No, Jen Flynn Oldenburg has never been a head coach.

And that’s not lost on the new Ohio State hire, who was named to the job at her alma mater last month.

“They were looking for a fit and a fit means somebody who’s going to come in and look to put the program first and put the student-athletes first,” Oldenburg said, “ … and my vision was in line with what they were looking for.”

Perhaps, but she’d spent the last six years in her hometown with the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association, which is not exactly like coaching in the Big Ten.

Not that Oldenburg doesn’t know the Big Ten. She was a star player at Ohio State from 1996 to 1999 and her teams went to the NCAA Tournament all four years. She played for the USA national team, played for the old USPV, and later was an assistant at Illinois from 2003 to 2012, which included the Illini’s run to the 2011 NCAA championship match. 

Jen Flynn Oldenburg was an assistant at Illinois from 2003-12 Illinois Athletics photo

The Illinois head coach at the time was current Stanford coach Kevin Hambly.

“She’s the best,” Hambly said. “I am so happy that she’s back in collegiate volleyball. She will do a great job at OSU.

“She will operate with integrity, the athletes will have a great experience, and she will be a consummate professional. The young women she works with will become better volleyball players, but more importantly they will develop as people.”

She was interviewed by Ohio State deputy director of athletics Janine Oman, who told Oldenburg how OSU athletics director Gene Smith took a chance on her when he brought Oman on board as an administrator with no prior experience at that level. And Oldenburg told her, “I know you’d be taking a chance on me. I haven’t been a head coach, and I’ve been out of the college game for a while, but I don’t know that you’ll find anyone more passionate than I am, because this is my program and I want them to be great.”

For that matter, Ohio State hired from within when legendary men’s volleyball coach Pete Hanson retired last year, promoting assistant Kevin Burch. Burch had never been a head coach, either.

“It’s humbling the support I’m getting not only from family and friends and my (era) alumni, but a lot of the alumni are reaching out and people in the profession are just complimentary and telling me I’ll be awesome,” Oldenburg said with a laugh. “And there’s a part of me that’s like ‘How do you know that?’”

Not long after taking the job, Oldenburg hired former Virginia Tech head coach Jill Wilson and TCU associate head coach Brian Wright. Wilson is regarded as a top-notch recruiter and Wright’s resume includes working at Texas and coaching USA junior national teams. 

“I think one of the concerns when you go into a job like this, especially as a first-time head coach, is who’s coming with you. And to have people who are eager to jump on board with you is pretty special,” Oldenburg said. “I’m fortunate to have Jill and Brian ready to be Buckeyes and hit the ground running.”

And then on Tuesday Ohio State announced that Oldenburg added Penn State and USA great Nicole Fawcett as a volunteer assistant coach. 

Jen Flynn Oldenburg

In 2018 Ohio State was hit with an inordinate number of injuries, including concussions, and finished 12-20, 3-17 in the Big Ten. Last year, the Buckeyes couldn’t ever get any traction and even with a stunning early November upset of then-No. 4 Wisconsin, finished 15-17, 8-12 in the B1G.

The players, Oldenburg said, “are just looking for consistency. Two years prior they really got slammed with injuries and kind of freakish ones, where they really didn’t understand what was happening … That year was really hard for them.”

In 2019 you could have looked at the Buckeyes in the preseason and think they had every chance be in the league mix.

“They were just short a couple of times,” Oldenburg. “They were competing against top teams. What they’re telling me is ‘We’re good against those teams, we have no issues with them. Win or lose we know we’re competing. It’s the teams that we should beat that we’re not.’

“They’re looking at me like what does that mean? It means we’ve got to be better. Be more consistent and stay grounded in the fundamentals so we can take care of those teams. In terms of talent, we could be winning more.

“I think they’re eager to compete at a higher level. They’re excited to learn and hear a different voice. And no offense to the old staff, just something fresh.”

Last year’s team lost four seniors, including middle Elle Sandbothe, who had 209 kills and 82 blocks in 2019.

Ohio State returns four seniors, four juniors, and six sophomores. One of those sophomores, 6-3 outside Gabby Gonzales, led the Buckeyes with 282 kills (3.20/set), and another, 6-foot Jenaisya Moore, was second with 269 kills (3.45/set). Also back is 6-3 outside Mia Grunze, a junior from Waterford, Wisconsin, who had 153 kills (2.94/set).

No wonder Oldenburg said, “In terms of our pins, we have a lot of big, heavy hitters who are going to compete for those spots.”

Lauren Witte, a 6-4 middle blocker, will be a senior. She had 131 kills and tied for the team lead in blocks with 82, nine solo.

Both setters return in sophomore Mac Podraza, who had 53 blocks, four solo, and senior Becca Mauer, who led the team with 20 aces and had 13 blocks. 

“I’m trying hard not to judge by what I saw last year because there were a lot of changes during the season,” Oldenburg said. “I’m trying to give them that blank slate and see who competes and steps up.”

By all accounts, Ohio State has a stellar freshman class coming in. The group includes Rylee Rader, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Assumption High School and KIVA in Louisville who was third-team All-American; 6-3 right side Emily Landot from Utica, Ohio, and a product of the Mintonette club; and Groveport, Ohio, defensive specialist Sarah Sue Morbitzer.

Oldenburg coached Landot in the junior world championships last summer when the USA won the FIVB Girls’ U18 World Championship in Egypt, “and she’s going to make an impact pretty quick on the team and also in the Big Ten. She’s that kind of player.”

Rader “is a high flyer who’s super dynamic,” Oldenburg said. 

The 41-year-old Oldenburg, who was an outside hitter and then a setter for Ohio State for coach Jim Stone when she played — she was also his assistant with that aforementioned USA triumph last summer — is naturally optimistic about a team that will have a lot of talent and experience.

“Who am I excited about? Really all of them,” Oldenburg said. “They’re just all working hard and getting better and listening to what we’re having to say to make changes and it’s exciting.”

Ohio State has a fabulous new facility, and if the Buckeyes can stay healthy, catch a break or two, they could be back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 when OSU advanced to the round of 16.

“The Big Ten is a beast,” Oldenburg said. “If we improve at the rate that I think we can, in the short term and the long term, our goal is to make it to the tournament next year and see how far we can go.”

It’s hardly unprecedented to become a Power Five coach without having been a head coach before. Click here to read more about who made the jump in the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and SEC. 

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