Editor’s note: State Journal reporter Dennis Punzel chronicled the University of Wisconsin volleyball team’s rise under coach Kelly Sheffield and last season’s run to the national championship in a recently released book titled: “Point Wisconsin! The Road to a National Title for Kelly Sheffield & the Wisconsin Badgers.” Here is an excerpt from the book.
When the University of Wisconsin was looking for a new volleyball coach following the resignation of Pete Waite after the 2012 season, four names were immediately linked to the job, including two former Wisconsin assistant coaches — Kentucky coach Craig Skinner and Iowa State’s Christy Johnson-Lynch. Also listed was Texas associate head coach Salima Rockwell. The fourth name in the rumor mill was Dayton coach Kelly Sheffield.
To that point Sheffield had been to Madison twice in his life, to attend the NCAA championships in 1993 at the Field House and 1998 at the Kohl Center. And those recollections were a little fuzzy. “I remember going to State Street Brats and that it was cold,” he said.
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At that point he had a vague awareness of the Wisconsin program, although he had been something of a Wisconsin fan simply because his mentor Steve Shondell was a rabid Badgers fan, tracing back to his Ball State connection with former Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Steve Yoder. Former football coach Dave McClain also had come to Wisconsin from Ball State.
“There was awareness that there was a good following here and traditionally this had been really good,” Sheffield said. “And there was a general awareness that they were having some tougher times.”
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His awareness grew a couple days later when he was contacted by UW associate athletic director Terry Gawlik, who was leading the search for a new coach. Gawlik did not know Sheffield, but she knew of him and had heard a lot of good things from her friends in the volleyball world.
And as he started to think about it, Sheffield found the prospect of coaching at Wisconsin intriguing.
“From afar, you knew that this was, I don’t know if sleeping giant was what I was thinking, but I thought if this is a program that the administration is all in, this is a monster,” Sheffield said. “This has the ability to be a monster.
“It had everything. The location is great. There is really high level high school and club volleyball really close. It is the elite conference. The academics are really, really good, so you know you will never lose a recruit because the academics aren’t good enough.
“I knew enough about this place. I think it’s the best-looking campus in the conference. It sits on a lake, so that would be cool to bring recruits in to see. I knew there was a history of success here and one of the biggest fan bases in the country. And there’s a general enough knowledge that this was a great place to raise a family. Put all of those things together and it was like, this could really be a big deal.”
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With the leading candidates apparently identified when Waite stepped down, it might seem as if selecting the new coach might have been an expeditious matter. But it took more than a month from resignation to hiring on Dec. 28.
Complicating matters was the fact that athletic director Barry Alvarez also was looking for a new football coach to replace Bret Bielema, who had surprised everyone by leaving to take the job at Arkansas. That left Alvarez to step into the interim head coaching role as the Badgers prepared to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
And while Gawlik led the search and identified the candidates, Alvarez wanted to be involved in the hiring and interview the finalists.
Alvarez and Gawlik traveled to the NCAA FInal Four in Louisville to talk to a number of candidates. Sheffield talked with Gawlik at Louisville but due to scheduling conflicts did not get a chance to meet with Alvarez.
“I had a real quality list that I interviewed,” Alvarez said. “There were some people that were in the tournament that I wanted to talk to. I wanted to get it right. You have to work around their schedules.”
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While Alvarez and Gawlik were talking to candidates, those coaches also were talking among themselves. Sheffield and Skinner had been friends since childhood, and Johnson-Lynch had followed Skinner as a Wisconsin assistant.
While all three had an interest, there were some lingering questions as to just how serious Wisconsin was about taking the necessary steps to compete at the top level. And all three happened to be happy with their current jobs at the time and were in a position to be picky.
But as the days passed, there apparently were no offers made. With things in limbo, Sheffield and his family went to Virginia to spend some time with wife Cathy’s family over the Christmas break.
That’s when he got a call from Gawlik, asking him to come to Madison to meet with Alvarez. Things were about to get real.
After borrowing some interview-appropriate clothes from his brother-in-law, Sheffield flew to Madison to meet with Alvarez in his suburban Fitchburg home the night before he was leaving for the Rose Bowl.
“That impressed me,” Sheffield said. “The AD is about to leave for the Rose Bowl and I’m at his house and we’re talking for hours. That right there was a statement that volleyball is important.”
Turns out Sheffield wasn’t the only visitor for Alvarez that night, as he recalls also talking with several football recruits that evening.
“I had a few other things on my mind,” Alvarez recalled. “I’m trying to get a football team ready. I had recruits in my house when he came out for the interview. I took him to my office. I call that the closing room. When we’d bring the recruits to the house, we’d go and I’d visit with them one-on-one in the office to close the deal.”
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Years later, both of the participants in that interview/conversation have vivid recollections of the discussion.
“We just talked leadership,” Sheffield said. “I asked him, ‘What made you so good?’ He answered and he goes, ‘What makes you so good?’ We talked about values and what we’re in this for. We spoke the same language. It was a great conversation.”
Alvarez said, “I was really impressed with Kelly. He was very unique with his philosophy and how he handled players. I always like to know who influenced you the most in coaching. I was impressed and just felt like he had a real special formula.”
While Alvarez liked what he heard from Sheffield, Sheffield heard exactly what he was looking for from Alvarez.
“We never talked money,” Sheffield said. “He said, ‘Look, go after Penn State, go after Nebraska, go after Minnesota.’ That’s all I needed to hear. That was something I didn’t hear in previous conversations and I don’t think anyone else had either. There seemed to be a paradigm shift that was going on that basically stated that we’re going all the way in. That was really big for me to hear. It was critical for me to hear. I didn’t have any interest in getting in this league with one hand tied behind my back.
“What he was saying in that moment was ‘We’re all the way in.’ He knew what that meant because he’d been a coach, he’d been the AD. When I heard that, I didn’t need to talk about budgets. We didn’t haggle about salaries. There was just an understanding that we’d go after the competition and the administration would have our backs. It was so exhilarating to hear that. I don’t even remember the first time I heard about salaries. Go after those guys, let’s freaking go.”
Photos: Wisconsin volleyball holds off Louisville Cardinals to reach NCAA title game