Former Oklahoma volleyball coach Miles Pabst was so impressed with Patrice Arrington, he often repeats himself while reminiscing about the school’s first-ever All-American selection in the sport.
Pabst’s thoughts when he first saw Arrington play: “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness,” Pabst said.
The way to best describe Arrington’s skills: “Ha, ha. She was an exceptional, exceptional athlete,” Pabst said.
Arrington’s greatest strength as a player: “She had tremendous, tremendous power,” Pabst said.
Arrington’s personal attributes: “She’s just a wonderful, wonderful person,” Pabst said.
After heaping more praise on Arrington, Pabst delivered an unsolicited punch line: “If Patrice had been born of the male species, she would have been another Adrian Peterson.”
Suffice to say, consider Pabst impressed.
"I don’t think there’s a better female athlete that’s ever been at Oklahoma in any sport."
-- Miles Pabst
After hearing Pabst’s remarks, a stunned Arrington laughed for several seconds.
“That is hilarious,” Arrington said.
The affable Arrington has heard a healthy portion of praise throughout the years, but the Adrian Peterson comparison was a doozy. “I guess people have called me a freak of nature athletically,” Arrington admitted shyly. “I probably got if from my dad (Percy). He played every sport. He excelled in everything. He’s 78 years old. Still playing tennis. Still doing stuff. So I guess I was born with it.”
Arrington played only volleyball in high school, mainly due to the demanding travel required for camps and tournaments. While at OU, Arrington practiced one year with the track team, but the track meets often conflicted with spring volleyball tournaments, so she didn’t officially compete. Arrington said she remembers one practice when she long jumped “something crazy, like 22 or 23 feet,” which would still stand as a school record.
One of the most prolific American players in history, Pabst knows a bit about volleyball. He began playing in 1962 while stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. In 1968, Pabst was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team. In 1972, he was chosen for the Olympic team and later was chosen as captain of the 1975 national team and the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. Pabst played (and coached) collegiately at Santa Monica Junior College, then transferred to Long Beach State. As a pro, he played for the San Diego Breakers, the L.A. Stars (later the Orange County Stars) and the Denver Comets. He doubled as a player/coach during his stints with the Comets and Breakers.
Needless to say, Pabst recognizes talent, and he certainly saw it in Arrington.
“She’s probably the best female athlete that I’ve ever had in my programs,” said Pabst, who coached the Sooners from 1978-99. “I was thinking about all the athletes we had at OU when I was coaching there, and I don’t think there’s a better female athlete that’s ever been at Oklahoma in any sport.”
A standout at Oxon Hill High School and a resident of Fort Washington, Md., Arrington could have played college volleyball anywhere in the country. All told, she was recruited by more than 35 colleges and offered more than $1 million worth of full-ride scholarships.
Scholarships came from all directions. Some were from close by like Maryland, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut and national power Penn State, which has won seven NCAA titles under coach Russ Rose. Arrington could have headed south to Georgia and all the way to the West Coast to play for USC. Instead, she chose somewhere in the middle.
Arrington said her final pecking order for college ball was OU, Penn State and USC.
“Penn State was very good and people were like, ‘Why didn’t you go to Penn State? What’s wrong with you?’ ” Arrington said with a chuckle. “I’ve known Russ Rose a very long time. I love him as a coach. I probably would have been happy there as well. I just felt like Oklahoma was a good fit.”
Pabst said he first saw Arrington play in Junior Olympic ball. “I thought my chances of recruiting her to Oklahoma from Maryland were pretty slim, but things worked out,” Pabst said. “She came in for a visit and just had a wonderful time here.”
So why did Arrington choose to play for Pabst? “That’s a very good question,” Pabst said with a hearty laugh.
“Miles and (assistant coach) Amy Farber were just awesome,” Arrington explained. “They were nurturing. They were knowledgeable. I wanted to go somewhere else. I was from the East Coast and wanted to get away. I didn’t want to play all the way out in California, so I thought, ‘Maybe somewhere in the middle while still getting great competition.’ I wanted to be on a competitive team.
“I went out for a visit and just had an amazing time. I jelled quickly with the girls. The school was amazing. They were going to keep me on track with my academics because that was the first thing my mother (Dorothy Jean, who passed away in 2015 at age 77) said was, ‘You have to go to school for academics first.’ It was just a really good fit for me and I felt very comfortable. As soon as I walked on campus I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is where I want to be.’ So I chose it. I also wanted my mom to feel comfortable with where I went to college because she was like a worrywart. When she gave me that head nod that said, ‘You’re going to be OK there,’ I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
Arrington immediately made her presence felt as a freshman, starting all 32 games and being named Big Eight Newcomer of the Year by conference coaches.
