Whitley: UF's Wise doesn't need an NCAA title to be declared a champion

Wise has guided the Gators to 30 straight NCAA volleyball tournaments, but they've never won the title.

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
  • The Gators face Ohio State in the Sweet 16 on Sunday
  • Wise would become the first female coach to win a Division 1 women's volleyball title.
  • Florida has been to two NCAA Finals.
  • Wise has been a coach longer than anyone in Florida history.

It's natural to compare Mary Wise to Sisyphus. If you're not sure who's who, Wise is Florida's volleyball coach.

Sisyphus was a figure in Greek mythology who ran afoul of the gods and was banished to Hades. As punishment, he had to roll a huge rock up a hill only to have it always roll back.

Wise is in Omaha, Nebraska, at the NCAA volleyball tournament. It's not Hades, but her task seems Sisyphean.

"You just keep pushing that boulder up the hill," said Kathy DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. "Sometimes it rolls back over you, but you keep pushing."

The hill is a national championship. Wise has been pushing Florida up that incline for 30 years. Along the way, she's become a mythological figure in volleyball.

Where do we begin?

This is Wise's 30th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

She has 978 career wins, the fourth-most in Division 1 history.

Her teams have won 24 SEC titles, including 18 in a row from 1991 to 2008.

She's been named AVCA national coach of the year three times.

When it comes to quantifiable accomplishments, there's only one thing missing on her resume.

Every time she's gotten Florida close to the top of the hill, that boulder has rolled back down. There was an injury or a bad break or just a case of Not Meant To Be.

"In sports, it's not about what you deserve," said DeBoer, who hired Wise an assistant 35 years ago at Kentucky. "It's not even about what you've earned. It's putting the pieces in place to give you a chance to succeed, and then trying to stay out of the way."

Yeah, life and volleyball are not supposed to be fair. But if there is a volleyball god, it's past time to smile down on the longest-tenured coach in Florida history.

Tonight would be a good time to start. The 8th-seeded Gators meet 9th-seed Ohio State in a Sweet 16 matchup.

Three more wins would give Wise 900 victories at Florida and put the Gators in the national championship match. They've gotten there twice, the last time four years ago in Kansas City.

"So many Gators came out to watch," Nicole McCray said. "Anyone who's ever played for Mary knows she puts her heart and soul every day into that program."

McCray was 2000 SEC Player of the Year and is now the coach at Panola College in Texas. She's one of the not-so-quantifiable accomplishments on Wise's resume.

McCray was 12 when she first saw Wise on TV, coaching against Long Beach State. She was enamored by Wise's energy and intensity. After signing with Florida a few years later, she was exposed to that intensity.

"She knows what kind of potential every player has," McCray said. "If you aren't meeting her expectations, she definitely lets you know about it. But that's what makes her great."

You could multiply Thorn by a few hundred. They showed up in Gainesville as anxious girls and left as confident women thanks to Wise.

"She always makes you feel like you can conquer the world," McCray said.

All the hopes and wishes of Wise's extended family couldn't will Florida past Nebraska in the 2017 championship game. Wise would have become the first woman to coach a team to a Division 1 volleyball title.

That doesn't seem right considering there are about seven times as many women's volleyball programs as men's programs. The explanations/excuses for the discrepancies are too complex to really get into here.

Some people say it's easier for men to be high-level coaches because they don't have the same family distractions as women. They can put off having children until they're older.

We can debate why male coaches dominate a female sport. It's safe to say, however, none of the guys coaching in Omaha ever canceled a recruiting trip in order to stay home and nurse a baby at 3 a.m.

When she wasn't at the gym, Wise and her husband, Mark, raised two boys. They are now college assistant basketball coaches.

That's another thing that doesn't really show up on a person's resume. We look at the quantifiable. Like national championships, or a lack of them.

Iowa State hired Wise right after she graduated from Purdue. She admits that back then, she could not have considered her career a success without a national championship.

"As I've gotten older, I've gotten the wisdom to understand it's not about the wins and losses," Wise said. "It's about the relationships I've created."

It's about all the people she met at the O'Connell Center/Exactech Arena, who thanked her for giving them a night of volleyball thrills. It's about the women she's inspired to conquer a man's world. And it's about ex-players like McCray, who still call for advice.

"They're family now," Wise said. "They are like daughters to me."

If you go by only the tangibles, it's natural to compare her to Sisyphus. But he was sentenced to a life of useless efforts and endless frustration.

National championship or not, Wise's career has been anything but that.

David Whitley

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

Today

What: NCAA Volleyball Tournament region semifinal

Who: 8 seed Florida (20-3) vs. 9 seed Ohio State (16-3)

Where: Chi Health Center Arena, Omaha, Neb.

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: AM-850/98.1-FM