September 7, 2007

Coaching Couple Finds Happiness in Ithaca

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Less than a year ago, Deitre Collins-Parker, the head coach of Cornell volleyball, and her husband, Dale Parker, an assistant coach for women’s basketball, were in similar situations to their current ones. Deitre was coaching her squad to its third consecutive Ivy League championship; now she’s eyeing a fourth. Dale was preparing his team for a run at an Ancient Eight crown, same as today. Yet, since then, very little has remained the same for the coaching couple, who moved to Georgia and back, transitioned to entirely new jobs and back and gained a newfound appreciation for Cornell athletics.
The story really starts in 2004. After taking over the reins as head coach that summer, Collins-Parker vaulted Cornell volleyball to unprecedented success immediately. A two-time (1983-84) Broderick Award winner as collegiate player of the year and U.S. National team member, Collins-Parker had already proven herself as a player and a coach before she came to Ithaca, having become the winningest coach in UNLV volleyball history and having won Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 1998. But she was able to further her credentials on The Hill, turning a team that had been on the cusp of greatness into a league powerhouse, winning three consecutive Ivy titles — including its first since 1993 — and appearing in two straight NCAA tournaments by the end of 2006.
Meanwhile, Dale Parker, who married Deitre in 2006, soon moved to Ithaca and took three jobs in the area — one of which was as a volunteer coach of the women’s basketball team. Parker landed the job after women’s basketball head coach Dayna Smith met him visiting Deitre and learned that the 6-10 Parker was a former professional basketball player and coach overseas and a former college coach stateside. After expressing interest in coaching, Parker was soon added as a volunteer, but as fun and rewarding as the job was, life was not easy for him.
“When we saw him out in the hallway we were pretty excited about his height,” Smith said. “He was fantastic last year. Unfortunately, he was with us very limited time because he had three part-time jobs.”
“One of his jobs was from 11 at night until 6 in the morning. He’d sleep for a couple hours and go work another job, and then come [to coach] in the evening,” Deitre said. “So, when something opened up near family, that’s when I started considering that maybe I needed to leave, because obviously we didn’t want to be newlyweds and not able to see [each other]. I just thought we needed that opportunity to have a better place in life, I guess.”
By the end of the 2006 season, Collins-Parker had amassed over a decade of experience as a successful head coach. Yet, she had never worked at a “big-time athletics school … with unlimited resources,” and in the context of her husband’s struggles and her own aspirations, University of Georgia head coach Joel McCartney’s offer for Deitre to join as an assistant volleyball coach seemed very appealing.
“Not only was I going to have the chance to move near my husband’s family, my mom also considered moving there, which was important to me because she’s not coming to the cold,” Collins-Parker said with a laugh. “It just seemed at the time like the right thing for me to do.”
On Jan. 16, McCartney made the announcement that Deitre would be joining his staff. Waiting until second semester started so she could say goodbye to her team, Deitre left for Georgia while her husband stayed behind to finish his work with the women’s basketball team. Not to be outdone, Dale — despite not even being an assistant coach — made a tremendous impression on athletes and coaches alike. His direct style to coaching was simple yet remarkably effective, while his experience and unique playing ability — it’s hard for a coach to pretend to be a 6-10 opponent — proved invaluable.
“I wasn’t that vocal, but I had a good rapport with the players,” Parker said.
“He brought a lot of energy. I know the players loved him because he was enthusiastic,” Smith said. “He’s someone that knows the position of forward and was able to really teach and get our girls fired up.”
One player Parker had a particularly strong influence on was senior Moina Snyder, who joined the team as a transfer last season. Snyder found it difficult to adapt to the Ivy style of play at first, and did not start the first six games of the season. But she credits Parker with turning her from being an outsider early in the season, to becoming the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, leading shot-blocker and an All-Ivy Honorable Mention honoree.
“He’s really straightforward in what he wants, and that’s rare. … He makes a different program according to who you are. He doesn’t try to make you fit his idea, he adapts to you: that’s awesome,” Snyder said. “He was a huge deal in my transition out here. I owe him a lot. … I really feel that he was there to put me in the right direction when I was lost. … He actually noticed what was wrong with my game.”
