Already a champion for volleyball, Mary Wise in position to become an NCAA volleyball champion

The NCAA has crowned 36 Division I volleyball champions, all coached by men. Florida's Mary Wise hopes to become the first woman -- and she's been knocking on the door for years.

Mary Wise isn't going to like this. A story about her? She practically cringes, and suggests you write instead about almost anything else. How about her players? She's had a lot of great teams in her 27 years as Florida's volleyball coach, and this season's team is one of her favorites.

"Magical -- such a special group to be around," Wise said of the Gators, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, who host No. 15 seed UCLA in the regional semifinals on Friday. "They're funny, hard-working. You want to bottle it: This is the high you get from coaching."

Or how about the progress of the SEC? The conference had two of the top four NCAA tournament seeds. The other is No. 4 Kentucky, also hosting a regional. And a third team, Missouri, will play No. 1 seed Penn State.

Or how about volleyball in general? The sport continues to grow, Wise said, and is now shown on television more than ever.

"Don't make it just about me," Wise pleads, and this isn't false modesty. This truly is Wise: always thinking about the big picture in regard to both her sport and the players she coaches.

"When I got here, I thought volleyball was the most important thing, and if I wasn't playing well, it was the end of the world," Florida senior hitter Shainah Joseph said. "She told me, 'It's OK -- you're a person outside of volleyball.' She pushed me to explore academics, social life and figure out more about myself."

As another Gators senior hitter, Carli Snyder, said of Wise, "I almost forget sometimes that she's someone who is that competitive, because she's also so empathetic. It shows that you can get the success that you want, while still having those personality traits."

Courtesy Tim Casey/Florida

Florida's Mary Wise, one of the most accomplished volleyball coaches ever, is looking for her first national title.

Wise got her 900th career victory in the Gators' regular-season finale at Missouri, a win that also secured a share of her 23rd SEC title and essentially locked up the NCAA No. 2 seed. In all divisions, only two other women at the NCAA level have reached at least 900 victories in coaching volleyball: Peggy Martin at Division II Central Missouri (1,064) and Julie Jenkins, who's spent most of her career at Division III Trinity (910).

All of Wise's wins -- now 902 -- have been at the Division I level, where she is the winningest female coach and has the sixth-most victories among all coaches.

Women remain a minority among women's volleyball head coaches -- just 36 percent in Division I. Of the 16 teams remaining in this year's NCAA tournament, four are coached by women: Michigan State's Cathy George, Utah's Beth Launiere, BYU's Heather Olmstead and Wise.

A big part of this is that there are so few college men's volleyball programs, thus the vast majority of coaching jobs for both men and women are for women's teams. Wise, whose teams have advanced to the Final Four seven times, has been a beacon for female coaches in volleyball, especially those who also hope to raise families. Wise and her husband, Mark, have two sons.

Wise says younger coaches -- men and women -- sometimes find the demands too taxing. And if they have small children, women especially may opt to leave the profession.

"It breaks my heart when they get out," she said. "Just this year, I had a former assistant and a former player get out of coaching. If I was starting now, could I do it this long? It's hard. The truth is, it got much easier after both our sons went off to college."

But the fact that Wise has done it so well for so many years is an inspiration to others.

"I think she is a great role model," said Washington State coach Jen Greeny, who has two daughters with her husband and assistant coach, Burdette Greeny. "Mary's the first person who comes to mind when you need advice; she's someone who'll be honest with you. When you see she's got 900 wins, it makes you say, 'OK, I can stay in this for the long haul.' "

So, of course, it really does makes sense, despite her protestations, to write about Wise, and everything she's meant to women's college volleyball. Because that's the thing: To tell the sport's story, you really are telling her story.

Born to coach

Courtesy Tim Casey/Florida

Mary Wise credits great mentors, supportive colleagues and fertile recruiting soil for her success.

In 1977, Wise -- then Mary Fischl -- was in the first group of recruited scholarship athletes to Purdue's volleyball program, which had started in 1975. She was from the Chicago suburb of Evanston, the daughter of a dentist in a family of six children, and she played multiple sports throughout grade school and high school.

