Years ago, when I was covering the University of Florida women’s volleyball team for The Independent Florida Alligator, I was fairly new to the game. The rules, positions, plays. All of it. It’s a fast-paced game and limbs are flying everywhere. I had never even heard of a libero.
Mary Wise, the team’s head coach with far more on her plate than I, lent a hand when I was talking to her one day. She gave me her email and said if there was ever anything about the sport I didn’t understand (that was a lot) that she was always willing to explain whatever it was. The head coach of a Division-I volleyball program, the most successful in the Southeastern Conference nonetheless, had gone out of her way to help a student reporter stepping into a world she’s forged a career out of.
That’s just who Mary Wise is.
She has a burning passion for the sport of volleyball. She’s a fierce competitor. Most of all, she has never accepted complacency on the court. And as she approaches 30 seasons in Gainesville, fans need to recognize just what a treasure she’s been to Florida Gators athletics.
The Youngest D-I Coach Ever
Having been born in Evanston, Illinois, Wise played volleyball for the Purdue Boilermakers. The standout setter even helped Purdue win two Big Ten Conference championships in 1979 and 1980.
At just 21 years old, she took over the Iowa State Cyclones volleyball program in 1981, making her the youngest NCAA Division I head coach in history. After four seasons in Ames, Iowa, she accepted an assistant coach position at Kentucky, where she won a couple SEC titles and stayed in Lexington until 1990.
In 1991, after a search led by UF athletic director Bill Arnsparger (who also hired Steve Spurrier), Wise was brought on to lead the Gators. Now in her 29th season in 2019, it’s safe to say that was one of the best coaching hires in the school’s history.
“I see tremendous potential with the Gators, especially because the high school and junior programs in Florida are developing at such a rapid pace and are bringing out great players,” Wise said after she was hired in 1991. “The volleyball program at Florida has everything a coach could want – facilities, administrative support, staff support and recruiting potential .”
Wise wasn’t lying.
She replaced the largely inconsistent Marilyn McReavy and let the SEC know Florida volleyball was firmly on the map. UF went 35-5 in Wise’s first season. They didn’t lose a match at home, finished as SEC co-champions and made the NCAA Tournament.
Decades of Dominance at Florida
Not including 2019, she’s won 815 more matches at Florida. Her 931 career victories are the most of any women D-I head coaches in NCAA volleyball history. That’s way more than double the amount of games Joe Paterno won for Penn State football.
Wise’s sparkling .845 career winning percentage is better than any legendary Florida coach you can think of. Not even Steve Spurrier (.817), Urban Meyer (.813) or Billy Donovan’s (.715) winning percentages at UF can compare. Her mark is also better than Bill Belichick’s in New England, or any other coach in the history of the NFL, for that matter.
Only two D-I volleyball coaches with at least 750 wins have a higher winning percentage than Wise. Penn State’s Russ Rose and Hawaii’s Dave Shoji lead the way in that category. That’s part of why she’s been named to numerous international coaching staffs.
Still, what the 60-year-old Wise has done at Florida is nothing short of remarkable. Like Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa, stroke after stroke, Wise has added to her masterpiece career each passing year in The Swamp.
Of the 25 SEC Coach of the Year awards given out since in 1994, she’s won 15 of them. That includes five straight from 1998-2002. The three-time American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I National Coach of the Year is also one of two coaches to have won the prestigious award that many times.
By any metric you want to use — 23 SEC Championships, 72 NCAA Tournament victories, eight NCAA Final Four appearances, 113 All-American honors, 13 SEC Player of the Year awards — it’s obvious from her former players that Wise knows how to recruit and develop superstars.
Two of those players — Kelly Murphy and Aury Cruz — participated in the 2016 Olympics. Another, Chloe Mann, owns the NCAA D-I career hitting percentage record.
Wise has dominated SEC volleyball to the point where the conference wouldn’t be the same or nearly as competitive without her.
“The streak of conference titles continues to amaze me to this day. She uplifted the whole conference. We see better competition. We see other schools hiring top-name coaches, spending more on facilities. It is because of what Florida did, winning those 18 championships under her guidance, that we’ve seen the SEC elevated in volleyball,” UF volleyball play-by-play broadcast Tom Collett told FloridaGators.com.Advertisement
“A lot of people talk around Gainesville about the way Steve Spurrier changed football. Mary Wise did the same thing for volleyball in the SEC.”
All That’s Missing: A National Championship
Consistency is key, and nobody knows that better than Wise. Here are just some of the crazy streaks the Gators have accomplished under her direction:
- Florida has made the NCAA Tournament 28 straight seasons, or every single year Wise has been the head coach. That’s tied for the fourth-longest streak in D-I history.
- Florida has never won less than 25 matches in all 28 seasons under Wise. That’s the longest active streak in D-I by 11 seasons.
- The Gators have finished in the top 15 of the final AVCA Division I Coaches Poll in 23 straight seasons. That’s the second-longest streak in history.
- From 1995-2004, she won 145 consecutive regular season SEC matches. That’s an NCAA record.
And this one, to me, is by far the craziest:
- In 2003, Florida won 105 consecutive sets under Wise. That’s the second-longest streak in D-I history.
If there’s one knock on Wise, it’s that she’s failed to bring a national championship banner to the O’Connell Center. It almost seems unfair to say she’s “failed” at anything, though. When you’ve been as good as she has for as long as she has, nothing seems like a failure.
She became the first female coach to coach in the NCAA National Championship final and is the only female head coach to coach in more than one NCAA Championship final. The elusive national championship ring has evaded her almost since her first season in Gainesville.
“I get it. I get that comment is out there. It is really hard to win national championships. You ask any coach around here who has won one, it is really hard. You have to get breaks, it has to go your way, it has to be perfect—the bracket, upsets, all that stuff,” former UF athletic director Jeremy Foley told FloridaGators.com.
“For people to say that, even now, that she’s not achieved … she’s achieved at the highest level. She is one of the all-time greats, and always will be. You look at the numbers she put up, the rings she’s won, the program she’s built, the way she’s respected nationally, at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”
Any way you spin it, UF head coach Mary Wise is one of the all-time great coaches in Florida Gators and NCAA volleyball history. She’s accomplished things that other coaches only dream of, yet she’ll tell you she won’t be satisfied until Florida’s the last one standing in the NCAA Tournament.
Besides, she’s not done yet.