From Court To Sideline…In 3 Months
The first thing I did was close the office door and sat down behind the coach’s desk. I took a deep breath and said ‘Holy cow.’ ”Shane Davis had reason to be nervous. Just a few months before, he had been a volleyball player at Loyola University in Chicago, and now he was the head coach.
“It was a huge, crazy challenge,” says Davis, and to some, athletic director John Planek’s decision seven years ago to hire a June graduate to run a Division I program, fell into the crazy category as well.
“There were skeptics outside the athletic department,” says Planek, “and in the volleyball community, but Shane had been in our program for five years. The way I saw him carry himself really impressed me.
“There were risks, of course, but there are only about 22 (men’s volleyball) programs in the country, so it’s not like there were a lot of known quantities to choose from. And when I watch a game, I watch how players communicate — with Shane, he was very business-like, with a quiet confidence. He made corrections and adjustments as a setter and he could see the whole game as a player. He’s coaching on the court, I thought, so why not let him do it on the sideline?”
And Planek believes that though maturity is important, people’s basic natures don’t change too much. “Your attributes and traits as a player, more times than not, translate into what kind of coach you’ll be.”
Now, seven years later, both Planek and Davis don’t look crazy at all. The Ramblers went 26-3 in his second season, are 126-49 in his six years, and this spring knocked off Penn State, the eventual national champion. Loyola wound up with a 17-10 overall record and Davis is optimistic that the Ramblers will continue to be one of the better teams in the country.
“We lost four seniors,” he says, “but we had three freshman on the floor most of the time. We’re pretty excited about the coming season.”
Clearing Early Hurdles
But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. One reason Davis got the job is that it was part-time, which is why the previous coach left.
“I was operating the program by myself, and I was stuck in the office,” and in that first season, he was missing one major piece of the coaching puzzle. “Recruiting,” he says, “I had no clue. I was three years behind because I had no clue who any of the top men’s volleyball recruits were.”
He also was uncertain about going out and selling Loyola volleyball. “At that time, I wasn’t the face of the program,” he says. “But I learned that no matter how uncomfortable it is, you have to go out and market yourself and your program.”
Still, Davis had another hurdle to clear — coaching players who had very recently been his teammates. “I didn’t put myself on a pedestal,” he says, “and the players took to me easily enough. I had been a captain my sophomore, junior and senior years. Running the practices was the easy part.”
The hard parts? Dealing with the administration and scheduling. Game management was a challenge too.
“I was a setter, so I ran things on the court, but as a coach, I could no longer physically control the game,” he says. “After my first game, my forearms were sore from clenching my fists so much.”
Now that he’s more comfortable with such things as setting up games and dealing with administrative issues, Davis’s relative youth works to his advantage. “I relate to the players very well,” he says, but he does concede that “their music is different, and the freshmen coming in, that’s not me any more. And, in 20 years, it will all be different.”
Building A Winner
It also helped that Planek and the university understood the potential of the program. “We want to be as competitive as possible in everything we do,” says Planek of the school, which has about 8,500 undergraduates. “Illinois has good boys volleyball — the club system is very strong,” which made it easier for Planek to invest in the program.
“After the first year, the job became full-time,” says Davis, but he knew that to compete with the Ohio States, Penn States and UCLAs of the NCAA men’s volleyball world, he needed more. “I thought the program was in trouble because I didn’t have the manpower or the time to be successful, so in 2007, I put together a big proposal and submitted it to my athletic director. I outlined how to get where we want to go.”
Planek bought in, and now Davis has a full-time assistant and a part-time assistant.
It helped that there had been early and continued success in the program, which has had 13 straight seasons with a winning record. Gordon Mayforth, Davis’s coach when he played, had started the program in 1996, and two years later, beat Ohio State, which helped convince the administration to support a full-fledged men’s volleyball program. (Because of Title IX restrictions on the percentage of male athletes who are allowed to participate in sanctioned sports, most NCAA schools have dropped men’s volleyball down to club status. Even so, the NCAA maximum for men’s volleyball is four-and-a-half scholarships.)
Another boost for the program has been Davis’s involvement in international volleyball. He was a setter on the 1999 Junior Olympic team and was an assistant coach with the 2005 U.S. Men’s Under-21 team.
“As a participant, you bring back a higher level of play,” he says of his time with the U.S. team, and as a coach, “the best thing is being able to learn from other coaches. And you learn from the players as well.”
Davis doesn’t limit his education to just volleyball. “I’ve watched basketball practices,” he says, “and it’s actually helped me with our team’s transition from offense to defense.”
But what about the lure to go from the men’s game to the women’s game, which has a much higher coaching profile, not to mention much higher salaries?
“With girls, you have to be careful about what you say,” he says. “To be a men’s coach, you need that stern voice. The mentality is different, and the motivation is too.”
Planek agrees. “One of my coaches who has coached both men and women says it this way: With guys, you have to convince them they’re not as good as they think they are; with girls, you have to convince them they’re better than they think they are.”
“A lot of coaches go to the women’s side because of money,” says Davis, “but for me, money’s not a part of it. With men’s volleyball coaches, we’re in it for