Legendary volleyball coach Carol Russo was driving home from a golf outing when she received a telephone call informing her that she is among the four inductees in the 2012 class of the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Russo, who coached 26 seasons at Elyria High and one at Elyria Catholic, said her initial reaction was shock.
“I about drove off the road,” Russo said. “I was shocked. This was something that was never on my radar, I never even imagined it. It blew me away.”
It is a fitting honor for someone who’s been part of the volleyball world for 40 years.
Russo was a member of the first varsity volleyball team at Oberlin High — a team coached by Sue Brady, Russo’s mother. She then fulfilled her childhood dream of playing for The Ohio State University before embarking on her coaching career at Mayfield High.
After four years at Mayfield, where she also coached basketball and track, Russo was hired by Elyria. She became the most successful volleyball coach in Pioneers history.
“This isn’t just about Carol Russo, I was blessed to have the best coaching staff around, a great administration to work with and athletes who put in the hard work in order to be successful,” she said.
“It’s takes a village to make a great team. When we used to go on the road, we would have a bigger crowd than the home team because the girls’ families would come and their boyfriends and the student body supported us well. That was what made Elyria volleyball special … it was like one big family.”
When the games were over, Russo also had a supportive family waiting for her at home — her husband of 31 years, Tom, and sons Nick, 28, and twins Joe and Bryan, 25.
“Tom used to coach football at Midview, so he understands the commitment that I put into coaching and my sons grew up around volleyball and were always at the gym with me,” Russo said. “Whenever I needed a babysitter, I would always ask one of my players, so my boys grew up with the prettiest, most talented babysitters around.”
Russo said that it is impossible to pick one player or team as the best she’s ever coached. That makes sense as her teams have won 19 conference championships, 14 district titles, three regional crowns and had a state runner-up finish in 1996, while compiling a 575-126 career record.
“There is no way to compare different players or different teams,” Russo said. “I have been blessed to coach so many great kids. So many championship teams and Miss Volleyballs and the game has changed so much over the years that it is not fair to even try to compare.”
Russo has witnessed the evolution of volleyball — from the days of 15-point games that included side outs and limited substitution to rally scoring with expanded substitution and the introduction of the libero.
Russo never had to worry about falling behind due to the changes in the game because she was also a registered official for 35 years and spent nine years as president of the Ohio High School Volleyball Coaches Association, a group that inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 1998 and with which she remains active today.
“I can say without equivocation that Mrs. Russo has done more to advance interscholastic volleyball than any person with whom I have had the opportunity to work in my 23 years as an administrator with the Ohio High School Athletic Association,” OHSAA assistant commissioner in charge of volleyball Deborah Moore said.
Russo has also had a front row seat to see the stunning growth in women’s sports brought about by the passage of Title IX 40 years ago.
“I never realized women’s sports would grow the way they have,” she said. “Back then, girls played sports for the love of the game because there were no college scholarships or professional opportunities. Looking back in a way it was more pure then, but it also has been exciting and gratifying to see how women’s sports have blossomed.”
Both of Russo’s parents were coaches and Carol decided early on she wanted to follow in their footsteps.
“I never felt like I was going to work. I loved coaching right up until the final day,” she said. “I told my players and my students, ‘The key to life is to find out what you are passionate about and figure out how to get paid to do.’”
With Russo, the word retirement has become a rather fluid term. Since hanging up her whistle at Elyria after the 2006 season, she has been coaxed back to the sidelines twice — first as an assistant at Avon for former EHS player Jen Larrick and in 2010 as the head coach at Elyria Catholic, taking over the team less than a week before its season opener.
“Jen kept telling me that I had promised to be her assistant when she got a head coaching job,” Russo said. “The Elyria Catholic situation was something that when (former EC athletic director) Barb (Salata) called and told me the circumstances, I couldn’t say no to.”
Russo sparked the Panthers to a 20-win season and a trip to the Division III regional tournament.
While Russo won’t completely shut the door on a return to coaching — “Don’t say never. It has to be the right person and situation,” she said — she is busy working at being retired. Russo has found a new passion in the game of golf. She belongs to the Oberlin Golf Club and hits the links multiple times a week.
Russo is still the executive director of the OHSVCA and is a trustee with the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 1999.
Russo’s induction ceremony will take place in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 13. She and the other three join an elite group of 53 members in the Hall of Fame who’ve been honored for their high school careers.
“When I sit down and look at the list of Hall of Famers and I am being inducted alongside college coaches and Olympic coaches … I am still quite overwhelmed,” she said.
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.