Woman. Mother. Black.

All of that makes McKendree University’s Nickie Sanlin an anomaly, truly the only NCAA DI-II men’s volleyball head OR assistant coach that is all of those things.

And when Sanlin, the head women’s and men’s volleyball coach — yes, both head women’s and head men’s coach — describes her ideal player, it sounds something like this:

“Do you have a job? Have you had adversity? Have you ever been in a fight before? Do you play a contact sport?

“I want a kid that has an attitude,” she explained. “Not a bad attitude, but a kid that has a little fire in the belly.”

Sanlin was once such a kid herself.

A late convert to the sport of volleyball, she grew up in Metro East St. Louis playing basketball, an only child until the age of 13 when her sister was born. She found volleyball in high school, dropping basketball her junior year.

As a senior and the only player on her Team St. Louis club team (now HPSTL) who wasn’t committed, Sanlin started seriously looking at college and taking recruiting visits. A visit to Marshall popped up late in the process, after she had already set her heart on a different program.

“I was going to cancel my visit to Marshall,” Sanlin said, “and my dad said, ‘You have to go. You promised them, you made a commitment that you were going to visit their school. You have to go.’ ”

It was 2000, and Marshall was struggling, ultimately finishing that season 4-26. But on her visit, instead of seeing a failing program, Sanlin saw potential and opportunity.

“That means, they’re 2-26 right now, I could play. I could potentially play right now,” Sanlin remembered thinking. “Not saying at the other school I wanted to go to I couldn’t play. I could compete for a spot, but I could potentially play now (at Marshall). That was a big draw.”

She also saw a beautiful West Virginia town and campus, a great college environment, and a close, friendly team. She felt at home, and she committed to Marshall.

“Nowadays, athletes are just — I don’t want to say more materialistic — they want the name-brand everything. I wanted the name-brand everything until I got to a place where I felt like I fit there,” Sanlin said. “I wish more athletes would take a chance on a school that your friends might not know where it is, but you also know that I feel at home here. I can win here, I can play here. I can see myself in this environment.”

And win she did.

Eighty-nine matches in four years. After redshirting her true freshman season with a torn ACL, Sanlin and the Thundering Herd put together four 20-plus-victory seasons. They made it to the Mid-American tournament championship match three years in a row, and then in 2005, Sanlin’s senior year, the Herd won the Conference USA tournament the first year Marshall joined the league as the school made the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history.

McKendree coach Nickie Sanlin was a standout player at Marshall

Mitch Jacobs took the head coaching job at Marshall in 2002. The super demanding, tough coach took almost the same bunch of athletes that went 6-21 in 2001 and made them a winning team in 2002 and beyond.

“He knew how good we could be, and he got us there and the standard was extremely high,” Sanlin said. “I did things that I never thought I was capable of doing. I tore my ACL running a slide, and my first full day back I probably ran like 50 slides. I was scared and (Mitch) was like no, we’re doing this right now, we’re getting over it. … It’s not like that anymore, and it’s kind of sad because I’m like, you’re bringing out the competitor in me as an athlete and as a human being where I feel like I can do anything.”

Recently, a McKendree student interviewed Sanlin for an assignment about coaching, and she asked Sanlin how her players would describe her.

“Tough,” Sanlin responded without hesitation.

“I don’t lie to them. I would rather be straightforward, then you can make a decision of if you want to be here or not,” Sanlin elaborated. “Our retention rate is really high because you know where you’re going to be. I’m going to be hard on you, but in the same sense I’m going to give you a hug at the end of the day.”

As a player for Jacobs, Sanlin challenged her demanding coach. Some days she didn’t like what he had to say, resenting him for the hard work he asked his team to put in day in and day out, but today, the two coaches remain close.

“As an athlete, I’m like, ‘Oh God, hate him — Mitch, ugh,’” Sanlin said. “But soon as I entered the coaching world, he was my No. 1 supporter, and if he needs me now to do anything, I would do it. I would run through a brick wall.”

With her players at McKendree, Sanlin has built a similar culture. A lot of “I love you’s” are said between members of the team, but don’t expect many “I’m sorry’s — at least not insincere ones.

