Texas' Salima Rockwell plays every role

Graham Hays/ESPN

A three-time All-American at Penn State, Salima Rockwell knows what to look for when watching the Longhorns practice.

AUSTIN, Texas -- There are days when someone hands you a championship trophy. There are days when a recruit tells you that she wants to spend the next four years helping you win instead of beating your brains out.

And there are the other days when you coach. Mostly there are other days. Thursday, in this particular case.

Associate head coach Salima Rockwell was at her desk in what amounts to volleyball row in the athletic offices of the University of Texas, the program's work space that is attached to Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and looks across campus at the iconic height of the Main Building. Freshman Chloe Collins had just left her office following a one-on-one meeting. At some point before the day was out, Rockwell needed to make contact with a handful of club coaches to check on future recruits, then check in with recent signees to see if they would be in town for the next home match. On her computer screen was a paused image from a recent match between Iowa State and Oklahoma, the former the opponent that awaited Texas that coming weekend. It was almost noon and the video hadn't moved much that morning, and, in fact, it would not for the rest of the day.

Rockwell usually keeps scouting clips queued up to get to during the lulls in her day. It turns out there aren't many lulls.

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Salima Rockwell watches video of future opponents and potential recruits -- when she can find the time.

At that moment, assistant coach Erik Sullivan stuck his head in Rockwell's office with the slightly exasperated air of someone very much out of his depth and treading water in that state for longer than patience allowed.

"How do you size yoga pants?" Sullivan demanded.

What followed was a conversation of more minutes than might seem necessary for the subject and which spanned two offices. It ended with Rockwell offering what sounded like something between an encouragement and a plea.

"Dude, it will be fine," Rockwell said. "Just don't order [5-foot-4 libero] Kat Brooks an extra-large tall."

Excelling in moments small and big

You want to know what it takes to be a champion? This is the stuff that never seems to make it into the books famous coaches write.

Thrust into his first college head-coaching position on an interim basis more than a decade ago at USC, a high-profile program with which to learn on the job, Jerritt Elliott read a lot of those books. He hoped to find the magic formula in the words of Pat Riley or Bill Walsh. Instead, on a run to clear his mind one day, an un-ghostwritten thought made its way through the clutter of mantras and axioms.

"It just kind of hit me that all these people are great at managing people, and the people they have around them are great at managing people," Elliott said. "And they're great at motivating the players to create a program where everybody knows what you're doing, and everybody who touches your athletes has an influence on them."

In moments big and small (and perhaps tall, if we're talking yoga pants), people make a program what it is or isn't. Rockwell, the recruiting coordinator for a program that keeps landing special talents and a coach with the pedigree of a world-class setter, more than holds her own in the big moments. She is just as good, and just as influential, in the small ones.

That players still under her watch swear by her is one thing, but so, too, do players no longer obliged to say nice things. Former Longhorns All-American Ashley Engle was already a senior when Rockwell joined the coaching staff before the 2009 season. Their time together ended not with the high of a championship but with the unforgettable low of a two-set lead slipping away in the national championship match. Still, it was like old friends reuniting when Engle stopped by practice while in town for a wedding and got a bear hug from Rockwell.

"She's just a really warm person and very inviting," Engle said. "She's a person where you just instantly feel like you can be yourself and open up. It may have been her first year [in 2009], but she had the ability to make you feel like she had just been coaching with the program for years. It was the perfect fit."

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Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott can look to Salima Rockwell to handle just about any situation.

Slowly sold on coaching

It wasn't a fit Rockwell planned. After a standout career as a setter at Penn State, where she was a three-time All-American under coach Russ Rose from 1991 to 1994, she played for the United States national team until 1999. The end of that run came about on terms not entirely her own, and she left burned out on volleyball. Rather than go overseas to continue playing professionally, she left the court entirely and found her way to pharmaceutical sales. It was only when her father fell ill not quite two years later and she returned home to be closer to her parents that she took a position as an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh.

