Jan. 12, 2013
MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield will never forget the exchange.
Hit rewind to 1997.
“What are you doing with your life?’’ he was asked point-blank.
Nothing like cutting to the chase, he thought. It was something parents would ask.
“I think I’m living a pretty good life,’’ he replied innocently.
Sheffield, then 27, was coaching juniors and club teams and running volleyball camps.
He was doing a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and staying active at the youth level.
“I’d be in the gym hours after hours after hours taking notes from other coaches,’’ he said.
At the time, in fact, he was working a camp for Denise Van De Walle.
Besides being a Bowling Green legend -- the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history -- Van De Walle was a trusted friend and looking out for Sheffield.
”What would you think about becoming a college coach?’’ she asked.
Now that was totally out of the blue.
“I had no thought of going into the college game,’’ he said.
Especially after spending the last seven years coaching high school-age kids.
But the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea.
“I think it would be about the coolest thing in the world,’’ he told Van De Walle.
That was directly from the heart.
“If I get you a job, are you in?’’ she asked.
Kelly Sheffield was all in.
Van De Walle opened the door for him by placing a call to the University of Houston.
There was no underestimating her clout, either.
“She made the Houston coach hire me,’’ Sheffield said. “He didn’t want to hire me.’’
There was no misunderstanding where Cougars coach Bill Walton stood.
“I got a phone call the day before preseason practice,’’ Sheffield remembered, ‘and he said, “All right, I don’t want to hire you but she tells me that I need to hire you, so you’re hired.’
“I packed my car in two hours, drove from Muncie, Indiana, 20 straight hours to Houston in time for the second practice. That was somebody going out of their way to give me the chance of a lifetime.’’
That was Van De Walle’s way. What did she see in Sheffield?
“She saw somebody who was absolutely passionate and eager and willing to do anything and everything,’’ he said. “At the time, I didn’t know a lot. But it was something I was trying to be good at.
“You find your passion, and you go.’’
That long winding road has led Sheffield to the Badgers.
They were on his radar long before he was on theirs.
Sheffield, a Muncie native, was a product of Burris Laboratory School, which fielded one of the most successful volleyball programs in the country for 34 years under Steve Shondell, a Hall of Famer.
In the early ’90s, Burris sent three players to the Badgers: Angie Meyer, Marisa Mackey and Keylee Wright. One of Shondell’s best friends was Steve Lowe, the architect of the UW program.
Lowe was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1990 after leading the Badgers to the conference title. An NCAA first round match against Illinois drew nearly 11,000 to the Field House.
In 1991, Lowe was diagnosed with cancer and died less than a month later. He was 35.
Sheffield never got to meet Lowe.
“But I know what the volleyball community thought of him,’’ he said.
So he adopted the Badgers.
“He (Shondell) was somebody I looked up to -- he was my mentor,’’ Sheffield said. “He was the guy I learned the game from and this (Wisconsin) was his favorite place, so it became my favorite place.
“Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s -- when I was just getting started (in the profession) -- I paid attention to Ball State (where Shondell eventually landed) and Wisconsin.’’
It was too far-fetched then to ever think that he might wind up in Madison beyond the two trips that he made to the city for the Final Fours at the UW Field House in ’93 and the Kohl Center in ’97.
Connecting the dots now, he conceded, “It’s surreal. No question.’’
In truth, he never had any longing to be at UW despite his respect for the program and the school.
“I don’t think you sit there during your coaching career and say, ‘I’d like to be somewhere,’’’ he explained. “I’m somebody who puts everything into where I am right then.
“So it wasn’t one of those things where I said, ‘I’d love to be at Wisconsin.’ That’s just not how I operate. I don’t dream about being someplace else.
“But when you’re here,’’ he said, his eyes canvassing the Field House, “and you look back to how you got your start and how much people throughout the sport think of this place with such reverence.
“And to be handed the baton -- here’s this great program -- it’s your turn.
“I’ve got chills right now thinking about it.’’
Sheffield conveyed that passion to UW athletic director Barry Alvarez.
“We talked about excellence in all aspects of our lives,’’ Sheffield said.
There was definitely a connection.
“He was really into it and very thorough and he really had a good plan,’’ Alvarez said. “He came highly recommended from the people in the business.
“I just liked the way he presented his plan for success and how he’s going to promote the program. Everybody I talked to, and there were some high-profile volleyball people, really felt that we were a diamond in the rough. We have everything we need to be a top-notch program.’’
There was another connection.
“One of the things that I ask our outgoing players is, ‘If you got to do it all over again, would you have done this?’’’ Sheffield said. “That’s a critical question that I always ask.
“I want every player to say it was fun, it was hard; there were a lot of ups and downs but if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have changed anything, I would have made this decision.
“Making sure it’s a good experience is really important.’’
That’s a page taken out of the Alvarez book.
“That’s one of the things that I expect,’’ Alvarez said, “when the kids leave that they can honestly say they were supported well by their coach and they’re a better person.
“I want them to say that they had support academically and they’re better athletically and if they had to do it all over again, they’d come back.’’
Sheffield feels like he’s the sum of his parts. “I’m a product of being surrounded by a lot of people who know what they’re doing,’’ he said. “I just stole everything I could and things rubbed off.’’
He’s got a good sense of humor and some pretty good players to work with at Wisconsin.
“We’re not starting at ground zero,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of talent and I think they’re hungry.’’
Because Sheffield was hired during semester break, he hasn’t been able to meet all of his players face-to-face yet. But he has been on the phone with them, including Lauren Carlini.
PrepVolleyball.com ranked Carlini as the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Carlini, who will be a freshman next fall, was also named the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year.
“I want to reach her potential,’’ Sheffield said of his personal expectations for the prep All-American setter from West Aurora, Ill. “That doesn’t change from a Lauren Carlini to anybody else on the team. We ask them what their goals are and we share with them what their possibilities are.
“If you’re Lauren, a national team possibility, you’re going to get away with a little bit less. That bar is going to be a little higher. If you want to play at that level, it’s always about reaching your potential. We’re going to work with every kid, we want them to reach their goals and their dreams.
“That never changes, no matter who it is.’’