May 3, 2012
When the Arizona State University School of Letters and Sciences hosts its graduation convocation on Saturday, there might be some sideways glances given by some of the younger graduates to Tammy Webb-Leibl. It’s only natural seeing as Webb-Leibl is old enough to be a mother to most of the graduates and yet she will be graduating as one of their peers.
What most of those graduates probably won’t realize, however, is that they are graduating with one of the most successful student-athletes to ever come through Arizona State’s ranks.
Webb-Leibl, 47, will be collecting her Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies after graduating from the program in December – 26 years after posting one of the most exception volleyball tenures in Sun Devil history.
While at ASU, Webb-Leibl was a two-time AVCA All-America First-Team pick in 1985 and 1986 and was a two-time conference first-team selection and would go on to be named the Pac-10 Volleyball Player of the Decade while posting a stat line that – at the time – saw her ranked first in kills, solo blocks, block assists and digs.
Twenty-six years later, she still holds the school record for solo blocks with 196 in her career and she still sits second in kills with 1,871. She was inducted into the ASU Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1996.
“Tammy was the most dynamic player I have ever coached at the collegiate level,” said Debbie Brown, who was Webb-Leibl’s coach while she was at ASU. “Along with her physical abilities, she had incredible work ethic and a spirit of competitiveness that was hard to match.”
The only problem? For all her accolades as an athlete, Webb-Leibl didn’t actually finish up the student part of being a student-athlete while at ASU.
“Like most of the athletes at the time, I was on the five-year plan,” Webb-Leibl said. “Once I exhausted my eligibility, I wanted to focus on my professional volleyball career and went that route.”
Webb-Leibl would compete for the U.S. National Team for the better part of the next eight seasons after departing Arizona State and experience her first Olympiad at the 1988 Olympics Games in Seoul, South Korea, and helped the team to a seventh-place finish overall.
She would go on to be a member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1992 games in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta during her tenure with the U.S. National Team, earning Most Valuable Player accolades as part of the team in 1993 as well as being named the USOC Female Volleyball Athlete of the Year. Webb-Leibl competed in over 400 international matches as part of USA Volleyball, becoming the first American women to ever do so.
After her competitive career, Webb-Leibl wanted a break from it all and settled down and married her husband, Geoff, in 1998. Between the two of them, they had two children in Tyler, 11, and Noah, 10. Webb-Leibl was content with the family life, coaching for a couple seasons at UC San Diego, while raising a family but something kept nagging at her: the fact she never earned her degree.
“It’s funny when you talk to people who have it, they will tell you that it’s not that big a deal,” Webb-Leibl said. “But when you don’t have one, it is a big deal.”
After leaving Arizona State, Webb-Leibl had taken an assortment of classes, but nothing consistent. She had studied social work while at Arizona State but the programs at San Diego at the time didn’t really offer much in the way of continuing that.
At that point, Webb-Leibl reached out to Arizona State and presented her transcripts and asks what she could do to get a degree. After her advisor’s reviewed her coursework, they told her she was on a path towards a Liberal Studies degree and conveniently, that was something she could complete online.
Webb-Leibl buckled down and picked away at the online classes as well as some community college classes to work her way to the degree. Getting back into the groove of school was something she had to work to get used to, noting that while competing in professional sports on the international level was tough, so was coming back to earn a degree.
“Honestly, I was a pretty horrible student when I was at ASU,” she reminisced. “Going back to school was hard because I hadn’t had to study like the for many years but it was nice to know that if you just worked hard and put in the effort, you can get good grades. I just wanted to do well and pass.”
The physical classes required her to be in classes with students half her age, a fact that she said was as not traumatizing or embarrassing as some might expect.
“One of my first classes was a lab and a young lady sat next to me and it turned out she was a high school student in this class,” Webb-Leibl recalls. “It was funny because when they called roll, I recognized her name as a pretty big-time up-and-coming volleyball player and she was the youngest person in the class while I was the oldest.”
Webb-Leibl finally earned the necessary credits to earn her degree last December. While she had officially graduated though, the timing of the graduation ceremonies didn’t fit into her schedule and pushed her walk-date to this month.
Even then, things haven’t gone as smooth as she may have liked.
“I missed the deadline for ordering my cap and gown,” Webb-Leibl said with a laugh. “I was going to just say I didn’t need it and come down and figure it out then.”
Luckily, that won’t be needed thanks to current Arizona State head coach Jason Watson. Watson offered to pay for Webb-Leibl’s cap and gown out of his own pocket and also encouraged the athletic department to welcome her to the annual graduation luncheon for graduating student-athletes – an expenditure that Watson also offered to personally cover for her and her family.
“Tammy is a shining example to each of our student-athletes. She has represented her family, Arizona State University and her country at the highest possible competitive level,” Watson said. “The dedication and sacrifice needed to play at such a high level is a trait few will ever understand. Her achievements are an inspiration to all.”
In addition to her attendance at the event, Leibl-Webb has also been asked to speak on behalf of all former student-athletes that have returned to get their degrees.
“I think you are just a different person once you graduate and get older,” Leibl-Webb said. “I was proud to do it, excited to do it. It’s never too late.”