On a Roll 6/24/02
By Tony Lane , Originally appeared in the Flagship

"All right, let's roll."

Cranbury, New Jersey must have the highest number of go-getters per capita in the United States. Todd Beamer grew up there. He uttered those last words before he and several passengers on Flight 93 thwarted their hijackers and crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field last September 11.

Melanie Balcomb also grew up in Cranbury. Now, it would be a new record for insensitivity to draw a parallel between Beamer's heroic and selfless deed and Balcomb's new job as women's basketball coach at Vanderbilt.

But every act, no matter the magnitude, starts somewhere, with that initial momentum: "All right, let's roll." It's only a coaching job, but Balcomb is ready to roll, and has been for as long as she can remember.

For central Jersey hoops fans, Princeton University is a Mecca of sorts, especially when a certain Senator and former presidential candidate dribbled there. Balcomb's father, a prep coaching legend himself, implanted the basketball spirit into little Melanie with surreptitious trips to check out the Tigers.

"He used to sneak me into Jadwin Gym and watch, even back before Jadwin when Bill Bradley was playing," remembered Balcomb. "I've been around basketball my whole life. I really don't know anything else."

Balcomb ran in organized hoops by the sixth grade and starred at Hightstown High, where she was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame for her basketball prowess. College recruiters started knocking on Balcomb's door, even if she didn't know entirely what to tell them.

"When college coaches came and talked to me about scholarships I used to tell them I just wanted to go to school to play basketball. I couldn't even come up with a major," said Balcomb with a laugh. "My parents would say, 'That's fine, honey, but don't tell them that.'"

She earned a Division I scholarship to Georgia Southern, following her baseball-playing brother south. Homesickness crept in soon thereafter, and Balcomb transferred to Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey), where she won three varsity letters.

"That's where I felt the most comfortable, on the court," said Balcomb. "I was very intense, very competitive. I remember in college I got voted Most Different On and Off the Court, because when I crossed the line, I was very intense and serious, yet off the court I was the class clown in high school and very easygoing and funny."

To the relief of her parents, Balcomb also picked up a bachelor's degree in health and physical education and a master's in education with concentrations in sports administration and athletic management. All of her pursuits on and off the court were targeted toward very specific coaching goals.

"One of the reasons I got my master's was because if I coached back in Division III, I may have to teach a class, and I didn't want to ever not get a coaching job because I didn't have the qualifications to teach," Balcomb said.

After assistant apprenticeships at Niagara, Ohio and Providence, Balcomb landed her first head coaching position at Division II Ashland (Ohio) University, right on schedule.

"I wanted to be a head coach by the time I was 30, and the Ashland [Ohio] job came up, and I was going to be 31, and I thought, 'OK, I'd better take this one,'" said Balcomb.

Two years later, Balcomb assumed the reins at Xavier, compiling a 135-78 record. The Musketeers captured lightning in a bottle during the 2000-01 season, when a senior-laden squad went 31-3 and advanced through the University of Tennessee to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

That season ranks as Balcomb's personal highlight because it was the best managing job the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year didn't have to do.

"Every one of those five seniors fit a different role of leadership perfectly," said Balcomb. "Then we had some younger players that were great and excited. I had never coached a team that could just coach themselves. They owned it, and that's what your ultimate goal as a coach is." Xavier slid back to 12-19 last season, and like sands through the hourglass, the 39-year-old Balcomb felt national aspirations slipping away.

"I wanted to be in a program that I could compete for a national championship by the time I was 40, and I turn 40 in, umm soon," Balcomb laughed.

Fate intervened. Jim Foster left for Ohio State, Tom Collen fell by the wayside and suddenly Vandy athletics director Todd Turner and Chancellor Gordon Gee were knocking on Balcomb's door. While Vandy's search committee back-checked Balcomb, she did a little homework on her own. Just within Ohio, Balcomb discovered unmitigated applause for Gee.

"The fact that he had been at Ohio State and was so popular by anybody I talked to over there, that had a big influence on me," said Balcomb. "Right away, I connected with Gordon Gee being a part of this program at the top."

Balcomb brings a philosophy built around the complete student-athlete. She discovered more about what kind of coach she didn't want to be at various basketball camps during her days in New Jersey. The sport-as-business mantra at some of the toughest camps turned Balcomb off, so she crafted the notion of promoting academic, athletic and social excellence among her charges.

"Don't get me wrong, I hate to lose, I want to win and I want to win at the highest level," Balcomb said, "but I don't want to compromise those things and have kids that don't go to class and don't graduate.

"I wanted to see how far I could take it and be successful doing it the way I wanted to do it. If it couldn't work at the highest level of Division I, then I would coach Division III. I was never gonna sacrifice what I believed in."

Just as Foster sought a new challenge at Ohio State, Balcomb is embracing a huge step forward at Vanderbilt, where she anticipates the benefits of recruiting the high-caliber athletes she'd regularly lose at Xavier.

"I can't say how excited I am to bring in players from my top list, not getting canceled out by them and going after the second list," said Balcomb. "Now I'm going to be able to coach those kids and see what I can do with the next-level athlete that I was not able to get at Xavier."

Can you see it? Balcomb rolling up her sleeves in her new office in Memorial Gym, checking a list of prospective recruits, and saying to herself, "All right, let's roll."


Vanderbilt Athletic Department
2601 Jess Neely Drive
Nashville, TN 37212
615-322-GOLD (4653)