By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Many coaches spend years as assistants before getting their first head coaching job. Even fewer are able to attain what they would call a “dream job”.
Not Mississippi State head volleyball coach Jenny (Head) Hazelwood. Her meteoric rise through the coaching ranks is the stuff of dreams.
Hazelwood grew up in Pearland, Texas as a huge sports fan. “I grew up going to Houston Rockets games, Oilers games, Astros games, that’s just what we did, that’s what I loved,” she says. “I’ve loved sports for as long as I can remember.”
But Hazelwood didn’t focus on just volleyball. “I played everything,” she says. “I did swim team, golf, tennis, softball, track basketball and volleyball. I was always doing sports, it’s just what I loved to do.”
While she was playing all of those sports, volleyball seemed to rise above the others. “I loved volleyball before I even played,” Hazelwood says. “I remember wishing I was older so I could play volleyball. I remember when I was in seventh grade, that’s when I was going to be able to play 14-and-under club volleyball for the first time, and I couldn’t wait. It was just a sport that I loved before I was old enough to play.”
When she was finally able to play competitively for Episcopal High School, Hazelwood excelled on the volleyball court. She was recruited by several schools in Texas, as well as Kansas State and Tulsa. But a trip to Starkville, Miss., in the fall of 1995 made her college choice an easy one.
“When I came to Mississippi State, I fell in love immediately,” she says. “On my visit, volleyball was playing at home, there was a home football game, there was a Maroon-White baseball game, basketball had their Midnight Madness and we did all of this sports stuff. I fell in love. It was really an easy decision for me.”
When she arrived on campus as a freshman in the fall of 1996, she embarked on what would be a record-setting career. In fact, during her first season as a Bulldog, Hazelwood (who was then known as Jenny Head) set the school record for assists in a season with 1,541, a record that still stands. She followed that with 1,465 assists as a sophomore and 1,180 as a junior.
Following her junior year, Jenny Head married former MSU kicker Brian Hazelwood. “I met my husband during my sophomore year, he was a junior,” she says. “We dated for over a year. We were going to wait (to get married), but he said ‘why wait, we can get married now’, and I’m glad we did.”
Heading into her senior season, Hazelwood was just 10 assists shy of becoming the school’s all-time leader. In the first match of her senior year, a five-set classic against UNC-Charlotte, Hazelwood set the school record for career assists, and she added the school record for assists in a match with 83.
“The funny thing is, I had broken my finger the last practice before we left for that tournament,” she says. “I had to have it splinted, and it hurt when I first started setting again. We knew I’d break the career (record), because I was so close, and I ended up breaking the single-match record as well. It was crazy.”
Hazelwood went on to post 1,319 assists in her senior season, placing her fourth in SEC history in career assists at the time. She still stands eighth all-time in SEC history on that list with 5,505 assists.
After graduating in 2000, Hazelwood knew she wanted to get a master’s degree and was leaning toward a career in coaching. That’s when a great opportunity presented itself.
“I thought I’d go into coaching in high school, probably, but I knew I wanted to get my master’s,” she says. “Mississippi College is in Clinton, Mississippi, where my husband is from. They knew he married a volleyball player. So, when they were looking for a coach, they found someone to get in touch with us to see if I’d be interested in coming to interview.”
It wasn’t the ideal position, but it was a head coaching job, and Hazelwood was just 22 years old. “It was just part-time, but I got my master’s paid for,” she says. “Once I got there, I knew that was absolutely what I wanted to continue doing, coaching at the collegiate level.”
During her second year at Division III Mississippi College, Hazelwood was working full-time in the continuing education office, working on her master’s and coaching part-time. “I had a lot on my plate,” she says. “I was looking for other opportunities from there, not that we were dying to leave, but a full-time job, doing just volleyball, was preferable.”
Hazelwood then interviewed, and was hired, for the head coaching position at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., in 2002. The experience of coaching at the smallest Division I school in the country taught her many lessons.
