Be humble. Stay hungry. And always listen to your mother.
Thanh Pham took his mom’s advice to heart.
Xuan Nguyen fled war-torn Vietnam in the spring of 1975 with her husband, Yen Pham, and their three children, including six-month-old Thanh. Because Yen served in the South Vietnamese army, their life was in danger after North Vietnamese troops took control of Saigon. The family was fortunate to board one of the last departing airplanes to escape the turmoil.
The Phams eventually settled in Minnesota, where two more children were born. Xuan opened a restaurant in the Twin Cities to help provide for her family.
She often told her five children that their new country “was the land of opportunity.” Her message and example made an impression on young Thanh (pronounced TANG).
“You can do anything here and be anyone you want,” she told her children, stressing the value of hard work and a good education.
“That doesn’t mean anything is given to you,” Thanh said. “My parents instilled in us an ethic of hard work. When you see your mom owning a restaurant and being the waitress, the cook, the busboy, the janitor – you name it, it’s a great example. Watching her on her feet 14 hours a day, you learned never to complain and to appreciate what you have.”
More than 30 years later, Xuan, at age 63, continues to embrace opportunity, working at the Minco plant in Fridley. Yen, 70, works as executive director at a non-profit Vietnamese social services agency in St. Paul.
And their middle child, Thanh? He remains hungry yet humble. At age 39, he’s living a unique American story.
A guiding force
A guy who initially aspired to be a math teacher has found his sweet spot as a husband, father and a national championship volleyball coach. Pham is starting his 12th year at St. Thomas, where his teams have become a fixture in the top 10 national rankings.
In November 2012, Pham’s Tommie team won the NCAA Division III volleyball championship to cap a 40-1 season, including 35 consecutive victories to close the year. A 3-2 comeback defeat of Calvin (Mich.) helped the Tommies become the first MIAC institution to capture the national volleyball crown.
“I think Thanh is one of the top young coaches in the nation,” said St. Thomas athletics director Steve Fritz. “He gets a lot out of his players and understands how to motivate them. He has a high knowledge of his sport, and he plays the toughest schedule he can. He knows that will bring out the best in his team. He’s very competitive, and he has high expectations for his players, yet he’s so personable and approachable.”
Athletics has been a guiding force in Pham’s life since he started shadowing his older brother back in elementary school.
“When my older brother started wrestling, I started wrestling,” Pham explained. He took up volleyball as his brother had and played in a sand volleyball league. At Osseo High School they formed a boys’ Junior Olympic team called Razor’s Edge. He also coached his sister’s 12-under team.
“My goal was always to be a math teacher. Sports were secondary. Even when I was coaching wrestling or volleyball, I was a math teacher first. Most coaches I knew were also teachers, so I knew teaching would be my best path.”
When he interviewed in spring 2003 for St. Thomas’ coaching opening, Pham had a seven-year run as an Augsburg College assistant and head coach, and was immersed in the Minnesota club volleyball scene. Fritz and his associate JoAnn Andregg took a chance on the 28-year-old middle-school math teacher, who had glowing references but had never led a MIAC team to a championship or NCAA playoff berth.
“This opportunity came along at St. Thomas, and luckily Steve and JoAnn hired me,” Pham said. “I never thought I’d be here for 12 years. I just thought ‘let’s try it and see how it goes.’ With any job there’s definitely a learning curve, and we eventually figured out what it takes to win at this level.”
“Our gym culture is very different than when I started. It used to be a lot about winning and losing. Now it’s about the process, how we do things.
“Winning and losing doesn’t occur where the ball is but rather depends on who isn’t touching the ball and where it’s going next. It means not taking a mental break and being ready when the ball finds you. In our sport every play ends in a mistake, so we try to eliminate mistakes.”
Pham’s latest All-American is senior hitter Jill Greenfield. “Thanh gained my trust when he made me into the best volleyball player I could be, just as he promised. But he won my respect with his honesty and work ethic,” Greenfield said. “He has taught me that honesty, communication and leadership are traits we can take with us, that will benefit us far beyond our playing days on the court. He is the epitome of leading by example.”
Pham wrestled in high school and college. He cites that sport’s discipline and toughness – plus the mentorship provided by his Augsburg coach, Jeff Swenson – as prime influences in his volleyball coaching philosophy. Swenson’s teams won 10 NCAA wrestling championships before he retired from coaching in 2007.
