Perhaps one reason why she’s been so successful for so long is that Florida coach Mary Wise doesn’t accept the status quo.
So when asked her thoughts about there being one woman coach in each of the NCAA Tournament regionals — Wise, Cathy George of Michigan State, Beth Launiere of Utah and Heather Olmstead of BYU — Wise was matter of fact.
“It’s a re-occurring theme, that the teams that advance in the tournament in this day and age are still the programs that are well-funded, well-supported and have great players. And most of those happen to be coached by men,” said Wise, who has taken Florida to seven final fours. “It’s just the law of averages.”
The last time there were four women in the round of 16 was 2011 when, accordingly, there were three women coaches in the quarterfinals for the first time: Wise, Pepperdine’s Nina Matthies and Iowa State’s Christy Johnson-Lynch, whose Cyclones advanced by beating Minnesota and Laura Bush.
Before that you have to go back to 1997 when there were seven women coaches in the round of 16 and three that advanced, Wise, Kathy Gregory of UC Santa Barbara and Elaine Michaelis of BYU. Also in the regional semifinals were Debbie Brown of Notre Dame, Laurie Corbelli of Texas A&M, Cindy Fredrick of Washington State and Lisa Love of USC.
And, since it always comes up this time of year, Wise is the only women to coach a team to the NCAA final, taking Florida there in 2003 when the Gators lost to USC.
George was the first woman to coach a team to the national semifinals, leading Texas-Arlington that far in 1989. Michaelis then took BYU to the 1993 semifinals.
“They’ve done great jobs with their teams,” Olmstead said of the other three. “I know there have been no female that’s won a national championship and there are opportunities where that maybe that will happen this year. It’s exciting.”
Florida is the No. 2 seed in the tournament and is home for UCLA on Friday with the winner playing the winner of Minnesota vs. USC.
Launiere and Utah are at Stanford, where her Utes play Texas, while Stanford faces Wisconsin.
George’s Michigan State team plays Illinois at Penn State, while Penn State takes on Missouri.
And BYU and Olmstead are in Lexington where the Cougars face Kentucky and Nebraska plays Colorado.
While Wise is in her 27th year at Florida and 31st overall as a head coach, Launiere has been at Utah for 28 years.
“We go way back,” Wise said. “She’s terrific and she’s done such a great job for year. I think some people saw Utah moving into the Pac-12 and thought that would be a challenge and all Utah did was rise to it immediately.”
This is Utah’s first trip back to the round of 16 since 2008 and it’s not lost on Launiere that there are four women coaches still left.
“It’s pretty cool, but I wish there were more in each region,” she said.
Wise won her 900th match this season.
“She’s the most prolific female coach in our profession,” Launiere said. “She’s the gold standard right now and continues to do it year after year after year after year. I have so much respect for her. I wish she could win it all. I really do.”
“She’s a great coach,” George said. “She’s been a great coach and done it the right way and worked hard. I really respect what she’s been able to do at Florida.”
Launiere and George are longtime friends, a relationship that goes back to the 1980s when Launiere was an assistant at Ferris State in Michigan while George was coaching at Central Michigan. George is in her 13th season at Michigan State.
“I love when I get a chance to get together with her,” Launiere said. “She’s high energy and she’s got a good view on things.”
George echoed that.
“I love Beth and she’s done an excellent job with her program at Utah,” George said.
George last took Michigan State this far in 2013.
“Beyond the longevity, they’re relevant every year,” Wise said. “To do that, that’s some serious coaching.”
George laughed when recalling that 1987 trip with Texas-Arlington.
“I was so young and didn’t even know what I didn’t know,” she said. “I had no clue and it was probably good for me that I didn’t. I was just taking on the world and going for it.”
She’s surprised, too, that this many years later just she, Wise and Michaelis have gotten that far.
“And when I was there I had no idea and really didn’t think about it. Just went and coached and got the team ready and I was oblivious to the whole thing. I was so young and the things you learn after you think you know it all.”
Olmstead is the youngster of the group. BYU went to the 2014 NCAA title match under her brother, Shawn, who then left to take over the school’s men’s program.
“She done extremely well,” Launiere said. “I was proud of her because I thought she was put in a very difficult position when her brother left and to be able to continue what he was doing and continue the tradition, it was difficult and she’s done a good job.”
“It’s exciting. I think it’s great for Beth and Cathy and Mary,” said Olmstead, who played and coached at Utah State before being Launiere’s assistant at Utah from 2006-11.
“I learned a lot from her,” Olmstead said.
The rivalry between Utah and BYU is fierce but the ties are strong. The schools are located just 45 miles apart. They often recruit the same players.
“It’s nice not to be in the same region,” Launiere said with a laugh.
“Utah’s had a great year and Beth’s doing a great job,” Olmstead said. “I’m not surprised they’ve set themselves up nicely and are into the sweet 16.
“It’s great for the state of Utah and it was really great last weekend (in the first two rounds when BYU was a host and beat American and Oregon and Utah was, too, beating Cleveland State and Purdue) to have such good volleyball played at two different sites.
“People could be there Thursday and Friday and here Friday and Saturday. It was three days of high-level volleyball and I don’t know when that’s ever happened before, probably never, so I think it was educational for the state and great for the club and high school young women and boys who play volleyball.”