Friday, July 19, 2024

WAUNAKEE, Wis.

A few hours after practice begins with players juggling tennis balls and Def Leppard rattling through the gym, a little while after serving groups are divided into Packers fans and non-Packers fans, Kelly Sheffield sits in a wine bar and describes his first office as a college volleyball head coach. This was at Albany. He shared space with rakes, shovels and snowmobiles belonging to the grounds crew. He assumes his computer was the first one ever made. For the first home match, he scrubbed net poles wearing his suit. Thirteen people showed up.

This audience, on this Tuesday night, is into it. It should be. We’re a short drive north of Wisconsin’s campus. Also it’s $100 a head to get in. “B.S. and Bourbon” is the event, with part of the proceeds redirected to volleyball NIL efforts. Storytelling is required, and Sheffield cycles through his library of hits. How he inherited the school’s “party team,” as he puts it, and somehow it reached the NCAA championship match that winter of 2013. How he schemed to get air conditioning installed in UW Field House. How he ticked off the Big Ten and television networks with a tweet about coverage. How Waunakee police once pulled him over because he was following his young daughter in his car near a park and someone called in a suspicious driver.

People laugh between sips, but there’s a gasp, too, when the guest of honor jokes that he can’t talk about his playing career because there isn’t one. It’s a seminal fact, and yet, wildly, news to some patrons: Sheffield runs a volleyball powerhouse having never competed in the sport. How their coach has performed that bit of alchemy, how he’s become a filter-free advocate for the game while building a team positioned to chase another national title, is essentially a mystery to them.

He doesn’t need all night to explain that part.
“If I didn’t ask questions,” Sheffield tells the crowd at Red & White Winebar, “I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

As of Thanksgiving week, the total is 559 wins in 22-plus seasons across three jobs, including 18 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin volleyball has reached five Final Fours, and Kelly Sheffield has been on the sideline for four of them. It was four straight Big Ten championships until a loss at then-No. 16 Purdue on Friday put a fifth out of reach. This stopped being quirky a long time ago.

Still, this is the first time a historically competitive program has a coach with a national championship trophy displayed on an end table, and it’s a little preposterous that “18-year-old 8th grade cross-country coach” is one of the first lines on his resume. To boot, the Badgers run a system used by only a small fraction of the country’s 300-plus programs, while occasionally doing circus tricks before practice or watching Monty Python clips or singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire in the film room. (On the 21st of September, naturally, after Sheffield hand-wrote the lyrics on the dry erase board.)

Because he didn’t come up in thrall to the sport’s conventions, Wisconsin’s coach sees things eclectically. He doesn’t believe there’s a limit to discoverable answers in the game. Think like a scientist, Sheffield tells his team, over and over and over again. “Sometimes you’re testing things out and it’s not always going to be perfect,” says junior Anna Smrek, the Badgers’ 6-foot-9 – that’s correct, 6-foot-9 – middle blocker/right side hitter. “It’s kind of like a hypothesis. You’re working things out. It’s not your statement yet, right?”

It’s the fun in the 53-year-old’s fascination with volleyball — “Every match, there is a path to winning, and I’m obsessed with trying to find that,” Sheffield says — and it is perhaps only exceeded by how he fell into it. He grew up in Muncie, Ind., and the extent of his volleyball experience was putting a cutout of a ball on his head and cheering for a Burris High School team that was in the midst of winning 21 state championships in 35 seasons. He was a student at Ball State when a former high school classmate called to ask if Sheffield had seen her boyfriend at a bar the previous night. As it happened, the former classmate was coaching Burris’ junior varsity team. As it happened, Sheffield was a single college guy. So he offered to help, should help ever be needed from someone who knew next to nothing about the sport.

His first year was 1989. The team went undefeated. He’d plunged into Muncie’s volleyball incubator at peak temperature. “I loved the techniques,” Sheffield says. “I loved the tactics, I loved the systems. I loved the challenge of not knowing, but the chase of trying to know.” As he added duties with Munciana Volleyball Club, he visited any practice he could, from high school teams to Rick Majerus’ basketball workouts at Ball State to the college’s marching band rehearsals. He filled legal pads with exacting details: names of drills. Where the coach stood. The words coming out of his or her mouth. He would spend three hours at the Ball State student union writing a two-hour practice plan. He hit against a wall, again and again, to teach himself good hand contact so he could input balls properly in practice and actually get things done.

After Sheffield worked a Bowling Green camp during his mid-20s, then-Falcons coach Denise Van De Walle recommended him to longtime Houston coach Bill Walton for a limited-earnings position. Sheffield worked Walton’s camp and then interviewed for the gig. His first impression was … not great. Walton asked Van De Walle why she sent him this loser who ordered a Diet Coke instead of a beer. “He called me up and said, ‘I don’t want to hire you, but Denise is making me,’” Sheffield recalls. He packed his car in two hours, drove 20 more, and made the second workout of two-a-days in the summer of 1997, the start of a new path worth a tidy $12,000 a year.
But then, all along, Sheffield has felt like he’s getting paid to do something he’d pay someone to let him do. It satisfies the competitive urges of a guy who wants to bet on which elevator will open first, or which grocery store line will move quickest. It feeds a compulsion to figure things out. The closest Sheffield gets to explaining it: He was once the youngest Eagle Scout in Indiana history. And then someone put him in charge of a college volleyball team.

“If you’re going to start something,” Sheffield says, “let’s fricking go.” Which means questions. All the questions. Like the time at Dayton he wondered why the band didn’t show up for volleyball matches, and the response “Well, it never has” wasn’t good enough. “Kelly does not have the bias of experience to keep him from reaching high,” says Wisconsin associate head coach Brittany Dildine, who has been on Sheffield’s staff since 2009.

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