Melanie Balcomb can stand the heat. I discovered this firsthand the day I met her in the spring of 2002. At the time Vanderbilt was in the throes of finding a new women’s basketball coach. I had been asked—along with my husband, Chris Fletcher—to be part of the search committee.
“Her name’s Melanie Balcomb,” we were told. “She’s the coach at Xavier.”
I wasn’t quite sure where Xavier was. I thought it was somewhere in Missouri. (I later learned it was in Cincinnati.) Still, I was excited. Mainly because Balcomb’s Xavier team had knocked Tennessee out of the NCAA tournament the year before in a shocking upset. (Shocking to some. I actually had the Musketeers advancing in my Tall Girl Women’s Basketball Pool.) And they didn’t just eke out a win; they thrashed the Lady Vols 80–65 right there on national television. So yes, I was excited.
During the interview process, Chris and I met privately with Coach Balcomb in a little conference room near the basketball offices at Memorial Gym. At one point one of us—it may have been me, it may have been Chris—asked a question that the other thought was, well … inappropriate. I can’t remember exactly what all was said, but before anyone could say “backdoor cut,” a full-blown marital spat had erupted right there in front of Coach Balcomb, whom we barely knew! I’m thinking, That’s it. No way she’s gonna come here now. She probably thinks we’re all a bunch of lunatics.
Then I looked up, fully expecting to see her bolting for the door. Only she wasn’t bolting. She was laughing. Laughing at and with us. And in that moment I saw something I liked. Something that said, Marital spat? Bring it on! I can take it! No standing on ceremony with me! Hit me with your best shot! And that was all I needed. From my standpoint the interview was over. I was sold. No need for further discussion. Because in that moment I saw what I’ve come to know seven and a half years later: When things get hot in the kitchen of SEC women’s basketball, Melanie Balcomb not only can stand the heat, she revels in it.
Melanie Sue Balcomb was born in Princeton, N.J., on Sept. 24, 1962—the youngest of Alan and Barbara Balcomb’s three children. Her father was the varsity boys coach at South Brunswick High School for 30 years. He later coached at Princeton as an assistant under Pete Carril, who is generally credited with developing the “Princeton offense,” a style of play that features lots of passing and movement without the ball, including the aforementioned backdoor cut. I imagine dinner conversations at the Balcomb household revolved more around x’s and o’s than the usual family fare.
Looking over Balcomb’s career—both as a player and a coach—one thing that stands out is the number of firsts she’s achieved. At Hightstown High School she was the first female athlete to score more than 1,000 points in a career (she finished with 1,581). In high school and at Trenton State College, she set career records for scoring, assists and steals. In her first season as a head coach, she led the Ashland (Ohio) University Eagles to the first winning season in league play in that program’s history. In just three seasons at Xavier, she built a program of perennial postseason contenders. Her 1998 squad was the first to play postseason (WNIT) in Xavier history. Her next three teams made the NCAA Tournament, culminating with the 2001 Elite Eight team that beat Tennessee.
During her seven years at Vanderbilt, Balcomb’s teams have won three SEC tournament championships and advanced to the NCAA Tournament every year—four times reaching the Sweet 16. Last year’s postseason run may have been the most impressive. After winning a school-record 10 regular-season SEC games, the 2009 squad managed to win the SEC Tournament and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16—all without the services of starting center Hannah Tuomi, who was on crutches because of a foot injury. Even with the graduation of All-SEC standouts Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper, fans are already buzzing about the upcoming season. One thing we’ve learned about Coach Balcomb and her teams: Don’t ever count them out.
Sports teams often take on the personality and characteristics of their coach. Balcomb is tough, but she’s also a lot of fun. Her teams play tough, yet seem to enjoy themselves.
That first time Chris and I met Coach Balcomb, she was adamant about her players having a life outside basketball.
“We want to win,” she said, “and we will win. But I want my players to enjoy their time at Vanderbilt. They’re kids. They should be having fun.”
Balcomb’s teams play exciting and aggressive basketball. After Vanderbilt beat Tennessee 74–58 at Memorial last year, I was in the press room when Pat Summitt made her postgame remarks. “This is the most aggressive Vanderbilt team we have ever played,” she said. “Definitely the most aggressive team we’ve played this season. You have to give Melanie credit.”
I often attribute Balcomb’s tenacity to her Jersey background. Let’s face it—people from New Jersey are tough. They have that no-nonsense, street-fighter mentality. They keep coming at you. This no-holds-barred fighter attitude was never better demonstrated than in the play of last year’s national Defensive Player of the Year, Jennifer Risper (a Californian with a Jersey attitude).
I’m often surprised by how well Balcomb’s teams play during seasons I would have conceded as ones for rebuilding. But rebuilding is not a word in Balcomb’s vocabulary. “If I talk about rebuilding, the players will think we’re rebuilding,” Balcomb says. “Vanderbilt is expected to be on top. The kids have to rise to that. They know that.”
Balcomb’s teams are fun to watch. They like to move quickly downcourt, especially on offense. “You get more high percentage shots that way,” Balcomb explains. “Half-court, it’s always five on five. We create numbers by running in transition. Five on four, four on three, two on one, whatever. Somebody’s always going to be open.” Her philosophy is supported by an amazing statistic:
Vanderbilt is the only school to be ranked among the top 12 in field-goal percentage in the NCAA for each of the past seven seasons (the Balcomb era to date). In the 2003 season, they led the nation; in two others, they ranked second.
Like any good marriage the Balcomb-Vanderbilt union is one of mutual respect—a respect that has grown through the years.
“I like it here,” Balcomb says. “I get to recruit to a university I would have loved to have gone to. I don’t know many coaches who can say that.”
She laughs and adds, “I enjoy coaching kids that are brighter than I am.”