For Idaho volleyball coach Debbie Buchanan, coaching has been a journey that began when she was young. With 17 seasons under her belt, Buchanan is the longest active tenure coach for University of Idaho Athletics.
Buchanan’s path to becoming a head volleyball coach didn’t begin until her playing days were over. She played volleyball and basketball at St. Maries High School in Idaho, where she made her mark in both sports.
In basketball, Buchanan was a three-time all-conference player and played at the 1987 state basketball championship. Buchanan’s Lumberjack volleyball team, led by Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Famer Mitch Santos, won four straight state A-2 championships (1987-1990) and Buchanan was selected as second-team All-American her senior year.
She said the team’s success and Santos’ outstanding coaching gave her multiple options on where she wanted to play in college.
Several Pac-12 Conference schools, including Washington State, Oregon and USC recruited Buchanan.
“I had other visits lined up at Washington and Hawaii, but I ended up choosing USC before I finished my visits,” Buchanan said. “I went on a full-ride to play for Lisa Love. Right before I went, I actually tore my knee and had a meniscus tear.”
Buchanan said the injury was minor and she underwent surgery before heading to Southern California her freshman year.
Arriving in Los Angeles was a culture shock for Buchanan, as she went from a high school with a graduating class of 86 students to a college that enrolls about 44,000 students each year.
Buchanan said the big move was one of the best decisions she’s made.
“I could’ve gone an easier route, but going to Los Angeles to go to school was probably the best thing I ever did,” Buchanan said.
Before her collegiate career with volleyball had the chance to take off, it was taken away after a knee injury ended her playing career.
“It was kind of a fluke where a player and I caught each other and re-tore my knee and never really rebounded like it should of,” Buchanan said. “I had three or four surgeries at when I was down at USC and doctors said I was losing a lot of my meniscus and chose not to play anymore and started the coaching route.”
In the spring of 1992, Buchanan began coaching with Love as a student assistant while finishing her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education.
During her time in Southern California, she coached the Santa Monica Volleyball Club for two years. She also took on director duties and expanded the club to 14 teams.
Buchanan said she learned about the business side of volleyball during her time at USC and Santa Monica, from breaking down film to contract negotiations.
“From the different assistances programs that I was around, you learned along the way, like, what you want take with you and change what you don’t like,” Buchanan said. “You really try to define yourself as a coach and what you believe in instead of being a cookie cutter of another coach.”
After graduating from USC, Buchanan had to make a professional decision — coach volleyball or be a school teacher.
She said she chose coaching because of the sport’s competitive nature, but she hasn’t forgotten her teaching skills.
“Once you’ve been in a competitive sport, there’s something about it that drives you,” Buchanan said. “I love the sport and volleyball is one of the truest team sports out there. I am teaching on a daily basis, the thing that we teach is the game system and mentoring the young women every single day.”
Buchanan said the teaching and mentoring side of coaching has been a rewarding experience.
“I get to be part of these young women from 18 to 22 years old and really get to help define and help guide them when they need it,” Buchanan said. “To be able to watch the things they’ve accomplish is amazing.”
Affirmed in her decision to become a professional coach, Buchanan returned to her home state.
“Tom Hilbert, who was the Idaho head coach at the time, recruited me to come there,” Buchanan said. “He hired me as a first assistant in 1996.”
At the time, Hilbert’s team was on a roll, winning the Big West Conference Eastern Division title.
The pair would not stay in Moscow after 1996, as Hilbert and Buchanan headed to Fort Collins, Colorado, where Buchanan became the assistant coach at Colorado State for four years.
In 1999, Buchanan’s last year, Colorado State went 30-3, a new program record, and made it to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Buchanan said the best advice Hilbert gave her was that the team controls its own destiny.
“We control what we do on a regular basis and never give up,” Buchanan said. “We have that competitive spirit and some of the advice I got from him, and even from female coaches, is that there’s a lot of things, especially for females, that we balance and make each day your best day.”
Buchanan was offered the Idaho volleyball coaching job in 2000.
She has since led the Vandals to two NCAA tournament appearances and was the 2011 Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
Buchanan has also set personal milestones that include surpassing Hilbert’s mark of 174 wins in 2011.
Buchanan’s most recent milestone was earning her 250th win after the Vandals defeated Montana State 3-1 last fall.
The Vandals’ 11-18 overall record this season puts Buchanan’s record at 255-247. As she enters her 18th season, Buchanan said her goal is to win the Big Sky Conference Championship.
Despite her success, Buchanan said there’s still more learning to be done.
“I’m still learning and that’s part of being a coach is that you have to keep learning, it’s never going to stay the same,” Buchanan said. “The rules change, conference change, kids change, there’s new ways to teach and making sure we’re learning along the way and continuing to teach.”