But we hung around. When we got through that match, there was an energy released in the team, and it was astonishing to be a part of.
2. What are the most important traits of a championship-caliber team?
Chemistry is one, but resiliency is another. There is always going to be adversity. It’s how your group responds to it. Obviously you can have talent, but I think if you can have a team that’s resilient and has chemistry and is a group playing for the person next to them, and not themselves, they aren’t looking to save themselves when adversity strikes. They’re looking to solve the problem for the group. But the chemistry part might be the hardest part to have.
Experience is vital. You need kids who have at least knocked on the door before and been close, so they know how to get there. You need skilled players — you can’t do it without very good players. The best teams we’ve had in Vanderbilt history have been littered with Major League Baseball players. You need Major League players who are without ego and part of the team, and we’ve been fortunate to have that.
You need players who are committed, accountable and playing for each other. In college tennis, there are three doubles matches for the doubles point and then six singles matches. We talk about showing up in all nine positions, executing and competing at the highest level. We don’t talk about winning those positions; we focus on showing up and competing. You really need a sense of everyone in the team going the same direction.
We’ve asked our players before to write letters to their subconscious mind. What do your eyes see when you win a championship? I think you write things out for a couple of reasons. It’s really important for people to believe they can achieve things, and it’s a way of honoring young people by showing that you believe they can achieve things. Then you get them to actively engage with their own imaginations — what does it look like? What does it sound like? What does the racket feel like in your hand? It’s using as much sensory input as you can and making it as vivid as possible.
3. How early did you recognize your championship team was special?
I was able to experience a team in 2007 that was dominant early and a team last season that just put it together at the right time. I think most of the teams we’ve had have had the ability to make a run. It’s more about, who are they in April come tournament time?
The 2007 team, there was just something about them. They did not like to lose. You found that out very quickly. Early on, we were something like 28-4 in match-play games that year. We haven’t really come close to that, from a record standpoint, since. You could just tell it was a special group.
This past season, despite the variety of lineups and the variety of people we traveled, we didn’t experience a drop-off in terms of performance. It didn’t matter who traveled or where we were, it felt like we were always competing for a title. Looking back, we could tell it had the potential for a good year if we put all the girls out there at one time, instead of swapping in and out. But I probably didn’t know they had it in them until we got to the NCAA Tournament. You just had that feeling. You had no tangible proof of why — you could just feel this team was going to do something.
For us, it was late in the 2014 season. Initially, we thought we had a chance to be pretty good. But as we went through the season, there were a lot of ebbs and flows. We won a lot of games, but it was not easy. In one of our first series of the year against Mississippi State, we get blown out in Game 1, 17-2. At that point, we had to check ourselves. Did we have the goods? Could we play at a high level? But as the season progressed, once we finished the SEC Tournament, it was almost a breather for us. We go into a regional and play well and then go into a Super Regional and play well. Then we took ownership of who were and discovered that, hey, this team might have something special.
For it, it was not until the SEC Tournament. You always want to be in the conversation or in the range of winning a title. But when we won the SEC Tournament, it was a breakthrough win, because we’d never done it before. That was a dam breaking for us. We demolished Alabama in the quarters, beat Florida pretty decisively and then beat Georgia to win it. The team was elated. We went in as a four seed in NCAAs and beat a good Clemson team in the Round of 16. Then we meet Florida again as a five seed, just a brutal draw. On paper, Florida was the best team in the country. We win, move on to Southern Cal, who is the No. 1 team in the country, and eventually face UCLA, the defending national champs, in the title match. I don’t know what it was, but the whole time, there was a sense of, “We can do this.” That all began in the SEC Tournament.
4. What was it like the moment your team won the championship?
As I get older and have kids, I realize it’s the same feeling you have when your kids accomplish something. It’s not about me. I haven’t really done anything to win either of our national championships. The girls have done everything; they work and put in the time, so you get to see the sense of excitement and unbridled enthusiasm when they win. This year, when they raced over and grabbed the trophy, I just sort of sat back and thought how happy I was that they’re getting to experience this. It’s just something you don’t see very often. You’re part of something that will be remembered, and even if you’re a small part of it, it’s pretty humbling.
That feeling is tough to sum up. For me, it’s almost like you don’t know you’re there yet. You’re watching and going, “Is this really happening?” For me, I just sat back and watched it. I wanted to see it. I’ve always made the analogy of it being like Christmas morning, watching your kids open their gifts. I didn’t go out onto the field — I wanted to watch it live, in color, with the kids. For me, it was a lot of watching.
You get to that point and you can’t sum it up in words. You need months to look back and put things in proper perspective so we can move forward. But it was a great moment. It captured the activity of the team and allowed them to embrace a situation that very few get to embrace.
I’ve been on other teams where we’d had a special group, but we fell short. After we lost to Michigan here in an NCAA Regional in 2007, coach John Winkin, the old Maine baseball coach and a regional rep for that series, ate breakfast with me the next morning. He said, “Tim, someday your team will win a national championship.” I thought, yeah sure. But then he said, “You’re going to win one with a team you didn’t think you’d do it with.” With that 2014 team, in some ways he was right.
In that moment, I just remember wanting to go shake the hand of UCLA’s staff. The head coach was, and still is, Pete Sampras’ sister, Stella Sampras Webster. We just gave each other a hug. I have a sense in a championship that it’s really the players’ championship, it’s their moment. Coaches are part of it, but that’s their moment, so I was conscious of taking my time getting over there as they celebrated. I felt this incredible sense of accomplishment. It was a five-and-a-half hour match. I remember walking across the courts at Baylor, and I had this sense of how much this team had bought in, which isn’t an easy thing to do. My friend told me later I looked like I was just standing in line at Starbucks for coffee. It’s corny, but I felt love. I felt this love for the players. It was not dependent upon winning or losing. It was just, wow. They competed at such a high level, and it was such a neat thing to be a part of.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.