Illinois volleyball’s Hambly engages fans with ‘chalk talks’


Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly addresses the Illini Networkers in one of his pregame chalk talks. Hamlby gives fans an insight into the program with a 30-minute presentation before each home match.

The waning minutes before an Illinois volleyball match are a time filled with anxiety.  

Head coach Kevin Hambly doesn’t want any part of it.  

Instead of sitting and watching his players go through warm-ups for the umpteenth time, Hambly is revealing his whole game plan. Not with players, nor with his assistant coaches, but with fans.

Around 30 minutes before each home match, Hambly meets with the team’s booster group, the Networkers, for a “Chalk Talk” where the head coach goes over the most specific points on what the strategy is for the night. Details could include how the team will play defense, which matchups the Illini want to exploit, even which opposing player the Illini want to serve to.

“That’s the worst time before the match,” he said. “When you’re sitting there, waiting for the game to start and your team is warming up. And you see, ‘Is this kid really into it?’ They’re fine, they’re into it, but you start to get anxious. Me sitting down and talking to these guys about it and then turning in the lineup and then we play is great for me. I’m not a nervous-type of guy, but when you’re sitting there doing nothing, your mind just goes and is breaking down everything that’s going on in front of you.”

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    Hambly says he has been running the chalk talks for seven or eight years now. He started while still the coach-in-waiting as an assistant under former coach Don Hardin. The previous staff wanted to have Hambly interact with the boosters as part of his time leading up to getting the head coaching job. 

    Since Hambly has taken over head coaching duties, he says the size of the Networkers has quadrupled. It helps that the Illini have missed the tournament just once in Hambly’s five seasons as head coach at Illinois, which included a national runner-up finish in 2011, but he said the program is unique in its interaction with fans. 

    “I think a lot of it has to do with the accessibility of the program. That’s why I like to do it,” Hambly said. “It’s unique. Huff is accessible, coaching staff is accessible, players are accessible within reason. I think that’s what has drawn fans in.”

    Volleyball isn’t like many mainstream sports. Even casual football fans can tell you all about the Cover 2, and basketball fans are familiar with the 2-3 zone. Unless fans have a background playing volleyball at a high level, the X’s and O’s are lost on many fans.

    “People don’t understand volleyball at all. They don’t know how to watch the game,” Hambly said. “They watch the ball. And if you watch the ball, it’s a really terrible game to watch because you only see each contact.”

    Almost every match, Room 112 in Huff Hall nears capacity to hear Professor Hambly share his weekly lesson. Before big matches, the crowd swells to standing-room only.  

    There’s no specific format to the talks, and Hambly always opens it up for questions to start. Nothing is off-limits and Networkers are able to cut through coach-speak to understand what is really going on. Hambly is generally forthright with the media, but he really pulls no punches during chalk talks.

    “I’ll say when kids play bad with their parents sitting right there,” Hambly said. “But I’ll be real honest with the group and people want to be a part of that chalk talk because I don’t put on a show.”

    In his time of doing the pregame talks, Hambly has noticed the Networkers picking up on emphasis points and learning the game. As fans learn more about the sport and the team, they can become more critical and point to exactly where the Illini falter on the court.

    “The danger is they’re becoming educated. They have a lot better questions than they used to,” Hambly said. “They see the game differently. Now, everyone can complain, ‘Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you that? You did this last time.’ Which is what I want. I want them to be educated on the game.”

    The following chalk talk after a win, Hambly won’t say much, although fans love to point out how the game went according to the script.

    After losses, however, fans will come up to the coach to discuss where the Illini deviated from the game plan, or worse, where the game plan didn’t work at all. The straight-shooting coach is willing to accept criticism — at the fan’s own risk.

    “They know if they’re going to speak up and say stuff, there’s a sort of banter that I’m not afraid to jab with and I’ll get some jabs back,” Hambly said. “I like the interaction in the group. It’s all in fun.”

    The Illini were on the road for three straight weekends, giving a long break between lessons. But with Illinois in the midst of a four-game homestand, class is back in session for the Networkers.

    “They’re eager to hear it. It’s cool because they’re so excited to hear what’s coming,” Hambly said. “There’s people taking notes. They’re totally into it. It’s really cool. It’s worth my time for sure.”

    Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @steve_bourbon.