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.