Courtney Windham and her North Texas teammates were gathered around the dinner table at Andrew Palileo’s home earlier this year when she realized just how important the opportunity to guide the Mean Green is to her new head coach.
Palileo had been a head coach at three schools for a total of 14 seasons before spending the last two years as an assistant at Ohio State.
“The first dinner we had at his house, his wife told us that they had been praying for a new start,” said Windham, a senior middle blocker. “She said this team was the answer to their prayers. For that team to be us, was an ‘Oh, wow’ moment. It touched me to hear her say that. She made it simple. All she wanted was a team to have dinner with and hang out with.”
Palileo has that team he and his wife, Wendy, wanted now at UNT, which enters its first season in Conference USA with high expectations. UNT will open the season tonight with a match against the host team at the Loyola Marymount Invitational before taking on UCLA and Albany on Saturday.
UNT lost just one senior from a team that finished 26-12 last season and fell to Western Kentucky in the final of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
That run helped former UNT coach Ken Murczek land the job as head coach at Wake Forest.
It also opened the door for Palileo at UNT.
“I wanted to get back into it, run my own program again, try to make a team better and win championships,” Palileo said.
Palileo gradually worked his way up the coaching ladder during a career that began at Bethel in 1997 and included a stop at South Dakota State before he landed at Washington State in 2008.
Palileo led the Cougars to an 18-13 finish and an appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2009, when he was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. He has a 272-191 career record.
That experience is something he will draw on at UNT, just as he will the last two years when he had a chance to step back and examine his approach as an assistant.
“You always learn from experience,” Palileo said. “I have learned a lot about staffing, player relationships and leadership development. There are definitely things I was looking to learn when I went into an assistant role. It’s not that I did things wrong, but there are things I saw that I could do better.”
Palileo named the way he develops trust with his players as the way he has improved most as a coach since his stint at Washington State.
“Coach has a great personality,” Windham said. “He puts up no walls and teases us in practice. That has helped us develop a comfort level with him, We spend so much time together. There is no personal life when you are on a team. He welcomes us in. He wants us to call him at home and meet his wife and kids.”
That approach has helped UNT’s players develop trust with their new coach, who inherited a team picked to finish fourth in the C-USA preseason poll.
Windham and sophomore outside hitter sophomore Carnae Dillard were named to the preseason All-C-USA team.
Dillard was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season, when she and Windham were first-team all-conference picks.
UNT will run a quicker offense under Palileo and is still trying to adjust to a new system, but with so many experienced players, there is little doubt the Mean Green believes its first season under Palileo can be a successful one.
“I like what we are seeing, but we are in a whole new system,” Windham said. “We are not ready for conference right now. We need a lot more work.”
After getting to know Palileo, UNT’s players are confident they can get the work they need to do done.