Meet Kelly Sheffield, the newest head coach of the Wisconsin volleyball team.
Named to the position this past December after former head coach Pete Waite resigned, Kelly comes to Wisconsin leaving behind a trail of success in his immediate wake. Coming from the University of Dayton, where he coached for five years and compiled four straight Atlantic 10 conference championships, multiple coach of the year awards and a 131-33 record, Sheffield takes over a Wisconsin team that has failed to make the NCAA tournament since the 2007-2008 season.
The Badger Herald got a chance to sit down with the newest addition to the Badgers’ family of head coaches Tuesday afternoon in his office.
Badger Herald: What makes the University of Wisconsin and its volleyball program an attractive position for a coach?
Kelly Sheffield: I think this is one of the best jobs, if not the best job, in the country. So much in our profession is recruiting and can you sell. For me personally, I’ve got to believe in what I am selling. The types of people I want to be around are people that are well-rounded and want to live extraordinary lives. And I think you can do that here.
You’ve got absolutely one of the best academic universities in the country. You’ve got one of the absolute best fan bases in our sport right here and a great facility, with incredible tradition and a really, really fun campus environment. Those are things that you can sell and people can get excited about. So when you go into a recruit’s home or you talk with club coaches, you can go and speak to the best players in our sport and have something to tell them. And they’ll get excited about it.
When you’re in the mix of trying to go after the best kids, in our profession, you want to do it. I want to do that. I want to be around that type of program, and I think you’ve got that here.
BH: Was there any influence, in the process of recruiting you as coach, having a former coach like Barry Alvarez as the athletic director?
Sheffield: Yeah, certainly. I think everyone in the country knows there are great coaches here. The athletic department is ran really well. There’s a lot of underachieving athletic programs in the country and this is definitely not one of them. There’s a lot of success across the board. I think you want to be in an environment where you are surrounded by excellence. Certainly that starts with coach Alvarez, but it’s more than him. There’s a lot of people that have their hands in this. There’s a lot of help. It makes everything more fun when that tide is high.
It’s fun for everybody and that’s certainly a factor in the decision to come to a place like this. Yeah, there’s great leadership. You don’t go to a university that has poor leadership. I’ve learned that over the years. You’re just banging your head up against the wall. I’m at a point in my career that I want to be places where everybody is all in and everybody is trying to do the same thing. And there is no question that Wisconsin is that place.
BH: A lot of times, programs struggle in their first year with a new head coach because of different styles, systems and personnel. What do you have to do to avoid a first year slump?
Shefield: There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on. It’s new for everybody. It’s new for our kids, it’s new for our staff, it’s new for myself and families. It’s new for the administration and staff members here. What you try to do is get yourself up to speed as quickly as possible, but you also don’t try to rush things.
Every new coach that comes in, the culture is going to be a little bit different and some are going to be more dramatic changes than others. You try to just systematically go step by step. For me and my coaching staff, I brought everybody that was with me at [Dayton] so that certainly makes things a little bit easier. We can meet and say ‘all right’ and say ‘do this,’ and they are off and running. You don’t have to explain how you want things done because you’ve already been down that road.
We’re at a time right now where the players are getting used to me and what my expectations are, and I’m getting to know them and seeing what they are capable of doing. That can be a really, really fun time. It can be a really fun time for the players because there’s kind of a clean slate and the challenges are different. For some people – if they don’t want to try new things – it can be really, really tough, but these guys have been really open. There’s some talented players on this roster.
BH: What did you say to your team when you first met them?
Sheffield: We had our opening meeting and you are trying to get them as comfortable as possible of knowing what things are going to be like. So, you go over your expectations and how the culture is going to be and what they can expect out of me and the rest of my staff, and you just go from there. Then you get in the gym and kind of see what they can do.
I think we are learning a little bit about each other every day. What I am learning is who is in it for the long haul. Everybody can make that change over a week or two, but who’s in it for the long haul? For me, it’s more than just wins on the court. There’s way more than just wins on the court. Certainly that has to be a big part of it, but they’ve got to do things the right way off the court and they’ve got to be enthusiastic about what we are doing. They’ve all got to be in and so far they seem to be. You don’t just go take a wrecking ball to the thing, that’s not the program that I walked into.
There are a lot of good things going on here and there are some things that we have to do differently. So we are just kind of systematically moving from day to day and we are spending a ton of time recruiting.
BH: You said you wanted to make some changes. What would you say is the No. 1 change you want to make?
Sheffield: We’ve got to change our attitude. We have to embrace the hard work. We have to be able to respond to adversity better than what they’ve probably done in the past and in this conference, there is going to be a lot of it. It’s a bear, man. You better embrace it and find a way. I’m not so sure how good they’ve been at that recently and so we’re working them really hard.
My belief is through hard work, you get confidence. And we want our team to be really confident in their abilities and each other and know that when things get really tough, nobody’s going to bail on them. The first thing you try to get them to try to understand is what the hard work is and then through that there’s some tremendous benefits that come along with that.
BH: What are your initial impressions of your team as people and as athletes?
Sheffield: As people, they seem like really good people. They are willing. I think they are buying into change and that makes it a lot easier on my end. Every day they seem a little more enthusiastic. Every day it’s getting a little bit better. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve been impressed for the first month and a half that we’ve gone.
They’re excited about the future. They can feel like they are getting better. I think there is optimism. Great teams and great athletes have an optimism about themselves even when things get really hard. Things are hard right now because they are learning and we are trying to change the culture. They are working really hard but I see them bouncing back. It’s early, but I’ve been impressed so far.