“I was up against a lot there,” she says. “The last three years I was there, I couldn’t offer a full scholarship. I learned a lot about selling (the program). I really think my time there has been what helped me develop my recruiting style. I had to learn to sell, because they had a beautiful campus, it was highly academic and so I learned to sell those kinds of things and get some kids to buy in and come play for me, while paying their way.”
“We were pretty limited with our roster,” Hazelwood says of her Centenary days. “I learned to develop players. I needed those players to get better and keep doing well because we didn’t have a ton of backups, because we didn’t have the money. By the time I left, we had 5.9 scholarships, so I wasn’t even half-funded.”
Hazelwood posted a 48-138 (.258) record in five seasons at Centenary. However, her last two teams made great strides, winning 12 matches in each season.
She left Centenary in 2007 to take the job at Austin Peay, in Clarksville, Tenn. “One of the things that drew me to Austin Peay was that the campus is nice, the facilities are nice and it’s easy to recruit to that,” Hazelwood says. “One of the things about making a career move, you’ve got to make sure you’re going somewhere that you can be successful. Cheryl Holt was the SWA there, and she had coached volleyball there. They cared about volleyball at Austin Peay.”
Hazelwood inherited a team that had just six letterwinners returning, and her first Austin Peay team went 8-25. But after recruiting helped her rebuild the roster, the 2008 Lady Govs posted a 22-11 record, which was the nation’s best turnaround that season. Austin Peay finished third in the Ohio Valley Conference that season, just a game out of first place.
After that season, Hazelwood found out that her predecessor, Tina Seals, had resigned at Mississippi State. It seemed like a natural move for Hazelwood and her family. However, she wasn’t totally sold on making the move at first.
“I told my husband that I just wasn’t sure,” she says. “I know that I can sell Mississippi State. I wanted to be in a situation where I can keep building, and I want to win. And historically, we hadn’t won a lot at Mississippi State in volleyball. I love Mississippi State, my heart is here, but if I had felt like we couldn’t build a winning program, I don’t know that I could’ve come back because it’s my career and I want to make sure I can continue to have a career in the profession that I love.”
Hazelwood interviewed at Mississippi State within a week of Seals’ resignation. “I had to get my presentation together for the interview,” she says. “It wasn’t hard, because I had followed the program, it was my alma mater. But I’m a little Type A when it comes to organization, so I was going to have my stuff together.”
She told Greg Byrne and Ann Carr, Mississippi State athletic administrators, what she thought it would take to build the program, she evaluated the roster and she conveyed her thoughts about what was needed to build a winner.
Then, she got the word that she had been hired to take the job at Mississippi State. “I was very, very excited and honored to be able to come back to a school that Brian and I love very much,” she says. “There was a lot of excitement, but my heart immediately went to the players I had asked to come (to Austin Peay) and do what I was wanting to do with the program.”
She had some building to do when she arrived in Starkville. “There were still two scholarships left when I got here, and that’s pretty unheard of for a major conference,” she says. “That’s really, really, really far behind. And, in all honesty, it was pretty far behind in the 2010 class because the SEC kind of kids are committing early.”
Hazelwood’s first Mississippi State team, in 2009, went 9-22 and 5-15 in the SEC, battling injuries all season. In 2010, MSU was 11-20 and 3-17 in the SEC. Last season’s team was 12-17 overall and 7-13 in the SEC. The Bulldogs finished third in the SEC West in 2011.
This season, Hazelwood is cautiously optimistic about her team. “Are we very, very talented? Yes. Are we very, very young? Yes,” she says. “We’ll have one senior and one junior on the court, the rest will be freshmen and sophomores. We’ll be good, we’ll be able to compete, but we’ll be pretty inexperienced.”
With Hazelwood’s experience of continually improving programs, and her love for her alma mater, SEC foes should be on the lookout for a Mississippi State program that figures to continue its improvement.