By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
The milestone that took place in Knoxville this weekend was more important than many have realized. In his 15th season, Rob Patrick, the two-time National Coach of the Year in volleyball, earned his 300th career victory with a sweep over Georgia on Friday evening.
"First of all, it means I'm old and I've been doing this a long time," Patrick said. "It also means that I have had some incredible young ladies play here at the University of Tennessee. They are the ones who have sacrificed, put in the sweat, the time and energy and I can't thank them enough. I've also had some incredible coaches that I have worked with."
What Patrick has meant to Southeastern Conference volleyball, however, can’t go unnoticed. Consistently turning out teams that have competed with the top squads in the nation gave the SEC legitimacy and respect among other conferences.
Sure Georgia, South Carolina and then Arkansas had pockets of success in the 1990s, but for much of the past 20 years, the SEC had been seen nationally as a one-team league. Once Mary Wise took over at Florida in 1991, it has largely been the Gators who have carried the conference flag. They have advanced to seven Final Fours and captured at least a share of 19 of 20 league crowns during that span.
The visibility of a conference change began in 2004, when Patrick’s squad captured a share of the program’s first-ever SEC regular-season title, took home the SEC Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Quarterfinals. A year later, the Lady Vols advanced to the NCAA Final Four, proving the depth and strength of the conference.
That set forth a dynamic league that would feature a run of six consecutive SEC West titles by LSU, which has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 2005. During that stretch, Kentucky also began its string of six consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and the level of volleyball at each of the league schools began to increase.
The SEC put six teams in the NCAA field in 2005 and seven went in 2006. Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss have each made their first-ever NCAA appearances since that 2005 season.
On paper, Patrick’s 300 wins may just look like a nice round number and a way to quantify Tennessee’s success, but through the course of those 300 victories, Patrick has helped to change the perception of the SEC.