“I’m not going to tell you sorry if I hurt your feelings,” Sanlin said. “Sorry not sorry, but your feelings are hurt because you played bad today. That has no bearing on you as a human being. I didn’t say that you were a terrible person or a terrible individual. I just said, ‘Your passing was terrible.’ That has nothing to do with you. People that are in this program understand that.”

When I called for our interview, Sanlin had a player in her office looking for relationship advice. Another had recently texted, telling Sanlin he was working on his confidence and wanted her support.

“My favorite saying is love is tough. Love isn’t sunshine and rainbows, and I’m giving you tough love, that’s what it is. It’s tough,” Sanlin said. “I’d rather have people in my life that are giving it to me straight instead of telling me I’m great because that’s not going to make me any better.”

The love and support felt between the members of the McKendree men’s volleyball program only got stronger after they lost one of their own last year. Kirk Johnson, a redshirt freshman on the team, was found unconscious and not breathing outside of an apartment building in Lebanon on January 19, 2019. He subsequently died of hypothermia.

McKendree, located in Lebanon, Illinois, 28 miles east of St. Louis, was two matches into its season at the time.

“I have never seen a collective group of young men rally together more than this one,” Sanlin said. “You don’t know how many times I saw guys not even say words and just hug each other or hug me or hug our assistant. I didn’t have to push them to go see counselors. They were doing it on their own. They were checking on me, checking on each other, checking on the staff.

“They might be 6-8, 6-7, 6-6, but in my mind, they’re like my little guys, they’re my boys. But they are men. They are actually men, who are handling things like men, and that was so cool to see.”

Sanlin’s experiences as an athlete played a significant role in the unique kind of coach she is today, but in some ways she couldn’t avoid being different and standing out if she tried.

She’s a woman coaching NCAA men’s volleyball — one of just two female head coaches in Division I or II men’s volleyball, the other being Caitlin Bullock, the interim head coach at Lees-McRae. Just five women — Erin Johnson, UC Irvine; Morgan Kirby, King; Briana Guzman, Saint Francis Brooklyn; Lindsay Brown, Purdue Fort Wayne; and Mitzi Kincaid, Concordia Irvine — serve as assistants for DI-II men’s volleyball teams.

She’s also black — one of just three African-American head coaches in the NCAA DI-II men’s game (the others being Ryan “Rock” Perrotte at Purdue Fort Wayne and Eddie Pennington at Tusculum) — and a mother of two kids, Grace, 12, and Micah, 10, who is autistic.

Sanlin makes it work by living just five miles away from her mom and dad, Stephen and Deborah. Whenever she can’t be with Grace and Micah, her parents are. Sanlin’s mother even accompanied Grace to her first big convention center club volleyball tournament over President’s Day weekend — something Deborah was apparently thrilled to do, mingling with the other parents, jumping up and down and cheering as Grace and her team worked their way to a fifth-place finish in 12 Premier. (On the other hand, I can only imagine my mother’s horror at the thought of being forced to attend club volleyball tournaments again.)

UC Irvine men’s coach David Kniffin met Sanlin at a USA Volleyball High Performance camp a few years ago.

“I had immediate respect for her right out of the gate and the way she evaluated the game in a pretty intense and driven and yet humble fashion,” he said. “Those are qualities I feel like a lot of us look for in recruiting, and for a coach to demonstrate those and lead with those same qualities is pretty cool.”

Kniffin said he didn’t consider a woman coaching men’s volleyball odd at all. Afterall, at that time, he pointed out, his staff at UC Irvine had already included Michelle Bartsch as an assistant coach for the 2013 national-championship-winning squad.

“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it, and I don’t want to lessen what it is,” Kniffin said.

At that HP camp, however, Kniffin noticed a difference in the way the boys reacted to Sanlin.

“It did seem like there was a receptiveness to Nickie that was faster and less inhibited than the connection with some of the other male peers that were out there,” Kniffin said. “I don’t know if that’s just Nickie being Nickie because she’s so genuine and authentic when she talks to you, or if there is an element of the fact that she is a female and these are boys that are still coming out of their younger years where Mom is their main go-to and there’s an association there.

