How Greg McGarity found Tom Black, the key to Georgia volleyball’s turnaround

Greg McGarity announced his retirement after a decade-plus at Georgia. A look at his hire that turned around the volleyball program.

I know, I know. It’s not a Georgia women’s basketball story, but it’s a tale about women’s athletics that I saw as timely and worthy of sharing. It’s a one-time — and maybe occasional — look at another athletic program. Allow me to share a different perspective with more women’s hoops coverage to come.

ATHENS, Ga. — Over the recent years and months as the career of Georgia’s athletic director comes to a close, Greg McGarity noticed something when walking through the athletic complexes inside the Ramsey Student Center.

A hallway connects to the Gabrielsen Natatorium — where the Georgia swimming and diving program has a plethora of history — and the volleyball practice gym. McGarity noticed a stark contrast on each side of the hallway, and it sits uneasy with Georgia athletics.

The swimming and diving displays feature history under long-time coach Jack Bauerle. Olympic gold medals. Names of Bulldogs who performed on the biggest stages. A handful of SEC titles and national championships.

McGarity takes one glance to the other side of the hallway. The display features Georgia’s volleyball program. Frankly, it doesn’t feature much history in its 42-year tenure as a university-sanctioned sport. The wall is mostly barren.

“You can quickly tell there's not much of a history with Georgia volleyball,” McGarity said. “We have never been able to be consistent in fall sports other than football.”

Nearly four years ago to the day, McGarity took a step toward changing it with his volleyball program. Georgia needed a new face, approach and culture. It couldn’t find success when playing in the dingy confines of a gym nestled in the back of the Ramsey Center — a facility used primarily for student fitness functions and classrooms — under Lizzy Stemke.

Georgia went 1-35 in SEC play during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Tom Black, the coach with a laid-back, California style became the answer. He led Georgia to an NCAA tournament appearance in 2019, its 11th in program history and first since 2013.

McGarity’s quest to hire Black came in unconventional fashion. A promise of a facility upgrade (kind of) allowed the Bulldogs to lure their coach from Loyola Marymount. Four seasons into Black’s tenure, the volleyball hire might prove to be one of McGarity’s best, most-underrated hires.

McGarity, the former tennis letterman, understands the importance of success beyond the spotlight-heavy confines of Sanford Stadium. As McGarity passes on the torch of athletic director after a decade-plus at the leadership helm, he firmly believes Georgia volleyball is in good hands.

“Tom is going to be remarkable,” McGarity said. “We need Tom Black to stay at the University of Georgia.”

How it came to be

Georgia head coach Tom Black during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

McGarity attended a 2016 National Football Foundation luncheon. He sat near the former athletic directors at Texas and Arizona, Mike Perrin and Greg Byrne, respectively. McGarity didn’t think about football in this moment. He wanted to find a way to jolt a fall sport beyond the gridiron.

McGarity thought it could be done by focusing on recruiting — the lifeblood of college athletics. He knew hundreds of coaches who did it successfully in baseball, football and other major sports. Admittedly, McGarity didn’t know much about the volleyball coaching landscape.

He did, however, see what success in volleyball looked like under Mary Wise when at Florida.

“Are you aware of any recruiting gurus in the world of volleyball?” McGarity asked Perrin and Byrne.

They steered McGarity in the right direction. Terry Pettit knew who to find. He’s the former coach at Nebraska, winning a volleyball national title over Texas in 1995 and having over two decades of experience. Pettit became Georgia’s right-hand man for the coaching search.

He gave McGarity a list of 10 candidates. Black was one of the first two on the list. Georgia brought in three coaches for a final round of interviews.

“If you can get one of these,” Pettit said, as McGarity recounted. “You've really done a special service to Georgia volleyball.”

McGarity had never heard of Tom Black prior to this moment. He saw the resume, which included three NCAA tournament appearances, a Sweet 16 berth and 127 wins over seven seasons. Black also coached the Canadian national volleyball team, although he stepped down from the role on Nov. 26, 2020, which allowed him to solely focus his duties on leading Georgia.

Black stood out among the final candidates. McGarity placed his trust in the coach with West Coast ties and the personality of a San Diego, Calif. native. A casual conversation rerouted the trajectory of a struggling program with potential.

“I thought we could make a big impact if we could be successful, because this school means everything to the state,” Black said. “It's a combination of untapped potential and opportunity to have an impact.”

The selling point

McGarity said the Ramsey Center is like a high school gym. It doesn’t have the bells-and-whistles of an SEC arena. It’s lit poorly. It doesn’t make Georgia an attractive playing destination for a recruit, quite honestly.

