When Debbie Buchanan took the reins of the University of Idaho women’s volleyball program at the turn of the millennium, she was 26 and had been coaching NCAA Division I athletes for seven years. She’d been ahead of the curve since being named second-team All-American during her high school volleyball days in St. Maries, Idaho.
Those facts provide a bit of context to the announcement she made Wednesday — that she was leaving the Vandals after 22 seasons and retiring as a college coach.
She essentially wants to play a little catch-up in other aspects of her life.
“As a college coach, you make a lot of sacrifices and you miss a lot of things,” Buchanan said this week. “And I’ve definitely missed things over the years.”
She leaves Idaho with 320 wins, two NCAA tournament appearances, a coach of the year award in the Western Athletic Conference and two Big Sky North Division titles.
“It’s been a great run,” she said. “A lot of great support, a lot of memories made.”
She and her husband, former UI tight end Gayle (Buck) Buchanan, plan to spend as much time as possible watching their two talented sons compete in their respective sports. Debbie Buchanan also plans to launch a recruiting mentor business in which she will advise a “handful” of high school athletes in various sports in taking a proactive approach to seeking college scholarships.
Her retirement from college coaching at age 48 falls in line with the accelerated pace she’s always brought to volleyball, beginning with an improbably successful career at St. Maries High School when she was known as Debbie Taylor.
She parlayed that into a scholarship at USC, where a knee injury at 19 forced her to give up playing the sport and begin serving as a student coach for the Trojans. The experience later helped her land assistant jobs at Idaho and Colorado State before the Vandals tabbed her as their boss in 2000.
How did small, isolated St. Maries spawn such a success story? Buchanan unequivocally credits Mitch Santos, the devoted, rather notoriously demanding former Lumberjacks volleyball coach who won 11 Idaho state titles in what was then Class A2 — four of them with the help from Buchanan.
“It was a lot different back then,” she said. “Mitch and (assistant) Steve Konkright pushed us, they held us accountable. We got down to business. We can’t coach that way today. I think we would probably get fired right away. They were hard on us. I remember going out recruiting and people were like, ‘We can’t believe you played for that coach.’ You know what? I honestly wouldn’t have traded it. He cared about us. He pushed us. He had a love for the game, a love for our program, and I loved the fact that we had someone that, I guess when you look at it, wanted to make us better.”
At one point during Buchanan’s UI career, she posted 12 winning conference records in 16 years. Recent seasons were leaner, and the Vandals’ 5-20 overall record this season left her 330-317 for her Vandal tenure, including 198-164 in conference play. The Vandals have begun a nationwide search for her replacement.
“Coaching through COVID is definitely not easy,” Buchanan said. “We had our struggles for sure. Is it going to bounce back? No doubt about it. I feel really good about the athletes that are still in the program and the athletes that are coming in this year.”
Unsurprisingly, Buchanan said she had opportunities to coach elsewhere during the past two decades, “but it always came down to family. We didn’t want to always be chasing the next job, because I don’t think the grass is always greener on the other side. I think there are pros and cons everywhere you go, and we chose family and quality of life.”
Those also were the priorities in her decision to leave, and especially to devote more time to her sons’ complicated athletic endeavors.
Austin Buchanan, who was born about 18 months after Debbie became head coach at Idaho, has embraced his mother’s favorite sport but, like other males, has found it difficult to find scholastic opportunities to play it. He eventually hooked up with a California high school that offers the sport and now is a second-year freshman on the University of Hawaii men’s team.
His younger brother, Blake, transferred from Moscow High School to Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, partly to be closer to his AAU basketball program, and now is a still-growing 6-foot-10 post getting ready for his junior season while mulling scholarship offers from a number of Pac-12 schools.
The Buchanans, meanwhile, built a house in Coeur d’Alene. Debbie moved there in August and began commuting to Moscow to fill her coaching duties this past season.
Asked for specific memories of her Idaho career, Buchanan conjured a holistic answer.
“You do it because you love the sport,” she said of coaching. “You love the competition, you love the Xs and Os and all of that. But what I didn’t realize that I would love even more than that was watching these young women come in as 18-year-olds, and you get to watch them develop and go through this really cool and critical phase in their life, coming in as freshmen and all the changes that they go through before they graduate.
“You do a lot of mentoring and you build that relationship and you watch them grow. You help them with career-planning, you help some of them through some of the biggest struggles that they’ve been through in their life to that point.
“You’re training them to go out and kick some serious butt once they leave Idaho, and we have some young women who are doing that. They’re great role models, they’re great moms and they’re great career women, and that’s probably the most gratifying and the coolest thing that’s come out of my time at Idaho.”
Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.