Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Two decades later, Wisconsin's Sheffield has his volleyball program nearing the pinnacle

Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield has his Badgers in the Final Four for the second straight NCAA Tournament. The overall top seed, Wisconsin faces Texas in this year's Final Four.

MADISON, Wisc. – Kelly Sheffield’s first gig as head women’s volleyball coach wasn’t on the ground floor.

Rather, the path that eventually brought him to Wisconsin began in a basement.

The year was 2001 and Sheffield was the new leader of the University at Albany's program. His office was in the basement of the building that served as the team's home. The Great Danes were entering their third season as a Division I program. They had a combined 12-41 record, a .226 winning percentage, in those first two seasons.

“We knew what we were getting into,” said Sheffield, who is in his eighth season at Wisconsin and his 20th overall as a head coach. “They had five-and-a-half scholarships. The AD said, 'I’m not going to support you any more unless you start winning. We don’t have a lot of money here and I’m going to put our money where we get the most bang for our buck.’

“I appreciated the honesty. But I also believed we had a great plan and we could outwork some people and once we started getting a little bit of momentum that things would change.”

More:How to watch Texas volleyball play in the Final Four vs. Wisconsin

Sheffield's current team, Wisconsin, is 18-0 and seeded No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers face fourth-seeded Texas in Thursday night's national semifinals, having rallied from a 9-7 fifth-set deficit Monday to edge past Florida in the Elite Eight.

It's the Badgers' second straight Final Four.

But first back to Year 1 for Sheffield.

Albany finished 1-13 in the America East and 4-20 overall. The Great Danes improved to 5-7 in the league and 16-15 overall in Year 2 and to 9-5 in the league and 24-10 overall in Year 3.

“We started to get kids that really wanted to be part of something, wanted to work hard and get after it,” Sheffield said. “I still hear from those players.”

The breakthrough came in Year 4. Albany won the America East title with a 13-1 mark, qualified for the NCAA Tournament and finished 27-7.

“We ended up winning the first conference championship in school history for any sport,” Sheffield said. “And we were the first sport to make it to the NCAA Tournament. So we were kind of the laughingstock of the athletic department our first year. And then the fourth year, those kids with all their hard work were able to go to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s probably the only time in my coaching career that I’ve ever cried on the court. I was bawling. I couldn’t stop. Just so happy for those guys. Just that climb, that momentous climb.”

More:Texas knocks off Nebraska in four sets to book its return to volleyball's Final Four

Sheffield’s climb up the coaching ranks included three NCAA berths in seven seasons at Albany, five NCAA berths in five years at Dayton and now eight NCAA berths in eight seasons at Wisconsin.

The only losing season he experienced came as a rookie at Albany.

“I look back and hopefully I’ve grown a lot as a coach,” Sheffield said. “But we’re pretty fortunate because there wasn’t a lot of interest there so there wasn’t a spotlight on all the errors I was making at the time.”

UW has reached the NCAA title match twice under Sheffield. The Badgers lost to Penn State in the 2013 finale, Sheffield’s first season in Madison, and to Stanford in 2019.

“Obviously, that was a long time ago,” senior middle blocker Dana Rettke said recently of the loss to Stanford. “But I don’t think it is has ever left any of our minds. It’s definitely something that we have been able to sit on for a very long time now.

“We’re really excited to get that opportunity back. We were so close last year.”

Sydney Hilley, the Big Ten setter of the year, describes Sheffield as quirky and goofy. The latter trait was obvious in March 2019 when Sheffield sacrificed his face so that his two young daughters could work on their makeup-artist skills and then allowed the video to be posted on Twitter.

More:Texas vs. Wisconsin volleyball: Who are the tallest players on the Final Four rosters?

The quirky side has been present for much of the season to help the players deal with quarantines and week after week of canceled matches.

“He just cares so much about the players,” Hilley said. “His quirkiness and goofiness might be more (frequent) now because he knows we need it. He is someone that can brighten our day with his weird jokes. He knows how to read a situation and he knows what his player needs because he is connected with them.”

Hilley wasn’t surprised to hear the story of Sheffiled bawling in 2004 after leading Albany into the NCAA Tournament.

“He cares about his players like they are his family,” Hilley said. “So when he sees they are achieving the goals they wanted when they were first starting out when they were 7 or 8 … it’s not surprising that he shows that emotion.”