Leonid Yelin’s coaching style is driven by his relentless intensity

first_imgOn the day Stephanie Cantway labeled “her turning point,” Leonid Yelin, her coach at Louisville, screamed. He often did, regardless of the score.With Louisville en route to a four-set victory against Nicholls State in Arizona in 2004, backups choked away easy points, and Yelin blamed Cantway, the lone starter on the court. He wanted more communication. But she wanted to ignore him.“Steph!” Cantway remembered Yelin screaming. “Steph!”She yielded, rolling her eyes before setting them on Yelin. Immediately, he summoned a replacement off the bench. Cantway walked off the court and into the locker room. She wasn’t the most talented player, but Yelin noticed the same leadership and toughness he saw in himself.Yet what he once admired now infuriated him. After the game, Yelin marched to a team assistant and tried to book Cantway a flight back to campus two days early from the University Plaza Wildcat Classic. He planned to kick her off the team.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“He’s trying to get you to do one thing on the court,” Cantway, now 33 years old, said. “Don’t read into it or don’t judge. … If you’re not doing it right, nothing else matters.”***In his office, 14 years later, Yelin described his coaching style. His U of L gear switched out for Syracuse orange, Yelin patted an imaginary player’s arm in his office in Manley Field House, as if he was supporting them following an error in a game. After, he shook his head. He’s never been that coach. On the court, he expects perfection.Success traveled with Yelin from the Soviet Union to Barry University in Florida. He captured a Division II national title in his sixth year in the United States. He brought Louisville to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history during his first campaign. Then he did it three more times. At Syracuse (13-7, 9-3 Atlantic Coast), he’s built a program but hasn’t achieved the primary goal that he’s set for himself: reaching the NCAA tournament. SU is his “final destination” in a 50-year career that’s totaled almost 700 wins. In 2018, the Orange has an outside shot at obtaining an at-large bid when the regular season ends in late November.TJ Shaw | Staff PhotographerThe price of Yelin’s greatness manifests in the perceptions players have of him. Cantway wasn’t the first nor the last athlete he kicked out of a game. High school coaches have told potential SU recruits they couldn’t handle Yelin’s screaming. He joked to players in Colorado, where he was an assistant coach for the 2012 season, by comparing the laid back assistant he was to the driven head coach he had been at Louisville.Yelin is aware of his differences on and off the court. His intensity was, and still is, his defining trait. It steers him as a head coach. The passion is borne from devotion, not spite. Outside the painted lines in SU’s Women’s Building, where the Orange compete, the fire that’s alienated players has also caused others to view him as a father figure. When a player fails on the court, he’ll bring wrath upon them. When they fail off it, he blames himself.“I’m not here to please you,” Yelin said. “I’m here to help you do the right thing and grow up and be a better player and be better a person. Most people respond, but some don’t.”The players which respond to Yelin understand his methods only after clashing with him. A member of his inner circle, Cantway identified him as a “Type A” leader. After the fight that nearly got Cantway kicked off the team in Arizona, Patty Dennison, a U of L coach, calmed Cantway by explaining that her and Yelin’s drives to win had consumed them. Cantway and Yelin reconciled back in Louisville, where Cantway developed into a two-year captain and five-year assistant coach.Gosia Wlaszczuk, one of Yelin’s first international recruits at SU, clashed with him in her freshman season. During a game in Cincinnati, a long rally ended when Wlaszczuk missed a spike. Yelin accused her of not caring about the team before he tossed her out of the contest. Wlaszczuk teamed with adults in Poland, and Yelin demanded the same maturity. She eventually welcomed it.“I think he’s tough, but deep inside he’s soft and such a family person and cares about his friends,” Wlaszczuk said.Courtesy of Gosia WlaszczukBoth Cantway and Wlaszczuk developed close relationships with Yelin. Their personalities mirrored each other. They were the success stories. Yelin has tried to learn from his past, from himself, but sometimes he can’t.***During Barry University’s national championship celebration, a future Yelin hadn’t contemplated presented itself. Barry had a 34-2 season culminating in a 1995 Division II title. Jean Cerra, then-athletic director at Barry, stood next to him during the trophy presentation and whispered.