Alabama calls on Devine intervention

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s not the kind of thing that happened at East Tennessee State.

When Lindsey Devine held her first fall practice as the new University of Alabama volleyball coach last week, the floor at Foster Auditorium was filled with players. There were 20 in uniform all ready to go, including a couple she never anticipated being on the roster.

One was Brooke Kuhlman, an All-American beach volleyball player at Florida State who has joined the Crimson Tide as a graduate transfer. Alabama fans are quickly becoming familiar with her boyfriend as well, offensive lineman Landon Dickerson.

“I can’t take credit for that one,” Devine said with a causal laugh. “This is a very rare situation.”

The whole thing might still be a little surreal for her after 16 years of guiding the Buccaneers, where she set the program record for career wins and led the Southern Conference team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances — including the first at-large bid in league history.

She’s also involved with USA Volleyball.

While that isn’t unusual for a Crimson Tide coach, this part of it is: Devine is originally from Canada. She has dual-citizenship, eh?

That happens in the Southeastern Conference about as often as you see a volleyball roster with 20 names including a graduate transfer from England (Eva Borrowdale).

“They were thirsty to have a different mindset and that’s what we really came in and talked to them about, investing more into each other, investing more into being part of the university and having a great student-athlete experience,” Devine said, “They were all about that.”

If you’re wondering how Devine ended up at Alabama, we’ll start at the beginning and that whole Great White North thing.

Americans don’t necessarily think volleyball when Toronto gets mentioned (Ok yes, her husband was a hockey player and they remain Maple Leaf fans), but a lot of people in the South aren’t quick to recognize that the sport is prominent even in Big Ten country. Penn State has won six national titles since 2006 and Nebraska three.

For example, the Canadian men’s team finished fifth at the last Olympics in Rio.

Devine attended York University from 1984-88, when she earned four all-province titles and a bronze medal at the 1985 Canadian National Championships. She also earned bachelor’s degrees in English, physical education and education, which gives a good hint about the kind of coach she’s become.

As an outside hitter, Devine wasn’t the biggest player, the most talented or overpowering. She had to pick her spots, find the open floor and look for opportunities to exploit.

“She was never the best athlete in the gym, but she was a competitive individual,” said former York coach Merv Mosher. “I think it’s true in almost every sport that the superstars are seldom the ones who make good coaches. It’s the people who really have to work at their craft.

“They study the game.”

Mosher, who had a big impact on her, is the second important piece in of the puzzle to understanding Devine. From 1979 to 1997, his teams went an astounding 192-17, for an incredible winning percentage of .919. He also played an active role with the National Women’s Team program, serving as an assistant coach with the Canadian Women’s Team and coach with the Canadian Junior Women’s Team.

He thought Devine would probably go into education and teaching. He wasn’t wrong.

“Teaching and coaching kind of goes hand-in-hand,” she said.

That statement sounds like something that would come out of her mentor’s mouth. Over the years he developed sayings for nearly every aspect of his program, which sort of come across like Gibbs’ rules on the television show “NCIS” (Mervisms?)

• “You never want to be an athlete’s last coach, because that means you’ve turned them off the sport.”

• “Players don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

• “No two athletes are alike. How do you expect to get the same results out of two people who are different if you’re treating them exactly the same?”

Devine’s coaching career began with the Durham Attack Volleyball Club, one of the top amateur programs in Ontario, where she helped the 17 boys elite team win back-to-back national titles.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Devine doesn’t do well with stagnation, although that has nothing to do with where she’s living. Her coaching duties for USA Volleyball began in the summer of 2012, and her 16-year stretch at East Tennessee State included having two kids, earning a master’s degree in sports management in 2014 and her Global Sport Leadership Doctoral degree in 2018.

Meanwhile, her program sported a 100 percent graduation rate and earned the AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) Team Academic Award, which requires at least a 3.30 cumulative team grade point average, nine straight years.

ETSU also beat Tennessee for the first time in 35 years.

Ironically, Devine interviewed for the Volunteers’ head coaching job when first-time head coach Eve Rackham was hired in January 2018. An administrator who had been part of the process, and knew Alabama associate athletics director Marie Robbins, was the one to forward her name when Ed Allen stepped down late last season.

“As soon as talking with the committee you could just sense they’re so proud to be here,” Devine said. “The professionalism, when you talk to a lot of people around here they’ve been around here for years. People want to stay here.

“I’m thinking, ‘Well what is it? What is it about it?’ As soon they start telling the stories, the history and the traditions, people are always coming back to be part of this amazing university.”

Devine and her husband Carl were sold after the on-campus interview, but still had more to consider. One of their kids, who had played for her with the Buccaneers, was an assistant coach. The other is a swimmer at Tennessee. However, with the timing right for a change right, they all concluded that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“This is a special place … I want to be part of that,” Devine surmised.

Now she has one of the more interesting, and tougher, challenges among Crimson Tide coaches.

Under Allen, who was in Tuscaloosa for eight seasons and compiled a record of 152-101, the Crimson Tide was good. Alabama made two appearances in the NCAA Tournament and notched its first-ever victory. It also set the program record for wins in a season with 26 in 2014

It just couldn’t take that next step.

Alabama finished seventh in the league last season. It wasn’t just middle of the pack in the SEC, but nationally in a sport that’s been dominated by the Big ten and West-Coast teams.

Good thing Devine likes challenges.

Among her first to navigate through is the roster, which has 11 holdovers, and meshing together team between them and the newcomers. That, and at what position in the indoor game do you play a beach All-American?

“That’s a great question,” she said.