The Comeback Coach
Kelly Sheffield has turned a struggling UW volleyball program into an NCAA powerhouse.
This may come as a surprise: Kelly Sheffield, the winningest volleyball coach in UW history, has never played the game himself. While Sheffield may never have stared an opponent in the eyes through the weave of a net, he makes up for it with more than 30 years of an arguably more valuable perspective.
Sheffield joined the UW as the head coach of the volleyball team in December 2012, just as the Badgers were coming off one of the lowest slumps in the program’s history.
“I thought that this was a place that could be great in this sport,” Sheffield says. “I thought that with the fan base, and the location, and the academics here, it could be a place that people would want to be a part of — that this could be a monster.”
Today, he’s led the team to four Big Ten Conference championship titles and nine consecutive NCAA tournaments, including three of the program’s four appearances in the NCAA championship, the latest of which resulted in the Badgers’ first national title in 2021. At this point in his career, turning fledgling teams into forces on the court is Sheffield’s signature play.
Sheffield assumed his first head coaching position at the University at Albany in 2001. His first team ended its season 4–20. By the time he left in 2007, the Great Danes had won three regular-season and three conference-tournament championships. He then spent five years as head coach at the University of Dayton before joining UW–Madison, where the Badgers had spent their last five seasons failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament, left out of the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s (AVCA) Top 25 Poll, and ranking in the bottom half of the Big Ten.
Enter Sheffield. In his first season, the Badgers tied for fourth in the Big Ten, were ranked second by the AVCA, and became the lowest NCAA seed to ever qualify for the championship when they made the program’s first appearance in the tournament since 2007 and first championship appearance since 2000.
The secret to these turnarounds, Sheffield says, is no secret at all: shared goals, strong players, and sheer passion.
“You’ve got to give everybody a vision of where it is you want to go. Then, every single day, you’re just working toward it, trying to find ways to get better,” he says. According to his players, he conveys that vision in no uncertain terms.
“[He] tells you how it is whether it’s what you want to hear or not,” says middle blocker Danielle Hart ’21, MSx’24. “In Kelly’s mind, to be anything but honest is to not care enough about that person and their improvement.”
But there’s a little more to it than that for the coach. As much as Sheffield invests in the success of his team on the court, he invests more in the development of his players as people whose lives extend beyond volleyball.
“If it’s just about volleyball, to me, that’s boring,” Sheffield says. “We’ve got the opportunity to teach life skills through sport and through competition. Finding ways to help make a connection between these things won’t only help you become a better volleyball player or a better team, but it will help you through challenging times of your lives.”
In his 10th season with the Badgers, Sheffield’s goals haven’t changed much since his first: be elite and remain elite. (Check and check.) His coaching philosophy also remains the same, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in favor of changing it.
“I want [players’] time here to catapult them toward their future,” Sheffield says. “I want them to know that I care about them more as a person than what they can do as an athlete. I care about who they are right now, and also about their future. … And along the way, hopefully, we teach them a thing or two about the game of volleyball.”
Published in the Winter 2022 issue