LOCK HAVEN - One glance around Tom Justice's office, and hardly would you believe the veteran coach is preparing for retirement.
Huge white binders loaded to the brim with papers are scattered throughout his small office inside Thomas Fieldhouse. That's not counting the overflowing folders located underneath his brown desk.
The walls are all filled with memories. Pictures of teams, assistant coaches and plaques remind him of how far the women's volleyball program has come since 1991.
"It was tough," said Justice as the veteran coach of 27 years - 21 as head volleyball coach - announced his retirement, which will be effective at the end of June. "Even with all the signs pointing in the direction that this is the time, from an emotional standpoint, it was really, really tough to look at the prospect of not working with athletes. You have to be willing to step aside for the young coaches that are coming up. It would be selfish of me to hang on until I am 90 years old and I am a liability to the program. I want to make sure I step aside before I am a liability. But I'm sure there are those out there that would argue that I am already one."
Justice came to Lock Haven in 1985 to coach wrestling - even though he was told to steer away from the program.
In 1991, reality sunk in, though.
"I had to face the fact that my career as a wrestling coach was over. Period," he said. "My survival as a coach, and survival of my family, depending upon my ability to adapt. When you think about the economics, especially with a family, it's a motivator. That's what got me into it. At first, I thought I might go into strength and conditioning as a profession. I think strength coaching is like you are working with someone else's athletes. It's not the same as working with your own athletes. I was asked if I wanted to start the women's volleyball program, and I was in shock. I was this macho wrestling coach, but I met with co-eds on campus, and they wanted this to happen."
From the Resilite to the hardwood floor, Justice went to work with the volleyball program, which wasn't peaches and cream from the start.
In fact, the exact opposite.
In his first season, the Lady Eagles went 0-17.
That's when "the talk" came.
Right after the last match of that 1991 season.
A tearful Justice sat his players in the locker room and promised one thing.
"I said that we were going to play volleyball the way the game was meant to be played," he said. "And I just made this commitment. I couldn't turn away from 0-17. I needed to make things right. I wasn't going to leave as a loser. By the second year, we were starting to beat people. We beat a few division teams, and we still didn't have any scholarship money. I would say that we turned the corner in that second year in terms of attitude and aspirations."
The rest is history.
In his 21 years of coaching, Justice has won 485 matches. He led Lock Haven to six Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tournament titles, seven NCAA Division II Atlantic Region titles, 14 NCAA tournament appearances and seven NCAA Elite Eight trips.
He coached 14 All-Americans, 11 PSAC Athletes of the Year and 60 all-conference players.
In 2006, Justice was also selected to the Pennsylvania Volleyball Hall of Fame.
"I just wanted the players to believe that we could do it here," Justice said. "I got a part-time assistant coach in 1994, and Angie Erdley made a big difference. She was a wonderful person, and everyone loved her. As a head coach, you need to have a eye for talented coaches in addition to talented athletes.
"Every assistant coach in the program has made a difference, and had a huge impact on the success here. That started with Angie, who has her own motivational speaking business, Motivation Station. Melissa Myers did a great job here, and did a great job at California. Gen Kawakita assisted our Olympic team in 2008, and is with the Japanese national team now. Cherry Li is now working for the Bank of China in Los Angeles. Dan Kreiger is so knowledgeable of the game, and he has played the game. Any of these four coaches could have stepped into my shoes and done a really good job here."
Justice also spent time from 1991 to 1998 as the swimming and diving coach as well.
"The workload was amazing," he said. "There was such an overlap between swimming. If you train your swimmers properly, you are doing two practices per day. Then, you had to train volleyball and the divers. I was having as many as four practices per day. I was in the pool or in the gym as many as seven hours per day. It was just killing me. Then, I was in the office until midnight with recruiting and scouting. I couldn't have dinner or breakfast with my family. My wife would bring my dinner in a bag to the office so I had something to eat.
"I talked with (former LHU president) Dr. (Craig) Willis in 1999 and told him that I couldn't do it anymore. It was bad for my health, and I was serious. I wasn't getting much sleep. There wasn't a Saturday from the fall through the end of July that I wasn't involved in a competition or recruiting. I was even going to club championships and junior swim meets. It just got to be too much."
Today, Justice is preparing to write a book on coaching.
But don't expect to be come out tomorrow.
"It will probably take about two years," he said, pointing to the endless amount of binders on the psychological aspect of coaching. "It will take a long time to do that. I don't want to write a book off the top of my head. I don't want it to be opinions, but based on science and facts. Too many coaches just go with their instincts and knowledge, and you can make mistakes there. The experience is valuable, but you make huge mistakes when you don't look at science. That's how you become dated. You just can't go on your gut. Your emotions are not objective. It will be footnoted and based on science."
As Justice prepares to walk out of the Thomas Fieldhouse for the final time as head coach, tears will probably come down his face.
Yes, he'll still attend volleyball games. "But I'm going to keep my opinions to myself," he said.
Yet, he'll smile about the promises he told all his recruits as he was pitching Lock Haven to each one of them.
"I promise them that they would be on a championship team. I was just so determined," he said. "And I always kept my promise."