Wise, in typical self-deprecating fashion, says the only reason she got her scholarship to Purdue is because a better standout -- who was also from Illinois -- chose USC instead.

"Sometimes," Wise said, "you just have to be in the right place at the right time."

Courtesy Florida

Mary Wise is looking to book her eighth trip to the final four this weekend.

In fact, though, Wise was a very successful setter at Purdue. The Boilermakers won two Big Ten titles and went to the AIAW national tournament twice, but fell in the regionals her senior year of 1980.

"Still not over that loss," Wise said with a little smile.

That was at the end of the AIAW era; the first NCAA volleyball tournament would be in 1981. Wise had been sure since she was in high school that she wanted to coach. And upon graduating from Purdue, she was hired as head coach at Iowa State at just 21 years old.

Wise gives credit to her coach at Purdue, Carol Dewey, with teaching her and then advocating for her to get the job. And to former Iowa State assistant athletic director Elaine Hieber for taking the chance in hiring her.

"Carol was ahead of the curve on so many things -- how to promote women's sports, how to get people interested," Wise said. "From Carol, I learned coaching is not just the X's and O's. It's how you deal with people, and your organizational skills.

"I was very fortunate. I was so young and naïve, I didn't know what I didn't know. But I always point out that I actually did turn 22 before the first match."

Still, she had players about the same age as she was, and she had a lot to figure out. Including directions. Wise had to drive one of the team vans to matches.

"I was from the city where we usually took public transportation. Believe me, I had no business driving out in the cornfields," Wise said. "The first time we played at Northern Iowa, I got the vans lost. It's only, like, one turn, but I missed it. And the players that knew better were too afraid to say anything. I was almost to Minnesota."

The Cyclones did finally make it to Cedar Falls ... and won the match in five sets.

I'm thrilled with how far volleyball's come: how many girls are playing now, how athletic this game is, how many times we're on television, the crowds we're drawing.
Mary Wise

After four seasons at Iowa State, though, Wise had to make a decision. She had met Mark Wise while both were at Purdue; then she went to coach at Iowa State and he went to coach basketball at South Florida.

"We decided if we were ever going to be together, one of us had to go where the other was," Wise said.

Mark left Florida to take over an NAIA program in Kentucky, his home state. Mary decided to join him there, but couldn't find a coaching job. She even offered to be a volunteer assistant at Western Kentucky, but they already had one.

"I had to laugh about it; I couldn't even get hired as a volunteer coach," Wise said. "So I went one year out of the sport."

What did she do during that time?

"Tried to keep myself from going crazy," she said. "Actually, I started my master's at Western Kentucky. And we met some of our dearest friends there, who were the godparents of our first child. Things have a way of working out."

The next year, she was hired as an assistant at Kentucky by a woman she calls another great mentor, Kathy DeBoer, who is now executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Wise stayed there five years, then saw an opportunity to become a head coach again in 1991 when there was an opening at Florida.

"There were two high-profile, successful coaches that interviewed there, too," Wise said. "But again, it was a situation where someone decided to take a chance on me.

"That's really the story for me: the people who took chances on me."

Perfect fit for Gators

Courtesy Jim Burgess/Florida

Carli Snyder says coach Mary Wise has been instrumental in her development on the court and off.

Wise said she never set out to be a standard-bearer. She points to many things aligning for her success with the Gators. Club volleyball was just beginning to grow in the early 1990s, and there was talent in the state. Florida, a good destination school to draw recruits, had made the sweet 16 the year before she arrived.

And she felt a lot of camaraderie and support throughout the athletic department.

Mark opted to leave coaching and get into broadcasting; he is a radio analyst for Florida men's basketball.

"We found out that both of us coaching was tough," Wise said, "and it worked out great for him to stay involved with basketball, but not have to recruit anymore."

Still, the balancing act wasn't easy.

