Spend a few minutes with Dan Friend and Lorelee Smith and you quickly discover they eat, sleep, and breathe volleyball.
As the head coaches of the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at Lewis University, their lives revolve around the sport. They’re passionate about their players and the elite volleyball programs they’ve developed at this Division II school situated just outside of Chicago, Ill.
These competitive coaches share another passion, too. It’s one that transcends volleyball and their love of the game. Like any happily married couple, they’re also passionate about each other.
“I think we’re the only husband and wife in the country coaching the same sport, different genders, at the same school,” Friend said. “It’s a special dynamic and the school is supportive of us. It’s a nice thing we’ve got going.”
Nice – and incredibly successful.
Friend’s team finished its 2012 season ranked sixth in the nation with a 26-7 record. The Flyers, who often play Division I schools, also made their first NCAA Final Four appearance since 2004. Lewis lost 3-1 in the semifinals to the No. 1-ranked University of Southern California Trojans.
“This year was a breakthrough year for us,” Friend, who inherited a program that lost its 2003 national title because of NCAA violations, said. “This [Final Four bid] took us back to playing elite volleyball.”
Friend’s teams, however, have always played like champions. During his eight seasons at Lewis, the Kansas native compiled a 151-92 record. His teams have consistently ranked in the top 15 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division I-II polls. And his players have beaten some of the toughest Division I schools in the country, including UCLA, Penn State, and Long Beach State.
What’s his coaching secret?
“We talk about having fun and enjoying yourself,” said Friend, the former men’s and women’s volleyball head coach at Newman University in Kansas. “That’s a key component to being successful.”
Smith, who shares her husband’s belief that playing volleyball should be fun, has an equally impressive coaching record with the Lady Flyers.
The 5'4" former Academic All-American setter at the University of North Carolina-Asheville has tallied 147 wins and 29 losses during her five seasons at Lewis.
Her winning streak started the moment she coached her first game at the school’s Neil Carey Arena in 2007. She ended that season with a 32-4 record and the highest winning percentage in the school’s history at .889.
Smith’s teams have also qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of her five seasons – the longest streak in the school’s history.
Smith, however, downplays any accolades about her coaching success. The two-time Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year credits her players, instead.
“My first year here we had a great group of girls,” said Smith, a former assistant women’s volleyball coach at the University of Central Missouri. “They truly had fun on the court. They had fun fighting and winning every point. They played like that every time they stepped into a gym.
“That attitude has been passed on over the years…I’ve been really lucky.”
This volleyball coaching couple says they’re lucky to have each other, too. They say their partnership—on and off the court—is another key to their programs’ success.
“Even though we coach somewhat differently, we are always bouncing ideas off each other,” Smith said. “We do this 24-7 whether we mean to or not.”
Friend says he and his wife routinely discuss prospective players. They debate volleyball strategies and techniques. And they rehash matches, looking for new insights or missed opportunities.
“Probably 70 percent of the time, we sit on each other’s benches,” Friend said, adding that his office at Lewis is next to his wife’s. “When we’re at home, we’re still talking about volleyball. It’s ingrained in our lives.”
Lewis players from both teams also benefit from the coaches’ united front.
“It’s something very unique and very special. They really work well together,” said former setter Rachel Ruedi who graduated in 2011 and was the first setter recruited by Smith at Lewis. “They have two different coaching styles. I learned so much from Dan. And Lorelee is spectacular. I had the time of my life playing for her. She made me a phenomenal player and she also helped the men’s team. She worked a lot this year with setter [BJ Boldog] and did a great job. Their relationship makes Lewis one-of-a-kind.”
Middle blocker Aaron Flick, who graduated from Lewis with an undergraduate degree in 2011 and a master’s in 2012, echoed Ruedi’s sentiment.
“It’s awesome that they’re both here coaching. Lorelee knows what she’s talking about and the whole team respects her,” Flick said. “It’s been a great experience getting to know Dan and Lorelee. I appreciate everything they’ve given me and the effort they’ve given to building the volleyball program at Lewis. I think in five years they’ll [both] be knocking on the doors of national championships.”
Does all this volleyball togetherness ever cause problems?
“We’ll get in debates about things that have been going during the season,” Friend said. “But that doesn’t create any issues or arguments.”
Although volleyball plays a central role in the couple’s lives, they also have interests outside the game.
Smith is an avid reader: “I like ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘The Black Dagger Brotherhood’ series.”
Friend is more into Marvel and DC Comics.
The couple also enjoys watching movies. They spend time with their English bulldog, Achilles Batman Friend. And they travel every year to faraway places such as Mexico, Jamaica, Fiji, and Alaska.
