Eve Rackham was a handful.
“She was no joke,” said Bear Grassl, head volleyball coach at Sonoma State University, who coached Rackham, now 36, starting when she was a talented sixth grader and later at El Molino High School.
“When she was younger, she was hard on teammates. She was tough. She was great,” he said. “She was always steps head; she got really frustrated at times.”
But near the end of her high school career — as the best player on the best team around — Grassl saw a change in Rackham, who graduated from El Molino in 1999. She was learning what it takes to lead. Sometimes that means a fierce wind and sometimes that means the warmth of the sun. Rackham was learning the difference.
“By her senior year in high school, her senior year in club, it was way more motherly. She got how she needed to be to make these guys be their best,” Grassl said.
And being the best was clearly important to young Rackham.
“Eve is the most ferocious competitor I have ever coached, ever, to this day,” he said.
“It was obvious she was a great player,” he said. “She was a better leader.”
But it is her work ethic and her evolution as a motivator and mentor that will be the key to her success as the University of Tennessee’s head volleyball coach. Rackham was announced as the leader of the program last week.
The hire is being lauded in volleyball circles. It seems the kid from Forestville is hot property. She was signed away from her longtime gig as an assistant at the University of North Carolina to a five-year deal with a first year salary of $175,000, according to the university.
“I was looking to be a head coach and I wasn’t willing to move for just anything,” she said.
Meantime, Rackham’s teammate at El Molino, Julie Allen, this week was named head coach at Eastern Illinois University after a successful stint under another Sonoma County guy, Chris Lamb, at Wichita State University.
But it was Rackham’s new gig that drew the most attention. This is a big hire. Of the 13 volleyball coaches in the Southeastern Conference, until Rackham was named Tennessee’s leader, just three were women.
“There are very few female coaches in Division 1 and definitely in the Power Five,” she said of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. “I think when you are coaching young women, you can just relate a little bit differently than a male coach can. I think you have the responsibility to be a role model.”
Rackham knows from experience that female athletes can need a woman to talk to sometimes.
“I know because I was a female assistant,” she said. “Girls would come into the office. You deal with the gamut — mental illness, eating disorders. I have had players whose parents have passed away. Just female to female, they would rather talk to a woman.”
Rackham, a four-year starter at setter and All-ACC selection at the University of North Carolina who still holds the school’s assists-per-game record, was the top assistant coach at UNC for years. She was named the 2014 American Volleyball Coaches Association Division 1 Assistant Coach of the Year. As head of recruiting for the Tar Heels, she compiled two top-10 recruiting classes in the last six years.
Other schools had come knocking, but she turned them away.
“To be honest, I have been contacted quite a bit throughout the last nine years from different universities,” she said. “It’s never been the right time or the right fit. When this job opened in late November or early December, I said to myself, ‘That’s a great job and if they call, I’m going to look at it.’ I didn’t actually pursue it.”
But when Vols athletic director Phillip Fulmer invited her in for an interview, Tennessee was sold on the Rackham way.
“Coach Rackham obviously has built an unbelievable resume, but she was even more impressive during the interview process,” he told knoxnews.com. “She articulated an incredible plan to restore Tennessee volleyball to a championship level, and we are confident she will make an immediate positive impact on our student-athletes and our program.”
Rackham said Tennessee has the ingredients she was looking for: a top-ranked university, an athletics program committed to building successful female student-athletes and a history of success.
“They have been there before,” she said. “To me, it’s not just something completely unheard of for us to be at the top of the conference.”
Rackham takes over a Vols program that reached the Final Four in 2005 and last won the SEC in 2011, but was 12-15 last season and finished 11th in the SEC with a 5-13 record. The Vols’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament was in 2012.
Rackham said a return to the tournament is a priority.
“The NCAA tournament this fall, that is the goal,” she said. “I think it’s realistic to talk about the NCAA tournament next year. In two or three years, can we be a Sweet 16 team? In five years, can we get into that top eight? Top four?”
But first, she has to get 14 student-athletes to buy into the Rackham way. After all, while they signed on to play Vols volleyball, they didn’t sign on to play for Rackham.
“When they committed to Tennessee, I’m sure they didn’t anticipate the coaching change,” she said. “That is a hard thing to go through. For me, it’s learning the players as well as I can, getting to know why they came to Tennessee and what they are looking for and how I can help them get there.”
“It takes time,” she said. “I am under no illusions that next week, everything is going to perfect.”
But one gets the sense Rackham doesn’t like things to be perfect. If it were, what would she work on?
It was the intensity and finding a way to always be better that Grassl said was incredibly unique about Rackham.
“I loved coaching her,” Grassl said. “She was great. She wasn’t easy. She played so hard and was so good. It’s like you could forgive some of the other stuff. She was a kid trying to figure it all out. She did things that you never asked for and you couldn’t believe how good they were. She figured things out.”
Now Rackham relishes her chance to be a mentor to women who are trying to figure things out.
“When I first got into coaching, it was because I’m a competitive person and that competitive drive in me, I still wanted to feed it, so coaching was a great next step for me,” she said. “But the development of young girls has really become something that I get more excited about.
“It’s a great way to be a part of a really neat time in their lives,” she said. “Eighteen to 22, those girls grow up a lot — you are kind of their parent away from home while they are going through some changes and you get to be there for them.”
Rackham, who is still in the process of moving from North Carolina to Tennessee, will be joined by her boyfriend and her dog and is already getting time in with her players under NCAA’s strict offseason rules.
“I think the first thing is, you get in the gym with the kids and you start talking with the kids and you start talking about the culture and what they want and making them realize this is their program,” she said. “Ultimately, what I want is what I want, but what they want is what they are going to achieve.”
But make no mistake, Grassl said. Rackham can be a contagious personality. She has the drive to will things to happen and to bring others along with her. He’s seen it.
“This is what she was born for,” Grassl said. “This is who she has always been.”
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.