Mercyhurst College volleyball coach Ryan Patton’s team has served, dug and spiked its way to a 19-9 record—the best start for any squad in his five-year tenure.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that 2009 marks the first full season that Patton’s wife, Jenell, has served as his assistant coach.
“It’s a very non-traditional coaching relationship,” Patton says. “She does the administrative stuff, all the day-to-day recruiting and probably the least amount of coaching of any coach on campus.”
That gives Ryan Patton the time to concentrate his efforts exclusively on game preparation and other aspects of coaching.
The Pattons say they have found their balance between coaching and managing the program to be quite easy with barely any moments of husband-wife friction at work.
“It hasn’t been hard,” Ryan Patton said. “I yelled at her one time about some administrative task, which is odd because it was maybe the second time in our marriage that I yelled at her.”
“I was stuck in the middle trying to figure out a solution,” Jenell Patton says, “and I’m like ‘I’m on your side. I’m not against you.’”
Junior middle hitter Justine Smith has found the pair’s dynamic works well in Mercyhurst’s system.
“They obviously have their bickering moments, but I think it’s been great because they work off each other very closely,” Smith said.
The couple met in 1998 at Juniata College, where Ryan Patton was the assistant women’s volleyball coach from 1995 to 2000. Jenell Patton’s maiden name was also Patton, a source of lighthearted questioning early on in the couple’s acquaintanceship.
“Ryan had an aunt that was into genealogy, so we made sure to check it all out before we started dating,” she said. “Even before we started hanging out, people at Juniata would say, ‘Oh, I saw your husband yesterday.’ I’d tell them I wasn’t married.”
That wouldn’t last very long.
Jenell Patton became involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Juniata, an organization that many of Ryan Patton’s players took part in. Their paths crossed frequently.
The two married in 2000 and arrived at Mercyhurst five years later when Ryan Patton was hired as both the men’s and women’s head volleyball coach.
His women’s teams showed steady improvement: 13-15 in 2005, 7-18 in 2006, 18-14 in 2007, and 21-15 in 2008.
When former assistant coach Sarah King resigned following the 2008 season, the opening appeared.
“As a joke, I said ‘You should really hire me,’” Jenell Patton says. “Everything he doesn’t like to do and that are his weaknesses are all my strengths.”
The complimentary coaching relationship has worked out well, especially when it comes time to make travel arrangements, plan team itineraries or turn in expense receipts.
Ryan Patton, focusing solely on the game, has his wife handle all of the above.
“With this division of labor, I’ve been able to put an amount of preparation into matches that is unparalleled to anything I’ve ever done before,” he said.
In addition to managing a college volleyball program, the Pattons are raising two sons, Deke, 4, and Ike, 2. Attend any campus volleyball match or practice, and you’re likely to find two children running around the Mercyhurst Athletic Center with their parents calling after them.
“We like hard, short names,” Ryan Patton said.
That led to some chiding by family members over the naming of Deke, for NASA astronaut Deke Slayton, and Ike, a Patton great-great-grandfather.
“My sisters say, ‘You know, you can name a kid with more than one syllable,” Jenell said with a laugh.
But for as long as they have been at Mercyhurst, the Patton’s family is far larger than four.
When recruits come to campus, Jenell Patton takes charge of getting them acquainted with the program, including the fact that the coaches are married.
“Some of them think it’s really cool,” she said. “Then I’ll tell them that the team is like our family. We didn’t have girls, but we have the players.”
Jenell Patton is so involved with the recruiting process that she doesn’t sit on the bench with her husband during games. Instead, she helps to plan for the program’s future from the stands, accompanied by a recruit or two.
This method is pretty much perfect, according to Smith.
“(Ryan) Patton’s been on top of the game much more than he’s been in the past,” Smith said.
And in the duo’s first full season together, Smith and her teammates have found success playing for the Pattons, reeling off a 19-9 record and hunting for a playoff spot in the highly-competitive PSAC West.
Most importantly from the coaches’ standpoint, Jenell Patton has plenty of time for what she calls “interpersonal interaction” with the players, which certainly doesn’t hurt their play on the court.
“In practice, I’ll take 10 minutes with each player to find out how her life is going,” Jenell Patton said. “That’s huge, just staying in touch with them.”