“But it’s her authenticity and genuine care as much as gender, I would argue.”

“(NCAA men’s volleyball) is a boys’ club. No matter what anyone says, it’s a boys’ club, and you can’t tell me any different,” Sanlin said. “(The other coaches) were friendly, but I didn’t play men’s volleyball. I played Division I volleyball, but I didn’t play men’s volleyball. That was kind of hard because I’m like, I’m probably better at volleyball than some of you in this gym, but you, of course, are superior because you played men’s volleyball.”

Sanlin said even from the beginning coaching men’s volleyball didn’t intimidate her. Before getting hired as the women’s assistant at McKendree in 2012, she coached the boys team at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, Illinois, and volunteered with a local NAIA men’s program.

But she will admit to being a bit surprised when, after just one season as the women’s assistant (which competes in NCAA Division II on the women’s side), McKendree asked her to start the men’s team. (Then halfway through the 2014 women’s season, she got promoted to head coach of the women’s team too.) Sanlin exudes confidence, but she hinted at some tough days in the beginning of her time at the helm of the McKendree men.

“Being in any new coaching environment, it’s trying to prove yourself, make a statement, but my own individual personality, I was like, ‘I’m not going to show fear,’” Sanlin said. “I might be afraid, but I’m not going to show anyone that I am afraid. I’d rather cry in my room than sit here and make you think that I am not worthy to be in the gym.”

On the road recruiting, Sanlin said her (male) assistant coach Christian Staple would have to stand next to her for anyone to realize she was there in a coaching capacity. But that was then. Now, her performance at McKendree and her success in recruiting and player development precedes her. NCAA men’s volleyball might still be a boys club, but she’s in.

“The best compliment I got from a parent was, ‘You showed my son something I could never do, how treating a woman in power feels like, and how to treat people,’” Sanlin said. “I’m like, yep, that’s it, that’s my role. That’s what I’m here for.”

Sanlin’s McKendree program started in 2014 with a roster of 15 freshman, mostly from Missouri and Illinois. They went 8-23 in that first season, and then four years in a row got just 11 wins before breaking through to a .500 record (13-13) in 2019.

The 2019 season also included a defeat of then-No. 8 BYU, the highest nationally ranked opponent the McKendree men had ever beaten. That is until earlier this month when McKendree downed then-No. 6 Lewis in both teams’ conference opener.

The Bearcats are currently 9-6 — 3-2 and alone in third place in the MIVA. A 7-4 start marked the best opening to a season since the program’s founding. McKendree plays at Loyola on Thursday night.

“It sure seems like from an outsider’s perspective she’s going about it in the time that it needs,” Kniffin said. “I think so often it’s easy to come in as a coach and try to turn things around or catapult a program into the spotlight or into having the ‘successful’ seasons right away, and I feel like she’s been systematic in understanding who she is trying to recruit. I think she’s got great support from her administration, and they see her for who she is and how she’s operating, beyond just what she is achieving. When you see people put first things first like that, success always follows.”

The steady rise of the men’s program at McKendree with Sanlin at the helm doesn’t surprise Lewis men’s head coach Dan Friend.

From the beginning, Sanlin’s ability to juggle both programs and parent two kids impressed him, and he’s noticed the way she moved from just trying to fill a roster to recruiting talented athletes from around the country — athletes like setter Ryan Serrano from Phoenix, Arizona, whom the AVCA named national player of the week on February 11 (the first McKendree men’s volleyball athlete to earn the national weekly honor).

“It’s more amazing that McKendree has kept her,” Friend said. “I think partly that’s a family thing, too, though. Kids are there, Mom and Dad are there. Me and Lorie (Friend’s wife, head coach of the Lewis women’s team) understand that. You build your program and it’s yours and it’s tough to leave.

“It’s impressive how she carries herself, and I don’t think it’s a facade,” he continued, “I think it’s her personality. She’s a confident young African-American female — I’m going to go out, I’m going to compete, I’m going to do things well, and I think you see the success come from that. She’s going to continue to be successful.”

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