She recalled that on his deathbed, her dad took great amusement in noting that his predictions of a coaching career, her protests notwithstanding, had come true.

There was still some convincing to be done. Rockwell went back to sales after her time at Pitt but was lured back to the court when her old national team coach, Terry Liskevych, offered her a job at Oregon State. After a season there, she went back to Penn State, intent on settling in as the director of operations and staying home with her young family, which by then included the first of two sons. Within a few months, Rose talked her into an assistant coaching position, with all the travel, recruiting and late nights of video study it entailed.

Finally, when a job opened at Texas, the chance to help shape a program on the rise and to put her family in position to avail itself of all that Austin offered was too much to pass up. It was the best move for her career, which perhaps confirmed once and for all that coaching was, in fact, her career.

When Rockwell first started at Pitt, she was only a few years older than the players, still a part of their generation. More than a decade later, she is hardly old. But she's older. The players, not so much.

"Kids are different, and that's OK," Rockwell said. "It's whatever, it's the world we live in. But I love, I really love, helping them. I mean, Chloe is a great example. I want them to be confident, strong women, those kind of things. So the relationship part is the same, that kind of mentoring part.

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Salima Rockwell shares a light moment at practice with Hannah Allison, left, assistant coach Erik Sullivan and Haley Eckerman.

"I'm way further removed from the music; I don't know what's going on. I don't get how they even warm up to some of that stuff because, whatever. I'm still figuring out Twitter and Instagram and what a hashtag means. So those kind of things [change], but I feel like I have more to offer now."

On this particular Thursday, the meeting with Collins is brief, a continuation of a conversation they began after practice the previous day. A freshman setter with the kind of charismatic personality that leads some to call her "little Lima" after you know who, Collins has gone through the ups and downs that might be expected for a freshman trying to fit in on the defending national champion. Rockwell wanted to talk about strategies for when things aren't going well. But it could have been a conversation about footwork, one setter to another, or a conversation about pretty much anything else.

"She's absolutely awesome," Collins said. "I can go in her office and just talk to her about anything, maybe not even mention volleyball once. She's like a little mom, definitely a mother figure for me here. She knows when to be the coaching side and when to be helping you and friendly and cool and funny."

Providing a woman's perspective

There is a dilemma for the best assistant coaches, not specific to gender, but to the way their influence is felt. For a small group of the best in the business, long-serving adjutants like Connecticut women's basketball associate coach Chris Dailey, Alabama softball associate coach Alyson Habetz and North Carolina women's soccer chief assistant Bill Palladino, a program of their own is insufficient compensation for the increased distance that would come between them and those they coach, distance that necessarily comes with a different level of authority.

And in the case of Rockwell, there is something beneficial in being the only woman on an otherwise all-male staff.

"As wonderful as these men are, when it comes down it, they can't understand certain things," Rockwell said. "And there are certain things that the girls don't want to tell them, personal things, things you just wouldn't share with any guy, even if you're friends with them. I think it's nice to have a little bit of a safe place, or a different place, I don't know exactly what you want to call it, where they feel like they're being understood."

There may come a day when it is time to move on. As Rockwell noted, all assistants would love to do each and every thing their own way. But it won't be this day. Practice done, she planned to head home to her husband and two sons. She would try and put her phone out of reach during dinner, although her husband might peek to let her know what area code was calling, lest she miss an important recruit. Then she would go to sleep, the alarm set for 5:45 the next morning so she could get in a workout before fixing breakfast, battling Austin traffic and perhaps finally getting a few minutes to watch those Iowa State clips.

"I just feel like it makes sense for her to be here," Engle said. "And she's such a huge part of the program that if she ever did leave, it would be really, really hard to find someone to replace her. So I guess I hope she wouldn't ever leave because she helps shape young girls and can really influence them and where they go in their lives.

"She still checks in with me. We'll go overseas [to play professionally] and she's checking in, making sure we're doing good and just talking. I consider her like a friend. I would never want anyone to miss out on that."

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