Meanwhile, Deitre arrived in Athens, Ga., and hit the ground running, working to rebuild a struggling program with its new head coach.
“From the day I landed until May, I was gone every weekend [on recruiting trips],” she explained.
When she wasn’t gone, Deitre was doing a lot of office work, and received very little time to work with the girls on the team — the very thing she loved the most about coaching. When Dale arrived in Georgia after the women’s basketball season — with his Red squad having just missed an NIT berth by one victory — he found Deitre exhausted and not thrilled with her coaching role, and life not much better in Georgia than it was in Ithaca.
“Deitre knew I was from Georgia, so she was pretty much doing it for me. She wanted me to be around,” Parker said. “Things weren’t what I expected [though].”
“When [Dale] first came out, he found a job right away,” Deitre explained. “But then they had to cut back on that job, so it was gone. Then, it became really difficult for him to find a job in Georgia. … It was just a real learning experience, I think, for both of us. We both kind of joked, ‘Man, Cornell hasn’t found a volleyball coach yet,’ and then all of a sudden, there was a position open on the women’s basketball staff.”
Thinking Cornell would likely never take either one back on their own, let alone together, Dale finally called Smith to inquire about the open position. When word got around Cornell that Dale was interested in returning, Deitre quickly received a call asking if she would return too.
“My boss called me right away and said, ‘Look, we’ve offered the position, but if that person turns it down, would you be willing to come back?’ And I was like YES. I didn’t even hesitate or pause,” Deitre said. “It was just the blessing that we needed. … I liked what I did. He really liked working with the basketball team because after working two jobs, he volunteered his time to be here.”
The rest is history … and so fortuitous, that it seems like divine intervention. Deitre was able to leave her job at Georgia on good terms with head coach McCartney, even though Collins-Parker was the third assistant he had lost that year. The Parkers were able to find a sublet for their house in Georgia almost immediately (“A lady just happened to be riding by and saw the ‘For Rent’ sign,” Dale explained,) and found a place in Ithaca quickly, negating the issues of housing. Because no coach had ever been named to replace her, Deitre was able to step right back into her role almost as if she had never left. Dale now has control of the forwards, and gets to do what he loves all the time now. And the two of them actually have manageable hours, and can spend time together for a change.
“Really now, knowing that I’m going to be here, my husband’s here, we both love what we do, it has made it just … perfect,” Deitre said. “Those six months were good for me with my husband’s family and to get to know them, and to beat the bad weather here. … Not that I would do it over again!”
“If I had to write a movie script, this would’ve been the perfect one,” Dale said.
Upon returning, Deitre in particular was most concerned about the reaction of the players she had left here in Ithaca. But it was not an issue.
“The last hurdle for me to get over was finding out how the team was going to respond, and I definitely had fears about them wanting me to come back or not,” she said, noting that some players who thought they might have a new shot with a new coach might feel despondent with her return. “I was really amazed how quickly they got back to me and let me know they were happy I was coming back, and that was the best part of all this and the biggest hurdle to get over. … They’ve been really positive and our relationship is really growing.”
As for Dale, the reaction was equally positive, if not more so. His players had known the team was actively looking to fill its vacant assistant coaching spot, but until the team got word Parker was hired, none of the players even knew he might return.
“[Coach Smith] sent out an email to the whole team saying, ‘I’m sure all of you will be happy to hear that we found our new coach … it’s Coach Parker. He’s coming back.’ And I took the phone and called every one of my teammates, even if it was midnight,” Snyder said. “It was like a big celebration. We all sent out e-mails; we called each other … it couldn’t get any more perfect.”
Smith already knew about Parker’s knowledge of the game and teaching ability. But in the time since he has accepted his new role, she has been even more impressed with his work ethic and passion, as well as his recruiting ability and connections.
“We’re really fortunate to have him,” she said.
Welcome home Deitre and Dale.