Wherever their travels take them, they always look for ways to squeeze in a little volleyball. This adventurous couple even tried to pepper on top of a glacier in Alaska. “It was too cold,” said Smith, who has also played professional beach volleyball.
Where will their next adventure in coaching take them? These head Flyers hope they can lead their teams to the top of the NCAA rankings and capture national championship volleyball titles – for Lewis and its fans.
“We don’t have plans to go somewhere else,” Friend said. “Lorelee gets to coach Division II and I get to coach Division I. We have the best of both worlds right here.”
Title Women’s Head Volleyball Coach at Lewis University (5 seasons)
Record at Lewis 147-29
Highlights Three Great Lake Valley Conference Championships (2007, 2008, 2009); four regular season titles (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011); qualified for NCAA tournaments all five seasons; GLVC Coach of the Year (2009, 2010); school record for consecutive wins (27); 41-home match winning streak;18 All-GLVC players.
Background Assistant women’s volleyball coach at the University of Central Missouri for five seasons; setter and academic All-American at the University of North Carolina-Asheville; Big South Conference Scholar Athlete; professional beach volleyball player.
Personal Married to Lewis University’s Men’s Volleyball Coach Dan Friend; bachelor’s degree in management/marketing from UNC Asheville; Masters of Business Administration from UCM.
Title Lewis University’s Men’s Head Volleyball Coach (8 seasons)
Record at Lewis 151-92
Team Highlights Final Four bid, MIVA championship, tied for most wins in the country (26),16-0 record at home, all in 2012; 29 MIVA Player of the Week picks; MIVA Player of the Year in 2009 (Drew Pickering); MIVA Freshman of the Year Ian Karbiener (2010); MIVA Freshman of the Year Geoff Powell (2012).
Background Assistant women’s volleyball coach at Washburn University; men’s and women’s volleyball head coach at Newman University (started the men’s program); coach and player for USA Athletes; Lewis University’s interim women’s head volleyball coach in 2004 (17-3 record).
Personal Married to Lewis University’s Women’s Volleyball coach Lorelee Smith; bachelor’s degree in athletic training and exercise physiology from Washburn University; master’s degree in sports administration from the University of Kansas.
When Lorelee Smith heard about the head coaching position at Lewis University, she wasn’t sure she wanted the job. “I loved my role as an assistant coach at Central Missouri State and I never thought I should be a head coach,” she said. What changed her mind? Her future players. “It wasn’t until the met the girls that I decided I really wanted this job.”
Lorelee Smith said her husband once tried to establish a “no-talking-volleyball” rule at home. “That didn’t work well with me,” she said. “I eat, breathe, and sleep volleyball. It’s been my life forever.”
The men’s and women’s volleyball teams at Lewis University are considered Tier I sports on the small Illinois campus. “Volleyball is huge here,” Friend said. “It’s treated much like football and basketball on other campuses.” The teams have a large and loyal following at Lewis. “We get 700 to 800 fans at a game,” Friend said. “A few years back we played UCLA and had 1,500 fans. Our gym only holds 1,110 people.” Smith said she really appreciates the fans’ support. “That’s something special about Lewis.”
Lewis University is the perfect setting for a volleyball romance. After all, the small Catholic school is located in the town of Romeoville, Ill. But unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” the volleyball love story about head coaches Dan Friend and Lorelee Smith has a happy ending.
The couple met eight years ago at—where else?—a volleyball coaches’ convention. At the time, Friend was the head coach of the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at Newman University in Kansas. Smith was an assistant coach for the women’s volleyball team at The University of Central Missouri.
The couple later saw each other at a club volleyball tournament. “I went up and introduced myself,” Friend recalled. “I don’t think she remembered me.”
During their conversation, Friend asked his future wife if she played doubles in the summer. They ended up playing in a co-ed grass tournament in Kansas City, Miss. Sparks flew—on and off the court—and the relationship that poetically started on a volleyball court later turned into wedded bliss.
Friend and Smith celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary in May.
Friend looks for volleyball players who are...
> Outside-the-box thinkers.
> Intelligent. Friend’s 2012 team has a 3.26 GPA. “I stress academics.”
> Quick and athletic.
> Illinois natives. “When I took over this job, one of the things I said we’ve got do is recruit more local kids. If you look at our roster, more than 50 percent of our players are Chicago-area kids.”
> Versatile and can play all-round.
Smith looks for volleyball players who are...
> Explosive and dynamic on the court.
> Team players. “If a play goes bad, some players will walk away. But that [attitude] makes me not look at someone.”
> Having fun on the court. “There’s an outside [hitter] I want because I watch her play and she’s having fun. She makes me smile.”
> Smart. Her team’s GPA hovers around 3.5. “I think volleyball players are, in general, smart and care about their grades.”
Originally published in August 2012