Young Chris loved sports.
“Basketball, baseball, swimming, track, tennis, golf … you name it and I tried it,” he said.
Donnelly, now the athletics director at Laguna Blanca, vividly recalls the tall, skinny teenager who shot up six inches between his freshman and sophomore years.
In a way, Tamas’s tour overseas from 2003-09 symbolized a return to the roots his father’s family had established generations earlier in Europe.
Chris’s dad, George, was born in Kaunas, Lithuania during the height of World War II. His country was being squeezed by Nazi troops from the south and the Russian army from the north. As battles raged, the Tamasevicius family was forced to flee its homeland and relocate to a displaced persons camp in Germany. A few years after the war ended, an invitation arrived from George’s uncle to join him in the United States. The family gathered their possessions and set sail for America. Upon landing at Ellis Island in 1949, they shortened their surname to “Tamas”.
After a few days in Chicago, the family drove to Texas and lived there for five years. They relocated to California in 1954 where George became an accomplished student and athlete at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. He then attended UCLA, studying mathematics and becoming a fan of Lou Alcindor’s legendary Bruin basketball teams. Today, 75-year-old George Tamas is president of Interactive Virtual Learning, a company that facilitates instructors to interact with students in academic, corporate and government over high-speed video networks.
“I grew up hearing about John Wooden and all the UCLA greats. We went to a bunch of UCLA games,” Chris remembered. “Dad has always been a big sports fan and coached all of my basketball teams when I was young.”
His mom, Mardee, was athletic as well, encouraging Chris, his sister (Brooke) and brother (Troy) to participate in sports.
“She’d always play ‘H-O-R-S-E’ with me at the playground, so that’s where I get my competitiveness from,” Chris said. “And she would talk trash to me while we were doing it.”
A fan of multiple sports, Tamas believes that volleyball is the most pure of all the team games.
“I preach that every day to our athletes,” he said. “I always make sure that our team is focused on the fact that you need a teammate to help you do something. You can’t have a good setter if you don’t have good passers. The attackers can’t kill the ball if they don’t have a good setter. They can’t be free to swing away at the ball if they don’t have good defenders behind covering them. Whereas in basketball, I can hand the ball off to LeBron and he can just do something (by himself).”
What’s Tamas’s most challenging aspect of coaching women?
“I’m not one,” he chuckled.
“It’s important to have good female coaches on staff. I don’t always look at male/female stuff. There are some inherent differences between the sexes, but the standards remain high. I don’t think anyone deals well with being yelled at, so I believe it’s better to work through positive training whenever you can.”
One of Tamas’s female assistants is his “boss” at home, wife Jennifer.
A four-time All-America middle blocker, silver medalist with the U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics, and an eight-year professional.
They first met at Pacific when Chris was a freshman and Jen was on a recruiting trip to the Stockton campus.
“We dated a little bit in college, but we were more just friends, supporting each other’s program,” Tamas said. “When we were both playing overseas in 2007, we reconnected by Skype—she was in Japan and I was in Cypress—then we started dating again once we got back to the states. Within four-and-a-half months of dating, we were engaged, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Tamas began his coaching career as an assistant at Cal-Riverside in 2009, eventually moving to Minnesota (2011-12), Cal Poly (2013-15) and Nebraska (2014-17). Josh Whitman named him as Illinois’s head coach on February 10, 2017.
"Chris stood out immediately,” Whitman said. “His breadth of experience as both a player and coach, his commitment to the personal growth and development of our student-athletes, his work ethic, and his fierce competitiveness were compelling.”
Tamas’s impact on the program was immediate, leading the Illini back to the NCAA Regionals for a 17th time.
The improvement has continued in 2018, earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a 28-win season, including Illinois' final 13 matches.
“Players like Jordyn (Poulter) and Ali (Bastianelli) and Beth (Prince) have really held to core since I’ve gotten here,” Tamas said. “They’ve got the ship moving and now they’re the anchors. I’m very proud of where they started and where they are now.”
As the regular season comes to a close, Tamas doesn’t intend to change his plan for the NCAA Tournament. He believes the sky’s the limit for his Illini.
“A big part of our training is to teach them to come to practice every day, to be on their ‘A’ game, and to be able to perform when there’s no pressure,” he said. “They’ve done that, night in and night out. That’s why you’re seeing the year that we’re having. I hope that translates into a big tournament. But we don’t take anything for granted. We’re still attacking every day and learning how to be good in that moment. I don’t like to make predictions, so my prediction is that we’ll have practice today and we need to work out hardest in practice.”
Back in Santa Barbara, Tamas’s first mentor keeps a keen eye on his protégé.
“I've seen Illinois play a few times on the Big Ten Network and Chris’s team reminds me of the kind of player he was,” Donnelly said. “They play with what I call ‘controlled emotion’ and seem to have a lot of fun out there, particularly when things get stressful. I'm sure the players on the Illini squad know how much Chris and the staff cares about them as women, and not just volleyball players. He has always stayed true to who he is and I’m really proud of what he's been able to do so far at Illinois.”
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