Indiana native sees success in first season at UW
The biggest gift from the state of Indiana to hit Badgerland may be Muncie, Ind. native Kelly Sheffield, head coach of the women’s volleyball team, who, in his first year at UW, led the Badgers to the NCAA championship match.
Unbeknownst to many, the town of Muncie is a volleyball powerhouse. The pipeline of coaches that have come out of Muncie in recent years includes the head coaches for Ball State, Purdue and Kentucky, along with another assistant coach at Purdue.
Sheffield, however, never played volleyball before beginning his career as a coach; his only athletic experience was a track career in high school.
“[Coaching volleyball] was just an off-handed comment and I ended up helping somebody,” Sheffield said. “The more I was around it the more it was like a drug to me.”
He didn’t think it mattered that he’d never played before. He knew coaching was about teaching. Tactics would come later.
Sheffield worked as hard as he could to get a shot at coaching volleyball for a career. He coached club for seven years, worked every camp he could and coached the Muncie Burres eighth grade team while simultaneously working as an assistant for both the junior varsity and varsity team.
One day a coach—whose camps Sheffield had frequently worked— asked him the question he’d long been waiting for: “What would you say if I could get you a job coaching in college?”
“I said, ‘I think that would be the coolest job in the whole world,’” Sheffield said. “It would be like telling a kid that he could go to the moon.”
He got a phone call from the head coach at Houston, offering him the second assistant coaching job a day before the preseason began, with a starting salary of $12,000.
“He said, ‘I didn’t want to hire you but this other coach is telling me I have to, so you can have the job if you want it,’” Sheffield said.
Two hours later he was on his way from Muncie to Houston, a 20-hour drive, arriving in Houston the next day.
Sheffield moved around to Virginia and Clemson as an assistant before getting his first head coaching job in Albany, N.Y. He coached at Albany for seven years, leaving with a 301-122 record before his next stop at Dayton, where he earned Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year three years in a row.
Winning at Wisconsin
Sheffield was hired in the 2013 offseason with explicit Big Ten and NCAA championship expectations.
“I believe I’ve got the best volleyball coaching job in America,” Sheffield said. “When you put it all together. When you think about potential and conference and ability to recruit to this great place and this town to raise a family in and the administrative support and student support.”
Sheffield delivered, guiding UW to a 28-10 record in the country’s most competitive conference. The crown jewel of his first season came in the NCAA Tournament, where Wisconsin made it to the finals before falling to conference foe and perennial powerhouse Penn State.
Sheffield has three traits that will undoubtedly write his place in Wisconsin athletic folklore for years to come, three traits that allowed a first-year coach with no competitive experience as a player to push a young team all the way to a berth as national runner-up.
Confidence born of trust
It’s undeniable Sheffield is a passionate person. Within that passion exists a belief in his players’ skills, from practice to matches to interviews.
Senior libero Annemarie Hickey will never forget Sheffield’s unequivocal confidence during the team’s games against Penn State and Texas in tournament.
“He came into the locker room and told us, ‘If there’s ever a doubt in your mind that we are going to win this game look to me, look to me and I will be your support,’” Hickey said. “‘We are going to win this game.’”
Even when Sheffield talks about his life outside of volleyball, he is quick to show passion. “People look to get away from things that they don’t like doing. I looked to get away from school. I looked to get away from studying,” Sheffield said. “I don’t look to get away from the game here. You are not just coaching, you are building relationships”
Perfection as reality
Sheffield came to Wisconsin with one goal in mind: to change the attitude of his team.
He wanted them to exude mental toughness. He wanted to push his players. He needed to get the best out of them. This was the key for his team to earn confidence in themselves and each other.
“I think there is fake confidence and there is real confidence,” Sheffield said. “Real confidence comes from having a plan and having a vision and implementing it. I think a lot of people want confidence without the work and that’s not how it works. I think you get what you deserve.”
Not only does Sheffield demand perfection on the court, but also off it. While at Dayton, Sheffield’s team earned the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Team Academic Award four years in a row. Nothing has changed for Sheffield except the location.
In the beginning of the year Sheffield gave out study hour requirements for the team, though a couple girls failed to meet the numbers. When he found out, the entire team team was held accountable.
“I want people that want to live extraordinary lives,” Sheffield said. “I think I’ve got a responsibility as a coach and a teacher helping them reach their potential.”
Build relationships as well as players
Coach Sheffield’s strongest trait as a coach, and really as a human, is the ability to establish strong relationships with his players and fellow coaches through a balance of personal and professional life.
Joking around with players on the sideline, but at the same time letting them know it’s time for business, is a hard line to toe.
With the pure admiration and joy Hickey and junior outside hitter Courtney Thomas had talking about their coach, it was easy to tell they look at him in a similar light.
“Right from the beginning he told us that he cared about us and that’s really key to know as a girl’s volleyball team,” Hickey said. “We really just want to be cared about.”
The compassion, however, lasted much longer than his preseason speeches.
“He’s kind of like our dad,” Hickey said. “I think it was cool just hearing the little things like, ‘Hey how are you doing’ or ‘Great job today.’”
It was here that Sheffield paused.
“It gives some depth to the career that I’ve chosen,” Sheffield said. “You want to be in a situation where you’re being a positive influence on people’s lives. But the key is, if you’re being a father figure or a role model or something like that, if they are not getting better, if they are getting their butts kicked, a father figure isn’t what they need.”
When you add all this up, you get a coach with a career record of 301-122, a 73.1 winning percentage, in 13 years as college volleyball coach.
Sheffield hopes that one day this program will be the talk of the town: something Badger fans are proud of.
When speaking of the future of his program, Sheffield gazes off in the distance as if he can see the future play out in front of his eyes.
“We want to fill this place, man,” Sheffield said. “I want this to be the best entertainment in the country. I want to compete for championships. Our players are dying for that. They want to win so bad they can taste it … we want little girls to look up and say, ‘I want to be them.’”
It’s a dream not too far off from reality.