Arriving the same season as Arrington in 1994 was fellow outside hitter Melissa Peterson from California. To this day, Arrington (1,957) and Peterson (1,798) remain No. 1 and No. 2 all-time in career kills at OU. Peterson also ranks No. 2 (4,782) in career attempts with Arrington at No. 3 (4,714). Peterson is No. 2 in career digs (1,436) with Arrington tied for No. 3 (1,374). “We ran a swing offense with a two-passer system with her and Melissa,” Pabst said. “That was as good a tandem of left-side hitters anywhere. We just lucked out and got Melissa, which was wonderful, too.”
Arrington said she and Peterson hit it off (so to speak) from the outset. “When I met her for the first time. I thought, ‘Oh, she is such a nice girl,’ ” Arrington said of Peterson. “Her parents were wonderful. We jelled right away. We were kind of like the Dynamic Duo. We fed off each other. When my passing was breaking down, her attacking was great. When her attack was breaking down, my passing was great. We complemented each other very much.”
A three-time all-conference pick in the transition period from the Big Eight to Big 12, Arrington would go on to be named as an ASICS/Volleyball Magazine All-American outside hitter in 1997. Peterson also was a two-time all-conference pick.
Widely considered the greatest volleyball player in OU history, Arrington was not the first African-American to play the sport for the Sooners.
If Arrington battled obstacles with racism, Pabst said he was not aware of any. “I think it was just like a duck taking to water,” Pabst said of Arrington immediately blending in at OU. “I saw no problems whatsoever. She never expressed anything about that to me.”
Arrington said she was busy concentrating on her own inner peace with the Sooners. “I wouldn’t say there were any obstacles,” Arrington said. “I’m sure there were, but I’m such a happy-go-lucky person, I would smile and talk to everybody. I don’t think if someone were to say something mean at that time, I would have ever even noticed it. We were athletes. We were well-respected on campus. We got along with people, but sometimes we didn’t. On a whole, the student body was really welcoming. It was a great experience for me.”
"You can do whatever you want as long as you have the passion & the heart."
-- Patrice Arrington
What pleases Arrington today is the overall growth of volleyball.
“Right now, volleyball is the No. 1 sport played by women,” Arrington said. “I think basketball kind of takes some of our African-American women (away from volleyball), but now that a lot of African-American women have gone to the Olympics and have been seen on TV, they’re starting to see, ‘Oh, I can go to college and play volleyball, too. It’s not all about getting scholarships in basketball.’ It’s growing in popularity. Now you’re seeing more club teams, more African-American girls playing. They’ve got so much athleticism we can keep being role models. That’s why I train volleyball players, I give private lessons. I want people to see you can do this professionally. You can play on the national team. You can do whatever you want as long as you have the passion and the heart.”
Arrington was a four-time member of the U.S. National Team (1997-99 and 2005), but missed out on her dream of competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when she suffered a torn rotator cuff on her (right) hitting shoulder before the Games. “I tried to keep swinging and keep swinging and I just couldn’t,” Arrington said of trying to overcome the injury. “I’m the type of person who will play through every kind of injury and every kind of pain, but the doctors said, ‘You’re never going to play volleyball again if you don’t get this (surgery) done.’ ”
Arrington returned to OU after the injury to earn her degree and then played professionally overseas. For 12 seasons, she played in eight countries, including Holland, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Azerbaijan and Puerto Rico. Today, professionals make upward of $1 million playing overseas. “I was making under that,” Arrington admitted. “The price has gone up since I stopped playing, but I was making well into the six-figure range.”
Much like a basketball player’s height is exaggerated on the team roster, so was Arrington’s. She was listed at 6-foot-1 with the Sooners, but actually stood closer to 5-foot-9. “Melissa was 6-foot and I’d be next to her and standing completely short of her,” Arrington recalled.
Arrington said her approach jump (the three-step vertical leap when attacking the ball) was 37 inches at its peak. “That’s phenomenal for most people, let alone a woman,” Pabst said. “Her power was just unbelievable. The high school kids she was playing against would turn around and get out of the way when she was hitting the ball. Some of the college players did the same thing. They just shied away. It was kind of fun.”
Pabst and Arrington remain close to this day and frequently chat by telephone.
The 40-year-old Arrington, who has since picked up tennis, is far from retired from volleyball. She continues to do personal instruction, works multiple camps and clinics and also competes in an adult league. “I’m still playing. I’m still trying to do something,” Arrington said. For the last 10 seasons, Arrington has been an assistant coach for the Woodrow Wilson High School volleyball team in Washington D.C., where her sister, Perette, has long served as head coach. Patrice Arrington currently lives in Washington, D.C., and is Director of College and Career Services/Women's Sports and NCAA Liaison at Woodrow Wilson.As if all that wasn’t taxing enough, Arrington is attending Georgetown and is two semesters shy of earning her master’s degree in sports industry management. Unlike her days at OU, however, she is paying her way through college. “If anyone out there wants to give me a scholarship,” Arrington said with a laugh, “I would be more than happy to take it. Georgetown is not cheap by any means.”
This is the final in a four-part series celebrating Black History Month this February: