Leading Lady

Mary Wise, college volleyball’s top female coach

Jim Burgess
Mary Wise is the winningest coach in SEC history.

Thirty years after Title IX, Florida’s Mary Wise remains the only woman to coach a team to the NCAA volleyball championship match.

Why?

“I think it’s a fair question,” she said. “But I think the answer has to include how many programs around the country have had a legitimate chance to win the national championship. Because of funding and support and recruiting opportunities.”

The winningest coach in Florida and Southeastern Conference history paused.

“You will not have to ask that question in the future because there is so much more talent around the country,” said Wise, who earlier this season celebrated her 700th victory as Florida’s head coach.

“There was a time when the storied programs were getting the best players, and unlike men’s basketball, there just wasn’t enough talent to go around.”

Wise pointed out the appearances in the past few years of Virginia Commonwealth University and Butler University in the men’s basketball Final Four.
But will volleyball start seeing teams from smaller programs in the NCAA tournament? Wise thinks so.

“Our game has changed. All of the rule changes, going back to rally scoring, and the libero, and 25-point sets, all that has leveled the playing field. Add that to how much more talent there is in the country, and now there are BCS schools that will win it in volleyball and it will be schools coached by women.

“But the schools that traditionally have had the resources and have been in the best position to win, most are coached by men. So just by law of averages,” and she smiled and repeated, “it’s a fair question, but I don’t think it will have to be asked in the future.”

Perhaps not, but the reality is that the same Mary Wise who took Florida to the 2003 final before losing to unbeaten USC in four sets is likely one of only a couple of women coaches who could make a trip to this year’s NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship when the final four meet in Seattle on Dec. 19.

Another coach to consider is Cathy George. She was the first woman to coach a team to the final four, taking Texas-Arlington there in 1989.

“Oh, my gosh, was I young. Holy buckets, that was a long time ago,” George said with a laugh.

George, now 50, is currently the coach at Michigan State, ranked fifth at the time of this writing, a team that was so close to making it last year before losing to rival Michigan in the round of eight. She admitted she was oblivious to the historical significance of what she accomplished with Texas-Arlington.

“It didn’t make sense that there weren’t other women who had done that, but I didn’t think of it because I was so young. I was just starting out my career. I had two years at North Dakota State and just came to Texas-Arlington.”

Now, she said, she understands that simply getting a program strong enough to go that far is no easy task.

Which is why it’s even more impressive that Wise has taken Florida to seven final fours (1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003). Now in her 23rd year, she’s never missed the NCAA Tournament and, for 21 of those years, has made it to the round of 16.

“She’s one of the best female coaches in collegiate volleyball in the history of the sport,” said Fran Flory, Louisiana State University’s head coach for 16 years. “The success that Wise has had at Florida and the success that she had before that at Kentucky, helping build that program, I mean she’s certainly one of the most impacting females in the sports.”

This season the Gators are certainly in the conversation again. By late November they had a 25-3 record—their only defeats coming from Penn State on Sept. 7 and twice from undefeated Missouri—and haven't moved out of the top 10 all season.

Wise, who grew up in Evanston, Ill., and is now 54, started coaching right after her playing career as a setter at Purdue. She graduated in the spring of 1981, and by that fall was the head coach at Iowa State.

“I got the job at 21, but I did turn 22 right before the first match,” she said with a grin. “Just in the nick of time.”

She was the youngest coach in NCAA history and compiled respectable records of 25-22, 17-19, 18-13, and 21-9 in her four seasons at Iowa.

“I’m just so grateful that I didn’t get anyone hurt or do any long-term damage,” she cracked. “But what I was, was a young coach who loved the game, and my whole goal was to make their experience as good as mine was when I played at Purdue. I did play for a terrific female coach who was my mentor, and it’s true that I worried about what Carol [Dewey, an AVCA Hall of Famer] would think. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I just tried to emulate what she was doing.

“And then eventually I morphed into: ‘I’m not her.’”

And then Wise got out for a year to marry her husband, Mark, and to get her master’s degree before taking a job as an assistant at Kentucky to work for Kathy DeBoer, now the executive director of the AVCA.

“That was a great experience,” Wise said of working for DeBoer from 1986 to 1990. “It was the best thing I could have done.”

In 1991 she took over at Florida, hardly the powerhouse it is today.

“They had some success. They had restarted the program and being in the SEC, we looked from afar and said that’s a school that you could win at.”

She was right. Heading into the 2013 season, Wise was 767-143 overall and 686-80 at Florida.

“Mary recruits well, the kids always play hard, the players get better,” said Russ Rose, the veteran Penn State coach who has won five NCAA titles. For the past two decades, Rose and Wise have competed against each other as two of the top programs in the eastern half of the country. “They do a lot of things that force you to defend what they do. It’s been a good program for an awfully long time.”

