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