Volleyball

Setting the tone: Yelin brings intense style to Syracuse volleyball

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Leonid Yelin came to Syracuse in December of 2011 with 21 years of coaching experience. In his 15 seasons at Louisville, Yelin won 366 games and took the Cardinals to 14 NCAA tournament appearances.

Leonid Yelin traded volleyball for perfume.

For the first time in years, he wasn’t involved in the sport. Instead Yelin was selling perfume in a Burdines department store in Miami. Yelin, a Uzbekistan native, knew so little English that he could barely make a sale or operate a cash register.

It wasn’t until a chance conversation with a customer that he would find his way back to the sport. A local lawyer with connections to volleyball asked about his background once he heard Yelin’s accent. In broken English, Yelin explained that he was a former volleyball coach.

The customer handed Yelin a phone number, and the perfume salesman secured his first coaching job in the United States with a traveling club team. Yelin would never be out of volleyball again.

Now in his fifth coaching job in the United States, Yelin inherits a Syracuse program in 2011 that has struggled to establish consistency in the Big East. His diverse life experiences, passion for the game and disciplined approach has pushed his teams to national prominence during his 21-year coaching career. Yelin is trying to impose his demanding coaching style on the Orange as it looks to take a step forward.

“When you have the nice guy with the easy class you don’t get knowledge,” Yelin said. “You’re going to hate the guy that’s tough sometimes, but later you’ll appreciate him as a person.”

Yelin has honed that coaching style over his long career. But his start in coaching was an accident.

While he was stuck in a month-long gap between playing for professional teams in Uzbekistan, a representative from a state-run sport school approached him and asked if he would help with the girl’s volleyball team for the month.

“I stayed for a couple months to try to figure out what I wanted to do, and it started going really well,” Yelin said. “And here I am 30 years later.”

His coaching career was a success in Europe, but he took a brief break from coaching when he moved to the United States in 1989. He said he looked for work in a magazine, spent time laying tile for a hospital and served as a deliveryman for Pizza Hut before getting the job at Burdines.

That’s where the chance encounter led him back to volleyball.

He guided the club team to a national tournament it rarely qualified for previously. Soon after, Yelin received interest from Division-II Barry University, and the suburban Miami school hired him in 1991. Yelin stayed and guided Barry to the 1995 Division-II national championship.

Then Louisville called. The school was looking for a new head volleyball coach.

But Yelin was reluctant to leave Barry. The Catholic university was friendly and welcoming. But his desire to coach at a bigger program made the opportunity with the Cardinals intriguing.

“The athletic director asked what they could do to keep me,” Yelin said. “I said we could move to Division I and I’ll stay.”

Yelin accepted the job at Louisville in 1996 and went on to post a 366-112 record in 15 years at the helm. The team qualified for the NCAA tournament 14 times during Yelin’s tenure.

“They were on another level, just a notch above everybody else,” Colorado head coach Liz Kritza said. “Everyone knew that Louisville was the best team they were going to play all year.”

When Yelin retired after the 2010 season, people close to him were baffled.

“I’m not going to lie to you about why I left,” Yelin said. “But I was retiring from Louisville, not from volleyball.”

Yelin wouldn’t say why he left the program, but he knew he would be coming back to the game.

The coach initially planned to take a season off before getting back into coaching. But Stephanie Cantway, a two-year captain at Louisville who joined his staff as an assistant coach at Louisville, knew he couldn’t stay away for long.

“He’s like a Michael Jordan or a Brett Favre that couldn’t stay away,” said Cantway, who is now an assistant at SU. “When you’re used to it, you want to come back and you want to win.”

Cantway said Yelin’s honesty in talking to his players and staff is part of what creates a winning atmosphere. As a player and a coach, it was sometimes tough for Cantway to handle.

“He’s open and honest right away,” Cantway said. “It’s not necessarily the politically correct thing to do, but in the long run it works.”

Kritza, who had just finished her first year as head coach at Colorado, gave Yelin a call and asked him to join her staff for the 2011 season.

“Truth be told, there were really two head coaches,” Kritza said. “He knew how to run a program better than I did. He was coaching when I was still playing.”

Yelin wanted to be a head coach again after his season at Colorado.

In October 2011, Syracuse fired longtime head coach Jing Pu. Looking for a replacement, SU athletic director Daryl Gross called Yelin and asked him to interview. Yelin was offered the job in December, and he accepted it.

Penn State head coach Russ Rose has known Yelin since his early days at Louisville and called Gross in support of him. Rose said Yelin’s toughness on his players and loyalty strengthened his program for 15 years.

“He’s an acquired taste. It’s going to be kids who can handle someone getting in their kitchen a little bit and telling them to work hard,” Rose said. “He can push his athletes hard, but at the end of the day, they know he’s got their backs.”

His mean-teacher approach to coaching has yielded results in two decades leading college programs. While some of his lessons haven’t hit home yet as the Orange has endured an up-and-down start to the season, he’s aiming to instill that same winning mentality he did at Barry and Louisville.

“Trying hard and losing is not enough,” Yelin said. “When you go into a business, they hire you; they know you’re trying but not getting the job done, you’re going to be asked to leave. That’s what I’m trying to teach them.”

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