PITTSBURGH – Gia Milana wasn’t going to lie. In 2017, when she was beginning to explore the transfer process after her sophomore season at the University of Maryland, she had never heard of Baylor University. She wouldn’t have been able to locate Waco, Texas, on a map.
She’s from Romeo, Michigan. So when the senior outside hitter began opening up to the possibility of transferring from Maryland after Terps coach Steve Aird left for Indiana, and her mother told her that she really should talk with this Baylor coach on the phone, Milana didn’t think much of it.
How can you think much about a school you’ve never heard of?
None taken. For when Milana did finally pick up the phone, what she heard on the other end was a man quoting scripture, the very same scripture she had just read the night before.
It is in the small things — and especially previously small places — that McGuyre has excelled, over and over and over again. He excelled at Biola University, a school in La Mirada, California, with an enrollment that hovers around 6,000. He won a national championship on the club team in ’98, his third time appearing in the finals.
“Just club,” McGuyre said, a verbal shrug. And it was. There is no arguing that what McGuyre did on the club team at Biola is at all comparable to what he is currently doing at Baylor, who will play Wisconsin in Thursday night’s NCAA Tournament national semifinals.
But it was the beginning of the theme that has underscored McGuyre’s career: Taking programs that have either been forgotten or have never been anything big enough to forget, and then turning them into bona fide destinations.
He led Biola to three national championships as a player and to 60 wins in three seasons as a coach. In 2002, he took over a California Baptist program, both men’s and women’s, that would have celebrated breaking .500. By the time he left, in 2011, he had won nine national titles between the two teams.
“When I look back on the first one as a player, how dear and special it was, I will get choked up when I think about the first one with the first women’s team doing that,” said McGuyre, who is 112-42 in his five years at Baylor. “Those are the emotions, those are the feelings, when I first started at Baylor. I wanted it to be the greatest volleyball experience ever.”
What’s funny is that, for all of the success McGuyre’s teams have had, his recruiting really has little to do with volleyball itself. Milana was drawn in by the scripture that McGuyre referenced. Setter Hannah Lockin knew she was where she needed to be when, on a visit, she saw the team praying.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen before,” Lockin, the Big 12 Setter of the Year, said. “It was just like a family. I knew that no matter what I would be cared for and all of that has proved to be very true.”
Shelly Stafford, an All-American middle blocker, needed, like Milana, a single call for her to keep her commitment to the Bears when McGuyre was hired.
“He called me in December, about a week before we both showed up on campus and he said ‘I want to win a national championship and I want to do it with you,’” Stafford recalled.
To many, that idea would have seemed a bit of a stretch at the time. The Bears had never sniffed a national championship, much less won one. Heck, they had never made a final four or round of eight, and it had been 10 years since they advanced as far as the third round.
But that’s the thing about McGuyre. His athletes, for reasons that go well beyond any potential national titles, buy in. They’ve bought in at every level, from club at Biola to the Western Athletic Conference at Cal Baptist to the Big 12 at Baylor. They buy in because they aren’t just volleyball players to McGuyre, not just tools to create wins and haul in national titles.
“Our identity is not tied into our wins,” he said. “It’s not tied into our losses. It’s not tied to our successes. It’s not tied to our accolades.”
McGuyre admits that this philosophy isn’t for everyone. Some enjoy putting winning at the top of their priority list, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. He knows he’s missed out on some top-flight, blue-chip prospects, the type that “just want to hear how nice our locker room is, or how quickly can we win national championships, and am I going to be on TV,” McGuyre said. “And we’ve had those opportunities as we’ve been here now, but that’s not what brought [Milana] to Baylor. We weren’t selling her on her success, but we were selling her on how much we’re going to pour into you.”
It’s ironic, in the best kind of ways, that the less value McGuyre places on winning, the more winning he has been able to do. It’s impossible to pinpoint a single reason that McGuyre’s programs, with Baylor now at the top of them all, have been able to enjoy unprecedented measures of success. But there is something to the fact that McGuyre recruits individuals who seek more than winning and national championships and TV time and statistics, even if, at the end of the day, they accrue all of those anyway.
He finds athletes who are seeking something a little outside of volleyball, be it a family or a team that prays together or a coach that values preparation for life more than he does volleyball.
“Ultimately,” he said, “you attract people who are like-minded.”
Which is how he found himself sitting at a press conference table with two collegiate athletes — Big 12 Player of the Year Yossiana Pressley and Milana — who are engaged and another — Stafford — who is married. It’s how, Pressley, who is arguably the top player in the country, wound up in Waco instead of more established territory like Omaha or Madison or Austin. When Stafford and Milana were asked about the junior outside hitter, Pressley instead chose to gush about Stafford.
“She literally does everything,” Pressley said. “She sets. She hits. She’s a libero. She’s truly all-around an amazing player. I’m not just saying that because you’re all here. I truly mean it.”
Just Baylor being Baylor.
“The girls sold me completely, spending time with them,” Milana said. “And coach gave me to the girls all day, and just being around them, seeing how genuine they were with each other and how they loved each other so well. And it’s not like they were just nice to each other. If they had a piece of ketchup in their mouth: ‘Yo, fix that.’ Just little things that are special.
“So that’s what really, really sold me. It was like, I have to go here. I don’t care if we win a national championship. I don’t care if we make it to the sweet 16. I need to go here because I knew I would be loved and I would have a lot of fun.”
She’s loved, all right, Milana. And she’s having fun.
And wouldn’t you know it, she gets a shot to win that national championship that she never prioritized at all.