“Leonid,” Cerra recalled saying, “I don’t think you’re going to be the best-kept secret in the United States anymore.”Yelin laughed. He had no intention of leaving. He turned down offers from Division I schools before. Weeks later, he received a phone call from then-athletic director at Louisville, Bill Olsen.In his first years with the Cardinals, Yelin built a national powerhouse. Using the funding of a Division I program, he developed a two-pronged recruiting process. He searched globally and relied on his assistants — Dennison and Mitzy Donhoff — to find talent in the volleyball hot-bed of Lexington, Kentucky.He was the patriarch of the program. In 1996, it backfired.Donhoff approached Yelin with an opportunity for international students. Women 4 Women, a nonprofit based in Kentucky, awards grants to empower women. Donhoff had donated $1,600 herself. European players strapped for cash could apply. It was another way to help off the court, so Yelin approved. But, without telling Yelin, Donhoff wrote a U of L player’s application letter, and the player spent the money on tuition and textbooks.Months later, during a holiday break, an athlete broke her ankle and was left alone on campus. Yelin brought her into his house and Yelena, his wife, cared for her. She stayed the night before Yelin drove her to her dorm the next day.“I didn’t even think about (the violation) at that time,” Yelin said. “I just know I cannot leave her by herself.”In 1997, Yelin discovered Donhoff “basically took money” from the program, Yelin said. He reported it to Olsen. He didn’t want to fire her and leave her children without a source of income, he said — he requested she be moved to another department.Donhoff tried to blackmail the university when questioned, Yelin said. She threatened to alert the NCAA about W4W and infractions regarding the men’s basketball team, Yelin said. U of L reported itself to the NCAA. Donhoff declined to comment on this story.A two-year-long investigation stripped the volleyball team of its 1996 victories. Former University President John Shumaker called the negligence the worst in school history. Of the many findings, the NCAA found U of L guilty of paying for a player’s tuition. Yelin was guilty of housing a player, too. Both athletes were declared ineligible. Yelin was also reprimanded for gifting players flowers on their birthdays.Louisville suspended Yelin for 30 days and placed him on probation with his salary frozen for two years. Donhoff was fired. Yelin believed the volleyball team suffered in lieu of basketball. In the 1990s, the men’s basketball team was punished for multiple recruiting violations. The program was placed on probation in 1998.“(Louisville’s athletic department) was trying to make volleyball a sacrificial lamb,” Yelin said. “They were hoping (basketball) got less punishment.”Yelin kept winning on the court. The Cardinals reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history when the investigation concluded. In 2004, Conference USA named Yelin its  Coach of the Decade.He reprioritized player development. Cantway said Yelin didn’t shy away from the NCAA report. Yelin’s actions were well-intended, Cantway thought, and it could’ve helped the Cardinals recruit. Yelin had survived his biggest blunder as a coach. And then he retired.There are conflicting reasons as to why Yelin left Louisville. Cantway said the university wanted a “marketer” and “promoter” for the program. Yelin disputed that, but admitted that Cantway would know why he left. In a recent statement, U of L athletics said that Yelin “left due to attrition and our NCAA violations.”Yelin admitted he felt “tired” by the end of his tenure. He centered all of his energy on building a family at Louisville. He just wanted to coach.“That was maybe the only time in his life that it was tiring for him to do volleyball,” Cantway said.When Louisville traveled to Syracuse two years later, Yelin’s last recruiting class rushed over to him in the Women’s Building and hugged their former head coach. They missed him.Blessing Emole | Digital Design Editor***Valeriya Shaipova was supposed to be special. A 2012 recruit from Yelin’s hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Shaipova could’ve been the next entry in a line of European standouts.She grew up with a single mother in a poor household. Shaipova traveled for internet access to Skype with SU coaches. From those conversations, Yelin realized she needed extra attention in the U.S.Shaipova struggled to socialize, even with other international players. She was too dependent on her mother, whom she called constantly