BH: Pete Waite had the No. 1 recruit Lauren Carlini committed to Wisconsin before he resigned, and she decided to stay with UW even after he left and you were hired. What does that mean to this program and what does that say about her commitment to this university?
Sheffield: This is a place where you can get the best. There are a lot of kids on this roster that were really highly touted recruits. So, she’s certainly not the only one, but there are other players that everybody in the country wanted that are currently on this roster. And hopefully we’ll be able to bring in those types of kids.
This is the type of school, you get them on campus and they want to come here. The well rounded kids want to be here. The people who really want a good college experience and an elite college experience, this is a place for them. So even if you have a coaching change, people are still going to be excited about coming here. I mean, the school sells itself. I think it’s one of the best places in the country to get your undergraduate degree.
Across the board, I think it’s one of the best. The fact that nobody changes their commitment – that doesn’t surprise me at all. It tells me two things: it tells me about the character of the kids who made the commitment here and number two, it tells me what an unbelievable university Wisconsin is.
BH: You have won numerous conference titles in your career, so you know what it takes to get to the top. How far away would you say Wisconsin is from making it back to the top of the Big Ten conference?
Sheffield: I don’t come in here and say, ‘All right, we’ve got to win in this many years.’ We’re talking about winning it now. You better have those discussions. That’s our goal. When you are here at Wisconsin, when you are a part of the volleyball program here at Wisconsin, you should be thinking about championships. If you’re not talking about that, then you are selling yourself short. I believe in my core this is a ‘sky is the limit’ type of a program here. I don’t know if our kids are believing it right now, but you better be discussing it. And then everything is just about getting better.
You don’t talk about it all the time. You put it out there and you say, ‘Look at this, this is what we are trying to accomplish here, this is what we are capable of.’ Then you just focus at getting a little bit better every day and that’s where your entire focus better be. It shouldn’t be on wins and losses. Your daily concern isn’t about winning. It’s about getting better. If you can put your focus in on that, then you are going to find yourself moving up. You are going to find yourself competing for championships. But the focus has to be on the daily commitment to get better and that’s what we are trying to do.
BH: Personally, starting at Albany then working your way up to Dayton and now coaching, like you said, at one of the best programs in the country, how satisfied are you with your career and where you are at now?
Sheffield: I don’t look at my career that way. I want to get better and I want to have a program that people around us are proud of and be around people I enjoy being around and I enjoy coaching – people who have bought in. We were able to have that at both of those other schools that you mentioned and that makes it really, really fun. Hopefully we’ll get to that point here where everybody is brought in, everybody is moving in the same direction, everybody is busting their tails to squeeze every ounce of their potential out of them. And along the way we can have some fun.
With that said, to be in this conference – nothing is better. To be at this school is incredible. I’m excited about the future, I can tell you that. I am really excited about the future because this is a place where I think people want to be at. I can tell the energy is just bubbling for us to get back to our winning ways. I’ve probably heard from 20 alums just letting me know how proud they are about this place and telling me a lot about the history of the program. Shoot, I go to the men’s basketball game and I have five people who are trying to shake my hand and welcome me here. That was a little awkward but there’s so much passion around here.
Every day I’m finding people that are inspiring me and motivating me to do as good of a job as I can do. You are not walking to a place that nobody cares about. People care about the volleyball program, people care about the athletic department here, they care about the university. They want to see great things in all of their sports. I’m humbled and it’s awesome. It’s just awesome to be at this place.
BH: Your wife was a collegiate volleyball player. Does she provide a second set of eyes and how helpful is that for you?
Sheffield: She was a great player. She played at Villanova for a couple of years and won a Big East Championship there. Then she went to Virginia and went to the NCAA tournament. Her dad is a club director. Her brother played college volleyball. Her sister played college volleyball – it’s a volleyball family. Do we talk? Yeah, she’ll give me thoughts on the team’s play, personalities and how we are working together, the match environment. And she’s great at that. But I’m also somebody – anytime I come into contact with anybody – I ask them what they’re thinking.
I value what she has to say a lot. But I’m trying to get that from everybody that comes in contact. I ask a lot of questions, so if they don’t like being asked questions, they need to get away from me because I’ll ask them. Probably more important than just what she is seeing on the team is the fact that she understands what the lifestyle is. It’s tough. A week and a half ago I was in five states in six days and eight cities. Right now, I was in Chicago for two days, Omaha [Neb.] for two days, I’m here for one – just today only. Then I’ll be in Houston tomorrow and Austin [Texas] the next day and Iowa for the next three days. So, just being around somebody that kind of understands what the coaching profession is makes it a lot easier because it’s not an easy lifestyle.
BH: What would you want all of the alums and fans that love the volleyball program to know about you or what bring to the table?
Sheffield: It’s a family. Just because there is a coaching change, we still want them to feel like they have access to the program. As coaches, we are just here for a short period of time. We are just kind of your stewards of the program but when you wear that jersey, you are a part of that forever.
Sometimes when there is a new coach that comes in, there is this disconnect. I’ve told all of them that I would hate for that to happen. I want them to always feel proud to be Badger volleyball players and that they are always welcome here. They can always come into my office and sit in the chair and talk. They are always welcome to come in and watch a practice or even jump in on an open gym and things like that.
I want them to know me and my staff are going to do everything in our power to make sure this is a program that they will continue to be proud of. And I know that they are right now.