"Back then, there weren't many who had done [head coaching] as a mom with kids," she said. "The most important thing was 'the village,' the support system ... my husband, the friends we made, the grandparents who came down during busy times of the year."

The Gators were 35-5 her first season -- and the success has never stopped. Florida's mastery of the SEC is dynastic: Her first 13 years, the Gators lost just two SEC matches. That included a stretch of nine consecutive years of perfect SEC records. Only four times in 27 years has Wise not won or shared the SEC title. She's never had a losing record as a head coach.

"I'm not sure younger coaches really understand how difficult it is to sustain something like Mary has with Florida for that long of a time," Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said. "It's really remarkable."

Thus far, 37 Gators have won All-American honors playing for Wise, including 2016 Olympians Kelly Murphy and Aury Cruz. Wise's .847 winning percentage is third-highest among active women's volleyball coaches (in all NCAA divisions) who have at least 20 seasons of experience. Only Penn State's Russ Rose (.863) has a better percentage in Division I.

She's the only woman to have coached in a Division I national championship match. That was in 2003, when Florida fell to a USC team that went unbeaten that year. So the only thing that's eluded Wise is a national championship. She'd love to get that, but she doesn't dwell on it. Her goal is to put the Gators in position each season to at least have a chance, and she's done it again this year.

The Gators are 27-1, their only loss coming against Kentucky, 3-1 in Gainesville, Florida, on Oct 15. Then Florida avenged that with a 3-0 victory in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov. 1.

Rhamat Alhassan, a senior middle blocker who is Florida's career leader in blocks, was SEC player of the year. Four other Gators, including Joseph and Snyder, earned all-SEC honors.

Now that's who Wise really wants you to focus on: Her players, especially the seniors. Joseph, a native of Canada, has been through many difficulties at Florida, including the death of her father, injuries, and fears that she would never reach her potential.

But this year, her fifth at Florida, it's all come together. She's averaging 2.53 kills per set and is hitting .368. Earlier in her career, Joseph got so frustrated at times she thought perhaps she should transfer. Wise kept talking her through the hardest moments.

I never want to leave. Mary has done such a good job of making this home.
Shainah Joseph

Now that it really is nearing time for her to go -- Joseph graduates in December -- she says, "I never want to leave. Mary has done such a good job of making this home. She is so many things to me. And she will keep being so many things, even after I leave here."

Snyder leads the team in kills (339) and is second in digs (321). As multi-dimensional as she is on court, Snyder is the same off court: Full of energy and determined to make a difference.

"I've changed my major like five times," said Snyder, who settled on international studies-Africa and wants to work with refugees and empowering women. "Mary's door was always open; I could always go talk to her about not just volleyball, but what I wanted to do with my life."

Snyder describes her taste in clothes as eccentric, but says Wise has always encouraged her to feel comfortable with that, too.

"You see some teams where everyone kind of looks like a cookie-cutter version of each other," Snyder said. "Here, our coaching staff wants people to be themselves. They'll say, 'What's your super power?' When Mary asked me that, I said, 'I think it's creativity.' And she said, 'That's exactly right. You know this about yourself. Own it. Be proud of it."

Wise said seeing players blossom, watching who they are when they leave compared to when they came in, continues to make her job fulfilling.

As for there still not being enough women in coaching, Wise stays optimistic. She has the same mindset in regard to volleyball's growth in general.

"I think what you try to do is have perspective of how far we've come," Wise said. "It's like when you coach -- you want to coach to what your players are, not what they are not.

"I'm thrilled with how far volleyball's come: how many girls are playing now, how athletic this game is, how many times we're on television, the crowds we're drawing. We've done it by the hard work of volleyball folks."

Including, of course, Wise.

"We'll be in practice when someone comes in," Snyder said of former players visiting. "It's amazing to see how proud these women are to introduce their families and to share a piece of Florida volleyball. So many people have credited a lot of their strength and confidence in life to playing for Mary. I think that would be the best feeling in the world, to have such a strong line of women following you."

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