AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University will host the NCAA Volleyball Regional Championships this weekend and one of the four participating coaches will have a special homecoming.
Mary Wise, who is in her 24th year as the head coach at Florida, returns to Iowa State, the place where she received her first coaching job in 1981.
The former Mary Fischl had just finished an outstanding career as the setter at Purdue when Iowa State Assistant Athletics Director Elaine Hieber tabbed her as the replacement for Sharon Hitsman at the age of 21. She was the youngest head coach in Division I volleyball history and Wise is grateful for the opportunity Iowa State provided her.
“In some point in anyone’s career, you have to take a chance,” Wise said. “Elaine Hieber took a chance on a very young coach with zero experience. She gave me a chance and I am forever indebted to Iowa State’s administration for opening the door to allow me to live this dream.”
Wise is one of the giants in her profession. She is one of the most successful coaches in volleyball history and been a mentor to countless coaches who have gone onto extraordinary careers.
Her record is impeccable: 822 career wins, seven Final Four appearances, 21 SEC championships, two AVCA National Head Coach of the Year awards and 31 players who have earned All-America honors 78 times.
Wise has accomplished virtually everything in her Hall of Fame career except a national championship. Her 2003 Gator squad played for the national title and it’s the ultimate goal for No. 5 Florida (27-3, 18-0 SEC) this weekend as they face Illinois in Hilton Coliseum tonight at the NCAA Regional.
“The growth of the team and the character of this team has improved in so many areas,” Wise said about her Florida squad. “Illinois is a very physical team. They have players who can terminate. They are a very good blocking team. It will come down to the serve-pass battle. If we can serve-pass with them, we can at least compete with them.”
As you could probably imagine, it was quite a shock to many when Wise was first hired at ISU at just 21 years old. Many of the Cyclone seniors were the same age or older than Wise.
Iowa State Hall-of-Famer Diane Doles Lichtenberg, a sophomore on Wise’s first Cyclone team, was one of those skeptical at first. She quickly changed her mind when practice started.
“I’ll have to admit that when we found out that a woman who had just graduated from Purdue, had no prior coaching experience and was going to be younger than a couple of the seniors was named our next coach, we were not very happy,” said Lichtenberg. “But that changed during the season. Mary was very knowledgeable and demanding, which I liked. She made us believe in ourselves and she was fair.”
Wise credited Lichtenberg and the other players on her inaugural Cyclone team for helping ease the transition.
“What I admire about that group is that they also took a chance on me,” Wise said. “They believed in me and they just wanted to win. There was no pushback from them. I am forever grateful for that group to believe in somebody who had no experience. One thing that also helped is that I fell in love with Iowa State quickly. How could you not with the people here?”
The Iowa State volleyball program has come a long way since Wise led the Cyclones for four seasons from 1981-84. Crowds were sparse and games were played at the antiquated PEB (Forker) Building.
“Someone recently asked me if we played in Hilton Coliseum, and that answer was, ‘no,’” Wise joked. “We were in PEB 184.”
When Wise was first hired at ISU, she only had five scholarships and around 50 to 75 fans attended home matches.
She worked vigorously in the off-season promoting her sport at Cyclone booster club outings. Soon, attendance improved to over 500 fans a game and her teams became more competitive. She won 39 matches in her final two seasons at ISU, including a 21-9 mark and a third place finish (6-4) in the Big Eight in her final season in 1984. She finished her career at Iowa State with an 81-63-1 mark.
Wise still has fond memories of her time in Ames.
“This is surreal,” Wise said about her return to Ames. “It was such a long time ago when I was coaching at Iowa State. There are so many changes. But the one thing that clearly hasn’t changed is the people in Ames, Iowa and the state of Iowa are still the nicest people in the country. That hasn’t changed.”
Iowa State head volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch is a big fan of Wise. Johnson-Lynch, who has elevated ISU volleyball to elite status with nine-straight NCAA appearances, credits Wise for being a pioneer for female volleyball coaches.
“Mary has been incredibly influential to so many of us in college volleyball, and in particular for female coaches,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Mary has built and sustained one of the best volleyball programs in the country, in an era that hasn’t seen many female coaches at the top. It’s frustrating that Coach Wise will be the only female head coach in the Sweet Sixteen this year, but hopefully over the next several years we will see more and more females coaching at top volleyball programs across the country. She is a role model and inspiration for those trying to build an elite volleyball program. She is one of the best ambassadors for the sport of volleyball that we have.”
Wise briefly had a chance to see the new volleyball facilities at Iowa State. It’s quite an improvement from her former office in State Gym.
“Hilton Coliseum by itself speaks volumes of the support of volleyball at this institution,” Wise said. “This is a gorgeous facility. The attendance they draw and the support they have from the community, this is one of the special volleyball venues in the country. It was not a coincidence the NCAA would choose Ames, Iowa to be a host site.”
Wise has also paid close attention to the transformation of the Iowa State volleyball program.
“This program is Christy Johnson-Lynch’s program,” Wise said. “What an awesome job she has done building this to where it is now.”
Florida will face Illinois tonight after the Stanford-Oregon State match at approximately 7 p.m.