Tribune Profile: Kelly Sheffield: This coach found his dream job –

Tribune Profile: Kelly Sheffield: This coach found his dream job –

Texas to Virginia to Georgia to New York to Ohio and finally Wisconsin in 2013. Kelly Sheffield’s career has had him putting down and picking up roots.
But about living in Waunakee, Sheffield said, “It’s gotten to feel like home really, really quick. Two years. I’ve moved around enough to know there’s a feel to two years. This feels like I’ve been here 10 years.”
He recalled first learning about Waunakee when he asked around about the best places to live.
According to Sheffield, it “came down to Middleton or Waunakee. Waunakee just felt more like us. It was exactly what we wanted.”
He conceded that his family now had a hard time imagining leaving the friends they’ve made among their neighbors.
His wife Cathy is putting her clinical pharmacist career on hold while raising daughters Lexi, 5 1/2, and Reagan, age 2 1/2. Sheffield summed up fun away from work in one word, family. The father gleamed as he described attending tee ball games and tossing a ball with his daughters. From the area trails, to the Easter egg hunt, to the little shops downtown,
“I just love Waunakee. Everybody’s outdoors all the time; it doesn’t matter what the weather is. It’s quieter. It’s family. It’s home,” he said.
Conveniently, Waunakee is also just up the road from Sheffield’s other family. He husbands the UW’s women’s volleyball team and serves as coach and mentor to a group of young women.
If Sheffield’s job has a down side, it is time on the road for matches, recruiting and clinics and away from Lexi and Reagan.
“The good side is they have 15 big sisters. They get to hang out with their heroes,” he said.
Sheffield’s daughters are often around team activities. Players are often found visiting the Sheffield home. He consciously tries to avoid the “guilt factor” he might feel if he tried to maintain “two separate lives.”
He exudes a warm, caring personality. It comes across in his relationship with players. All-American Lauren Carlini recently blogged from Pan American Cup competition in the Dominican Republic, “I don’t know many coaches that would take time out of their weekends or summers to come and see a match in a foreign country. That meant a lot to me that he could see my first U.S. National Team start.”
Sheffield attended Muncie Burris, a “no boundaries” laboratory school of about 750 students abutting Ball State’s campus. Its volleyball team claimed state titles when Indiana still competed in a single-class system. But Sheffield’s closest association with the game came as a fan in the stands.
He ran track and dreamed of growing up to be Johnny Bench.
“When I came to some self-realization that I couldn’t hit like Johnny Bench, then I wanted to be Marty Brennaman,” he said.
If he hadn’t become a coach, he probably would have tried his hand in broadcasting, he added.
Sheffield majored in broadcasting as a freshman at Vincennes. He enjoyed working on college stations, WROK and WROL – “rock and roll,” he explained with a smile.
The following year, he began an extended stint as an undergraduate at Ball State. Regarding career goals, Sheffield emphasized, “I had zero idea.”
The soft-spoken and somewhat mild-mannered coach then surprisingly asserted, “I’ve always wanted and needed competition.”
Sheffield recalled making a nonchalant offer to help his high school’s junior varsity volleyball coach.
“The next day she calls me up and says, ‘Okay we practice at 3:30.’ So I walked in the gym. Knew nothing about the sport. Coached in our first match about two days later. And found myself. It was the right spot at the right time,” he said.
The right spot, indeed, as Sheffield then made utterly clear.
“When I got into this little town, I mean, I was assistant coach that year. The following year, it’s with a guy who’s now the head coach at Kentucky. The head coach of Arkansas was there at the time. The head coach of Ball State, the head coach of Indiana, the head coach of Purdue. That’s who I grew up with. But most of them came up as players,” he said.
Sheffield recognized that he didn’t know much and that the people around him really did.
“I’m watching everybody’s practice I can. I’m going in there with a note pad and just filling it up. I went to class when I could fit it in. Bartending at night. I thought I had the greatest life in the world,” he said.
“I always thought I was the ultimate thief,” admitted Sheffield. His mentors were patient, teaching, motivating, positive.
Sheffield marveled that, “You could sit there and watch people really getting better.”
For several years, volleyball was fun. He and a fellow Ball State student coached together on the local Munciana club team. The two left in the middle of a business law class when their professor was “too loud” and was distracting them from their intent discussion of footwork patterns.
Coaching in college was suggested by Bowling Green head coach Denise Van De Walle. Sheffield’s reaction?
“It would be like someone asking if you wanted to go to the moon. I was like, ‘That would be literally the coolest thing in the world’.”
At Van De Walle’s insistence, Sheffield was hired by the University of Houston. Assistant coaching jobs at the University of Virginia and Clemson followed.
Sheffield was named head coach at Albany in 2001. By this time, the “ultimate thief’s” style combined the best of three very different college coaches. Under his guidance, Albany improved its RPI 6 years in a row.
The University of Dayton, a mid-major school with a major commitment to volleyball, provided Sheffield an “incredible opportunity.”
“I literally could have been there for the rest of my career and been so, so happy. Turning down jobs that were paying twice as much as I was getting at Dayton. I loved it there. And then Wisconsin called,” he said.
Sheffield cited the best conference in the nation, administration and fan support, outstanding academics, Madison’s environment and a hot bed of recruiting talent within a five-hour radius.
“I’m convinced that in the profession that I’ve chosen, I’ve got the best job there is. That’s what I think of this school, in this sport, in this city,” he said.
Sheffield was asked if he had changed as a coach. After a moment, he said he now realizes that a career can be a long time, a season can be a long time, that a match can be a long time. While details are important, he is better at focusing on the big picture. He added that it is less him trying to prove himself and “more about our players and their experiences and them reaching their dreams and their goals.”
He led the Badgers to the NCAA Championship Finals his first year and in 2014 was named Big Ten Volleyball Coach of the Year.
Coach was enthusiastic about the upcoming season.
“I think this is our best team ever,” he said. “Certainly the most experienced team we’ve ever had. And culturally, we’re all paddling in the same direction right now. So there’s a ton of anticipation. Aug. 9 can’t get here quick enough.”
Count Sheffield as one who counts his blessings.
“This guy from this tiny little town – who was moving all over the place when I was younger, who never played a game in his life – has just gotten around the right people. And had the right people fighting for him. That somehow I end up in this is ridiculous,” he said.
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