Former volleyball player Anna Kate Karstens put it a bit more kindly. She called it “intimate,” but admitted not much of a fanbase existed. The program was in a tailspin over her first two years at Georgia before Black came. Karstens said the team morale became so low where the team “expected to lose.”

Four years into Black’s tenure, it’s needless to say. The Ramsey Center has solely become the volleyball team’s practice gym.

McGarity walked Black into Stegeman Coliseum as part of his pitch. He saw a new beginning. Georgia needed new life into a struggling program, and a change in venue played a larger part than one might expect.

“You can compete in Stegeman,” McGarity said to Black on that day. “We will make a commitment. It has all of the possibilities of being a big-time sport here.”

Black knew about the Ramsey Center. Georgia had to play a few games in it, too, before fully transitioning to the arena that is home to many of the Bulldogs’ premier sports. Black instantly saw the possibilities, and his vision came into focus.

All because he thought Stegeman Coliseum could be “the best college volleyball venue in the country,” McGarity remembered.

“It meant a lot that he wanted to get us in Stegeman,” Black said. “I don't think I would've come otherwise. He was willing to put in the resources, so the rest is up to us as a coaching staff.”

Even in the age of a Covid-19 pandemic and restricted crowds, Stegeman Coliseum still offers more opportunity than the Ramsey Center.

The results have fared well, too. Georgia finished 20-10 in 2019, en route to Black’s first NCAA tournament appearance in Athens. Black followed it with a 4-4 record in a unique 2020 fall season, which included a victory over No. 5 Florida.

“I would’ve never imagined we would be here,” said former player Meghan Donovan, a senior in 2019, of playing in the arena. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but this beats it all.”

Why Georgia volleyball is different

Black did away with big-picture goals. He didn’t see it as an immediate race for Georgia to build upon its history. The cliches and coachspeak hold true here, because the volleyball program had to build its culture from the foundation and build each day with taking minor steps.

Four notable former players who were part of Black’s first practice — Karstens, Donovan, Sydney Gilliam (now recently-married Sydney Woerner) and Caroline Ostman — remember the instant change in approach. In many ways, Black retaught them how to play volleyball again.

“Everything you know, forget it,” Karstens recalled Black saying. “We’re going to start from the ground up.”

Literally. Everything. Even something as simple as serving, swinging and passing.

“I should’ve thought he was crazy. We were struggling so much, and we would try everything,” Gilliam said. “You literally use your platform rather than your legs to pass. It’s so hard to explain because it’s so simple. When he said this, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I made it so much harder on myself.’”

Black focused on the mental aspect of the game. He implored his players to focus on each point and every minute detail. He took time to know his players, learn their personalities and find the best ways to coach them.

He brought things that Georgia volleyball hadn’t seen. Early on, records didn’t matter. Finding chemistry and earning small victories became the priority. Years later, it has led to on-court success. McGarity realized it, too, and knew that Black needed time to make up a lot of ground and compete in the SEC.

All of it centers around growth, which has been the backbone of Black’s era.

“You finally saw change. It’s kind of a light at the end of this long tunnel,” Ostman said. “It was a really fun and exciting time when (the new coaches) got here.”

Black has added the pieces to make his vision come to fruition, too. In his fourth season, most — if not all — of the players on Georgia’s roster are Black’s recruits.

Twelve of his 18 players are from outside of the Peach State. Four of them — including key players Brynn Chandler and Rachel Ritchie — are from California. Black’s evaluation of talent and his ability to attract players to join the cross-country trek have brought Georgia volleyball to a new level of success.

“It's not hard. Everybody thinks about Georgia, even from California,” Black said. “They don't think about it. They see it and say ‘This is amazing.’ My ties to California are so deep, so kids were willing to take a look.”

Step by step, Black’s career brings Georgia volleyball to another tier. He won’t say the program has “made it” until the Bulldogs reach a Final Four. They’re much better off than they were before Black, however.

McGarity walks away from Georgia’s program on Dec. 31 to join his wife Sheryl in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He’ll probably still keep up with all of Georgia’s athletic programs. He hopes to remember the change in the volleyball program as one of his best hires.

Georgia found its answer at a luncheon. McGarity’s chat with colleagues could add more of a defined legacy to the volleyball wall at the Ramsey Center.

“There's no reason volleyball can't be a dynamic sport,” McGarity said. “I watched it at Florida for years, and it had all of the elements. Why not at Georgia?”