Karen Chisum isn’t interested in excuses. It’s a fact evident in the longtime Texas State volleyball coach’s words: “It’s a privilege to be a Bobcat,” she says. “It’s not a right. Everyone doesn’t get to. You’re recruited out there to perform, to exceed expectations and to be successful.”
It shows in her win-loss record — an impressive 716-459-3 heading into the 2011-12 season. It’s even written in her office, where amid photos and mementos documenting the smiles of hundreds of players, the achievements of dozens of teams, sits a simple sign.
Its message? “No whining.”
Chisum, the longest-tenured head coach at Texas State, the sixth-winningest active head coach in NCAA Division I volleyball and a member of the university’s newest class of Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, lives that message, on and off the court.
She expects her players to do the same, and it’s part of the reason the Texas State Alumni Association selected her for its most prestigious award, which acknowledges outstanding accomplishments and leadership on a national or international level.
Chisum’s rise to such a strata began when she came to Texas State as an undergraduate in 1968, following on the heels of her cousin, Lloyd Chisum, himself a track and field and basketball standout.
During her early years as a Bobcat, it wasn’t the aces, digs and kills of today that motivated Chisum, but tennis and softball, sports the young athlete played first in high school, then for Texas State. After graduating, she finally set her sights on volleyball, teaching herself the mechanics of its coaching during stints at Goodnight Middle School and San Marcos High School, both in San Marcos, and later at New Braunfels High School. There, in 1976, she led the Unicorns to a state runner-up finish with the help of player Nell Fortner, who went on to coach the 2000 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal and to serve as head coach at Auburn University.
Upon Chisum’s return to Texas State in 1978 as an assistant, she embarked on a career trajectory that would land her the job of head coach just two years later, and that would shape the lives of more young women than Chisum can count.
Many of them — now mothers, grandmothers, executives and professionals — remain in touch with “Coach Chisum” to this day.
She counts it as one of the highlights of the job.
“Every win, every championship, every ring I have, there’s special memories, and it would go back to the kids,” Chisum says. “That’s what it’s all about, the kids that have been in the program. They’ve been the ones that have been out on the court to win the ballgames and score the points. Not me.
“Those are the things you can’t replace, when you know that you have positively influenced a young lady’s life.”
Chisum exerts her influence by making sure student-athletes are aware of her expectations. Many speak of “Chisum time” — a watch set fast to meet the coach’s demand for punctuality.
“If you’re five minutes early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late,” Texas State junior Caleigh McCorquodale, a setter for the Bobcats volleyball team, summarizes. “If you’re late, just don’t even show up.”
Chisum also points to a positive attitude and enthusiasm, along with personality and competitiveness, as attributes she tries to instill.
“You’ve got to be competitive in everything you do,” Chisum says. “You want a job, you’ve got to be competitive. You want to move up in your company, you’ve got to be competitive. You’re going to compete every day in your life with someone, for something.”
Even amid that spirit, the team — its players, coaches, support staff and more — remains a unit marked not only by its professionalism, but also by its heart.
“They know that when we’re on the court, it’s business,” Chisum says. “You know there’s going to be criticism, there’s going to be coaching, there’s going to be yelling, there’s going to be correction, there’s going to be positive feedback. But when we get off the court, we’re human and we want to be their mentors — we’re here for them.”
Student-athlete Amber Calhoun, a senior middle blocker for Chisum’s Bobcats, agreed there is a softer side to Chisum’s demand for excellence on the court, one that lends itself to a feeling of family.
“On and off the court, they’re my best friends,” she says of her teammates. “We go to each other for everything.”
Tracy Shoemake, Texas State associate athletic director, NCAA-designated senior woman administrator and Chisum’s immediate supervisor, says it’s part of Chisum’s holistic approach to coaching.
“She definitely looks at the whole student-athlete,” Shoemake says. “It’s not just about volleyball. It’s about their development, their personal lives. It’s about them doing volunteer work. It’s about them being a better person.”
But what of her own assessment? What, as she sees it, is the greatest achievement of the first woman inducted into the Texas State “T” Association Hall of Honor? Chisum says it’s all about the student-athletes entrusted to her particular brand of disciplined leadership.
“I think I really instill self-pride,” she says. “And you’ve got to respect yourself and you’ve got to take pride in every aspect. It’s not just volleyball-related. It’s what you do in the classroom. It’s what you do when you walk out of the doors at Strahan Coliseum. I tell them to sit on the first two rows, take good notes, get a study buddy, all those things. But probably every coach does.”
What separates Chisum from the pack is the personal responsibility she demands, of herself and of her players, for their mutual success. It’s a message that reflects nearly a half-century of devotion to her alma mater.
“It’s got to be that sense of pride in yourself — and in being a Bobcat,” she says.