in her spare time. Yelin went to Shaipova’s mother and pleaded for a chance to help her as he helped so many. “For her good,” he remembered asking, “can you leave her alone?” He prepped Cantway to “mother her.” Cantway, Yelin explained, needed to watch over Shaipova off the court while Yelin focused on her volleyball development.But Shaipova tore her ACL twice and cornered herself in her dorm. She went back to Uzbekistan with her degree. Reflecting on her tenure six years later, his voice softened and his eyes wavered.Yelin sees himself in his players. He expects so much of them because he requires the same of himself. Some in the coaching community questioned his recruitment strategy, highlighted by international players. In the 1990s, opposing teams mocked Yelin’s heritage while he coached at Barry University.His past hardened him, and he valued that. At first, volleyball allowed Yelin mobility in the Soviet Union, even if he initially thought the sport was “not for men.” Though Yelin initially cast off coaching a women’s team, the job allowed him to stay home while his father was sick. Yelin assumed it was cancer but could only guess. His family was cut off from government-issued medical services, he said. His first coaching job eventually turned into a six-year tenure as Uzbekistan’s national team coach.Yelin represents a living embodiment of what volleyball could bestow. Volleyball provided Yelin love — he met his wife Yelena while coaching her on the Uzbekistan national team. Volleyball gave them a one-bedroom apartment courtesy of the government. And volleyball also showed them the lies spread by the U.S.S.R., leading to his departure in 1989, Yelin said.For 13 years, Yelena traveled to foreign countries — Finland, Portugal, France — and recognized that she was “brainwashed” by her own government. The couple applied to leave in the late 1970s but was swiftly denied. Insubordination sparked retaliation. Yelena was dismissed from the national team. Yelin’s boss, a close friend whose daughter Yelin coached, fired him at the direct orders of the government, Yelin said.So Yelin brought his passion to the U.S, where players who adjusted under his tutelage, the ones who understood the origin of his passion, connected with him. He knows his temper can consume him, and he tries to work through it. His off-the-court actions reveal his paternal nature. He routinely texts Wlaszczuk, joking with her through his personalized bitmoji. He was one of the first people to hear of her engagement.“People think he can’t see through it,” Wlaszczuk said. “But when I think about him, I see him joking with the players.”Courtesy of Gosia WlaszczukCourtesy of Gosia WlaszczukDating back to his early Louisville years, Yelin hosted team Thanksgiving dinners in his home.  International players brought local dishes, and Yelin prepared his signature lamb and rice meal that he learned in Tashkent.Former player Mackenzie Weaver remembered the 2016 dinner in Yelin’s downtown Syracuse apartment. Yelin detailed some of his past in the Soviet Union. A football game was on in the background, but Weaver recalled no one watched. All eyes were on Yelin.“I say (to team),” Yelin started, “‘Listen, guys, if it’s something with volleyball and important, I’m getting very emotional. It looks like, in the way I’m talking, I’m attacking you. Try to ignore. Don’t even look, just listen to what I’m saying. … It’s with only one purpose, to make us better.’”***Kelly McClain walked into Louisville’s end-of-season banquet in 2000 ready to own her mistakes. After winning the team’s most valuable player award a year prior, McClain had a limited role in her senior season. Yelin called her “the most stubborn” player he’s ever coached.She always argued with Yelin, pleading to switch back to outside hitter. An injury in the team’s NCAA tournament first round matchup against Michigan gave her a chance. After 16 kills and 16 digs, she went to Yelin after the contest and said, “I told you so.”Three weeks later, the team gathered one last time in the Brown and Williamson Club in the bowels of then-Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. As one of two seniors on the squad, she went to the podium and gave a speech.“I can describe coach very simple,” she said before addressing Yelin directly. “If I knew nothing was going to happen to me, and I would have a gun, I would shoot you. If I had to choose again where to go play, I would only come play for you.”Yelin chuckled.“You know what,” he said, “I’ll take it.” Comments Published on October 29, 2018 at 12:01 am Contact Nick: nialvare@syr.edu | @nick_a_alvarezcenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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