With very strong talent, of course.

“We’ve had some pretty good players,” Wise admitted.

Florida is a place that challenges for national championships in nearly every sport. It’s a school blessed with great weather, facilities, funding, and population base, although Florida’s volleyball roster is often represented nationwide and internationally.

“Players come to Florida not just to play volleyball, but because they want to be around other winners,” Wise said. “Year-round Olympians and first-round draft choices and world-record holders. There’s a unique feeling to being on our campus because you’re around such great talent, and success breeds success.”

In volleyball, that doesn’t surprise Ole Miss coach Joe Getzin who, in his 12 years at Mississippi, has never beaten Florida.

“Mary represents the best there is in the league, and it doesn’t matter what aspect of the program it is. Whether it’s summer camp or marketing or recruiting, she’s always on top of it and always seems to be ahead of the game,” Getzin said. “She’s been doing it a long time, and she’s very successful.”

One part of her success has been creating a positive environment for her program.

Chloe Mann, a senior from Gainesville who was last year’s SEC Player of the Year, played tennis until she was a freshman in high school. Then she discovered volleyball as a way to keep in shape in the fall and, as it turned out, was pretty good. It led her to play at her hometown university, and last year Mann was a Volleyball magazine All-American.

“I love playing for her,” Mann said of Wise. “She’s such a great motivator. She’s never too crazy or too calm. She’s great, and we don’t ever want to disappoint her. We just love to see her happy. That disappointment factor is always on my mind. We can’t lose because we have to win for Mary.”

Junior Holly Pole, from nearby Ocala, had two older siblings who went to Florida, and she figured she would be a Gator all the way. Having a coach like Wise turned out to be an added bonus.

“She just cares about all of us so much and makes sure we’re doing well, whether it’s on the court or off, whether it’s school or something else in life,” Pole said. “She’s our number-one supporter in everything.”

Wise has her own number-one supporter as well. She and husband Mark, who is a radio analyst for Florida men’s basketball broadcasts and works other games on TV, have two sons. Their oldest, Matt, played college basketball and is now on the coaching staff at Wyoming, and son Mitchell lives in Gainesville.

“My children enjoy the fact that I’m a coach,” said George, who also has two boys, “and I bet Mary’s have, too.”

During volleyball season, Mark is around as much as possible, and it’s obvious he’s an integral part of the program.

“Great coaches in any sport don’t lose the matches they’re supposed to win,” Mark offered. “So she will treat anybody in the league just like Stanford.”

Accordingly, this year, Florida is again dominating the SEC, and in those 17 victories they lost just three sets.

“I think we’re one of those teams who has a chance,” Wise said.

Most observers would agree. Through midseason, middle blocker Mann was hitting a whopping .473 for her career and an incredible .500, good for best in the nation, in 2013.

Impressive freshman right side Alex Holston was 27th in the nation in hitting at .400 and senior setter Taylor Brauneis was 14th in assists at 11.49 per set. Last year’s national freshman of the year, Živa Recek, has seen the offense spread around more this season but still was averaging 3.42 kills per set. And the Florida defense was stifling, holding 20 of 29 opponents to less than a .200 hitting percentage.

“She’s done an excellent job,” George said of Wise. “Her teams are always strong and she’s been able to maintain [that strength]. It has not been a team here or a team there. She has [developed] a very strong program over the years and is always in the hunt.

“Mary is very well respected for what she’s done over the years, and right now she’s in position to get there again.”

And one day other women will join her—and wouldn’t it be special if it was George this year?—but for now Wise is in a league of her own.

A Writer’s Fate

–Lee Feinswog

It only seems fitting that eventually I would do a story on Mary Wise. I’ve known her since she took over at Florida in 1991, but it’s happenstances away from volleyball that have given us both a laugh.

It started about eight years ago when we were both on vacation in New York and saw each other at the Marriott Marquis. That was random. But then, a couple of years later, while I was shopping with my mom and her with her family, we bumped into each other at an outlet mall near Jacksonville, Fla. My mom lives down there, but the mall is nowhere near Gainesville, where the Wises live.

At the 2008 men’s basketball Final Four, Mary’s husband, Mark, and I happened to hang out together for the first time and enjoyed the visit. And then about five years ago I was in Israel and, well, we didn’t see each other, but…

My tour guide, a huge sports fan, knew I was in the volleyball world. He said that when he was a boy, he went to a summer camp and that there was a girl there named Mary Fischl, who was a great athlete, and he thought she might have ended up as a volleyball coach.

All things considered, I figured it had to be Mary Wise, but I didn’t know her maiden name. So when we got back to his kibbutz, we got on the internet, and sure enough, it was her.

Originally published in January 2014

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