CULVER - In a world of win-at-all-costs athletic programs oftentimes led by overzealous coaches, here is a feel-good story you will want to hear.
Most, if not all, coaches will say some version of their desire to make a difference in the lives of their athletes or to be a positive role model. That should be the primary objective and there are many examples of coaches that follow that edict, but unfortunately there are too many instances where the bottom line of winning gets in the way. Taylor Lizzi falls into the category of the former.
Lizzi is starting his fifth year as an assistant basketball coach for the Culver Girls Academy program. He has been coaching there since he was 18, fresh out of high school.
“I was searching online for middle school coaching jobs and came across one for the Academy,” said Lizzi, who lived near the campus of Notre Dame at the time and can still see the golden dome from his current residence. “It was definitely more than I was looking for, but I needed the interview experience and I thought, why not me? I applied and about a week later I went in for an interview with Gary Christlieb, who was the head coach at the time. I went in and watched practice, had a meeting with him, had dinner with him and by the end of the night he offered me the job. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”
Beyond the usual challenges of taking on a new task though, the rookie coach also had to balance his school/work life, as well as tackling the transportation issue.
“My first three years, I was a full-time student studying communications at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame. The last two years I have worked full-time for Asset Living, a student housing company, as their financial accounts manager.”
And all five years have meant a two-hour round-trip daily, with most of it coming during the winter months - not exactly the best time to be out on northern Indiana roads. Which leads back to his motivation for going into coaching in the first place. What could possibly make the drive worth it?
“My first two years coaching I wanted to win, win, and win some more,” Lizzi began. “I learned rather fast that was harder to do at Culver because our kids come from all across the country. We don’t have a summer to work with our kids and not even a fall. We usually have, give or take, 13-15 days to hold tryouts and practice before our first game. I quickly had to learn, ‘What more could I do as a coach?’ My mindset became I was there for a bigger reason. Now I see coaching as a platform to empower our kids. To teach them to be strong confident women who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves, for what they believe in, and to chase the dream they’ve always dreamed of. To help them reach that dream. I want them to know this world isn’t just a place you have to live in, but a place you try to change. When I look at our team and program, it’s more important for them to know this isn’t about what you achieve. It’s who you become in this journey. It’s not just about basketball. Basketball is just a game, but it teaches us so many important things about life. I love having 25-30 players with 25-30 different backgrounds and learning about all of them. To this day, I text and call former players to check in on them. When some of them are in town, we find something to do to catch up and talk life.
“My goals for coaching are to make a difference in our players’ lives. It’s not going to be a championship, any trophy, any net cutting. Those are all bonuses. Right now we need more role models and mentors in this world, and that’s what I’m working harder at each day - to be a mentor and leader for these young kids. For our program, we continue to build. Our team is different each year, but we are striving to continue to build a competitive program.
“(CGA head coach) Chantel Vinson is our backbone. She is the one who inspires me daily to be the best I can be. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. When she took over the program, she could have had any assistant she wanted. She gave me the opportunity when I didn’t have the experience and that’s empowerment in itself. I’m a young coach and I have so much more to learn, but as long as I’m working under her, I know I am in great company.”
As for Lizzi’s thoughts on being a head coach himself one day?
"I do see it in the future,” he said, although he plans to continue working in student housing, raising show cattle (he grew up on a family farm) and maybe getting into real estate.
“I have had two opportunities to be an assistant at the junior college level. I looked into both of them seriously, but I am very content working for Chantel and being at the Academy. It has helped me mature and become the man I am today. I owe a lot to Chantel. She is a true inspiration.”
As is Lizzi.