Debby Colberg '70 (Education)
Serving up victories
What kept the most successful coach in Sac State history from bolting to greener pastures? She never found any.
Former head volleyball coach Debby Colberg says that no school ever offered her what she has found at her alma mater. “I like it here,” she said before her retirement from coaching after the 2007 season. “I have looked in to other jobs but it would have to be something much more attractive.”
Before she set school records for wins, tournament appearances and coach of the year honors, Colberg was a student athlete herself, working toward a teaching credential. She played on Hornet volleyball, basketball and softball teams, and actually saw herself as more of a basketball player.
“In those days women tended to play more than one sport,” she says.
After graduating in 1970, Colberg was teaching middle school when something brought her back to Sac State for a master’s degree. Perhaps it was destiny—or maybe it was the four years in middle school. But when she returned, the position of volleyball coach was open, providing both a part-time job and a hint at her ultimate career.
Later the position became full-time and Colberg never looked back.
“Sometimes fate puts you in a place. My husband suggested I get a master’s and he was able to support me. It got me here.”
She says she has never has regretted leaving her middle school gig as she prefers the challenge of working with elite athletes.
While it’s not all that unusual for an alumnus to coach their old team, Colberg says not many stick with it as long as she has.
“It’s more common among my generation than among newer coaches. Most job-jump.”
Like most successful coaches, Colberg doesn’t linger in the past. Though she admits her two national championships—in 1980 and 1981—were special, she says that she doesn’t have a favorite memory.
“There are so many. There are specific matches you remember—those you didn’t expect to win, and you’d win,” she says. “But I tend to live more in the moment. My favorite team is always the one I am presently coaching.”
She mostly enjoys the overall sense of progress her teams made over time.
These days, a Sac State volleyball match is an event, complete with pep band, cheerleaders and noisy crowds.
“It’s a really entertaining atmosphere. The players really enjoy it,” she says.
If you were to pick Colberg’s brain, attempting to duplicate her success with players, you might come away dissatisfied. Colberg’s impact on athletes is hers alone.
“I look for talent obviously, athletic ability. But I’m a pretty good teacher,” she says.
But she also looks for a good fit—personality, academics, work ethic.
“If they’re the right person, I can work with them. If they’re not strong academically, I try to find out why they aren’t. If they’re working hard, we may take a chance. But if they’re not trying, I will most likely look elsewhere.”
Colberg’s winning run has helped players find her as well.
“That’s the fun of it, getting the better player,” she says. “You look like a brilliant coach if you bring in a better athlete.”
It’s also hard to pin Colberg down to explain what has made her successful.
“It’s hard for me to say,” she says. “My teaching background has certainly helped. And I think I have a good dose of common sense.”
Her assistant coach Ruben Volta, who took over as head coach in 2008, says it’s because players respond to her as a disciplinarian, an assessment she supports.
“I walk a line,” she says. “I can give them a push in the back in such a way as to not alienate them and not make them hate to come to practice. I want it to be a positive experience.
“I can’t make them enjoy doing sprints. But I can make other things fun. I try to treat them as I would want to be treated.”
Colberg’s time at Sac State has included a three and a half-year stint as the University’s athletics director, a job she wasn’t sad to leave behind.
“In some ways it’s like coaching, in that you have to make decisions that won’t please everybody. It gave me an appreciation for what administrators do and I learned I don’t like administration.
“If I don’t like what I’m doing it’s hard to come to work. And that’s what I like about coaching. I want to come to work.”
As a former Sac State student, who has guided scores of women through the volleyball program, Colberg has seen a lot of changes in women’s athletics but feels more changes are coming. She would like for future changes for women’s athletics to be based on what is actually best for female athletes—not necessarily following the male model of athletics.
“I truly believe in the educational value of athletics and I hope that players under my tutelage will appreciate all the opportunities Sac State has to offer as an educational institution. And I hope their experiences as a volleyball athlete complement what they learn on the academic side.”
Despite all her success, Colberg is far from complacent.
“We still have challenges. That’s the nice thing about Div. I.”
Among those challenges is getting past the first round of the NCAA tournament. Colberg’s teams have gone to the tournament five times in the last six years and have been bounced out each time.
She’s also continuing to try new approaches. In her earlier years there was a more local flavor to the team. Now the team recruits throughout the United States. And early in the summer she and Volta went around the country to talk to coaches they like and respect to get ideas to incorporate in their coaching. They also pored over stacks of videotapes looking for clues for redesigning their offense and defense.
With all the challenges Colberg faces, there’s one she can’t escape: a family member who works for the “competition.” Husband Gary works for UC Davis’ campus recreation program. Colberg says he is a big supporter of Sac State volleyball but confesses that when they watch football or basketball games, “There are times when he really irritates me.”
Then she admits, “We try to irritate each other.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2005 edition of Sac State Magazine.