“Jeff Swenson played a critical role in the way I look at athletes and the role sports play in my life,” Pham explained. “Jeff helped teach me the real meaning of hard work. From my wrestling back- ground, it’s hard for me to be complacent. Wrestlers, well, they’re a little bit crazy, so if you go through that sport, everything else seems easy.
“I’m always pushing our volleyball team to be our best. Every match now is tough. And lately with our national success we always need to bring our ‘A’ game. We can’t take a breather.”
A return to Vietnam
Tommie volleyball’s 2012 national championship was one of three life-changing events Pham said he’s experienced during the last seven years. He was married in 2007. Then in 2008, he made his first trip back to his homeland, traveling to Vietnam with his parents and one sibling.
“I haven’t known anything else but living in the United States, and that was a humbling, life-changing trip,” Pham said. “It was definitely exciting to meet my only living grandparent, my mom’s mom. Meeting aunts, uncles and cousins was fun. Everything suddenly made sense about my parents. We saw their old house; it’s still standing and has been remodeled a few times. We saw the hospital where I was born in 1974. Reconnecting with our roots where my family came from was big for me.
“Seeing the poverty over there was mind-numbing. The culture shock I felt was evident. Being here so long, you could tell there was even culture shock for my parents. Their way of life here is so different than what they left. It definitely makes you grateful for the things you have here in the United States.”
In 2011, Thanh and his wife Stefanie decided to start their own family.
“We chose to adopt a child, and that’s been the best decision we’ve ever made,” Pham said. They were matched up with a 6-month-old boy in Korea, but were unable to bring him home until he was more than 2-years old. They sent him care packages with their photos to his foster mother.
Pham said they went to Seoul in May 2013 to meet and gain custody of their son. They were told the process could be as fast as a few days, but also could take as long as six weeks. Their limbo ended up lasting four weeks.
“I remember our first day when we were scheduled to meet our son for the first time in person,” Pham said. “In the cab ride over, I reminded my wife that he’s only 2 years old, and we should temper our expectations. Most 2-year-olds are indifferent when a stranger comes up to them. Then we arrived. He ran up to me and screamed ‘Opa, opa,’ which means ‘Daddy, daddy’ in Korean.
“When we met, we just felt an instant connection. The first two weeks he only cried maybe twice. We wanted to make sure he kept a sense of his identity so we decided not to change his name – he’s Tae Lee Pham.”
Just as Thanh learned to adjust to new surroundings as a young child, now Tae faces that task.
Pham had arrived during war time and his parents had no money, no contacts, no friends. They were a family of refugees. Tae arrived under happier circumstances. “He’s an extremely happy-go-lucky, gentle giant,” Pham said. “It seems like he’s always been a part of our family, and it’s hard for us to imagine life before him.”
Tae just turned 3 years old and weighs 51 pounds. He seems to be adjusting well; his favorite foods are pizza and meatballs.
Thanh’s dad had a few reservations about them adopting a child, in terms of the child’s happiness and the worry that his parents might want him back. His dad recalled some of the emotions that affected him when he uprooted his family, and he didn’t want their child to face any heartache. “But now after he sees how Tae is with us, he’s knows this is the right decision,” Pham said. He sees how he fits, and he has no reservations. He just sees his grandson.”
There’s more good news awaiting Tae: Mom and dad are expecting, with his new baby brother’s arrival date set for December.
“Stefanie and I are both pretty driven, stay-in-the-moment type people, so having a son puts things into perspective. Now the volleyball wins aren’t as big of a deal, and the big losses aren’t as painful. When you have a 3-year-old smiling at you, that’s what’s important.”
Always a teacher
Greenfield said the legacy Pham is building extends far beyond wins and losses.
“Pham always says that he would rather coach a group of great people than a group of great volleyball players, which is a strong testament to our team’s family mentality,” Greenfield said. “The love and respect he has and shows to people around him are contagious.”
With all the successes that have come his way, Pham still considers himself a math teacher at heart, someone who challenges his players to come up with the correct answers and be their best on and off the court.
“St. Thomas is home to me,” Pham said. “The relationships I have with our team and our seniors are important. We want to put out the best product we can, make every day as meaningful as possible, and make sure we don’t take anything for granted. Over the last 15 years our rosters have been filled with All-Americas. What attracts these players here is what St. Thomas offers as a university. They can get a great education and play college volleyball at a high level.
“Every day is a challenge. I look forward to the next day, the next opportunity. I would hope the best things are yet to come.”
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