With two national championships under her belt, one as a player in 2006 and one as an assistant coach in 2015, both at her alma mater – Nebraska – and with a coaching pedigree including stops in the SEC, Big East and Big Ten, Dani Busboom Kelly was one of the most highly sought after young coaches in the country. With her Husker team poised to make what turned out to be another Final Four run, Busboom Kelly got the call from a familiar school and accepted her first head coaching gig with the University of Louisville.
While the Louisville program has a history of success, there is often a transitional period with a new coaching hire. That was not the case for this year’s Cardinal squad, which sits at 13-5, third place in the ACC and is riding a six-match win streak into this weekend’s matches at Miami and Florida State, both of whom UofL swept in the conference’s first go round.
To find out the secret to Louisville’s success and the driving force behind the team, VolleyMob sat down with its first year head coach to talk about her career with the Huskers, her coaching journey and her 2017 team.
You won a national championship and three Big 12 titles as a player at Nebraska and were part of one of the most successful teams in school history (124-10), but weren’t the most highly decorated player on your team and even made a position change mid-career. What was that experience like for you as a player and how has that shaped how you coach?
With having a unique playing career, it really helped me become a better coach, the obvious reason being I played two different positions, but I think just being able to relate to players that aren’t getting all of the rewards, that team first mentality that we all know is so important in volleyball. Just to be a good role model and for them to know that I didn’t get all of the awards, and that everything I got I had to work hard for, and look where the sport has taken me not being a star.
How have you seen the game change over your career, from being there at the beginning of the libero position to the now common place of the hitters becoming six-rotation players, etc.?
The game is getting so much more physical and that is why you are seeing hitters move from middle to outside or vice versa. This year, we changed a middle to outside because we really felt like we needed more physicality on the pin. I think that teams are looking for athletes to train because you see the physicality taking over.
Having dealt with a position change yourself due to team needs, how did that prepare to you to guide your players through the same things?
The switch for me was based on the need for a libero at Nebraska. For me the biggest difference was the mentality. There is a way different mentality from being a setter to being a libero. Playing libero I learned how important it is and the impact it can have on the game and that has really been huge in my career as a coach – being excited to coach our liberos and creating an identity with our liberos and DS’s (defensive specialists). And also in recruiting because I realize how important it is and how it can make or break a team. It is not just the libero, it is everyone in that position working together, whether you are a serving sub or a DS.
You were an Academic All-District and Academic All-Big 12 selection. How has that impact on academics shaped your career and helped you impress the full student-athlete experience to your players?
We are constantly talking to our players about their grades and what they want to major in and life after college. Most of us aren’t going to get to continue on in our sport as volleyball players or coaches, so it is really important for them to have that balance. I think Nebraska does a great job of balancing volleyball and life and school. I learned that there as a student-athlete and as an assistant coach, so now as a head coach at Louisville, I want to make sure our players are taking academics seriously and that comes from the top down.
You worked under Hall of Fame coach John Cook both as a player and an assistant coach. Was there a difference between playing under him and working with him? What did you take away you’re your experiences with him that are part of how you coach?
I think there are a lot of similarities being a player and being a coach under Coach Cook. He definitely has high expectations and is super detail oriented. Those are two things I constantly appreciate about John. As a coach, it is very important to have high expectations, not only for your team but for everyone around you, whether that is the janitor of your facility, the best player on your team or your top assistant. So, I want to make sure everyone is detail oriented and taking pride in their job. Those are a couple of the biggest things, but John is a great manager of people and of the program and that is why Nebraska continues to be good every single year.
Talk about the limited time you had away from volleyball between your playing career, training with the U.S. National Team and your first coaching job at Tennessee. Did you assess whether it was something you wanted to continue with or was it just timing?
I had always dreamed of studying abroad and when I graduated going professional playing libero or even a setter was really tough. I really wanted to live overseas so I finished my degree over in Barcelona and when I came back it was May and really too late to get into coaching. So, I just worked in Omaha for a year. I knew that I was likely going to try to get into coaching, because it had always been a goal of mine. I didn’t get away because I needed to, it was more just a timing thing.
You get your first coaching job as an assistant working with the setters at Tennessee, then you come to Louisville for a year (2011) and then get the opportunity to go back to your alma mater as an assistant. How do you think that journey of being in three major conferences – the SEC, the Big East and Big 10 – and now the ACC, and seeing all of the different styles of play has helped you develop your strategies as a coach?
I definitely think it helped a lot – getting to see different coaches coach, especially as an assistant because you are really in tune to that if you have goals of becoming a head coach. I think the conferences are similar in the fact that everyone is trying to get better and everyone is recruiting more physical players and every conference wants to get the most teams in the tournament. But having been around the SEC, the ACC and the Big Ten, each is unique. To be able to point out of some of the differences: the Big Ten is very physical, while in the ACC it seems like there are a lot of 6-2s and trying to be creative, etc. It is definitely interesting.
You spent five years at your alma mater and were able to win another national championship with the program 10 years after you did so as a player. What was the difference in earning those titles?
It was definitely different. Both were obviously exciting and rewarding, but as a player I felt more like I did this, where as a coach I was more excited for our team to have the feeling of putting everything on the line and getting rewarded for it. There is definitely a difference in the celebration or the feeling, but nonetheless it is exciting to get to the top, to the highest you can get as a player or a coach.
After several Elite Eights and the national championship, was the timing just right for you to make the jump to a head coaching role?
In coaching what we learn is that the timing is never perfect. I would have loved to stay at Nebraska because a lot of the players that I recruited were just getting there, and I felt like we had a great thing going with the staff, but I also knew that opportunities like Louisville don’t come around very often, especially at a university and a city I already had a familiarity to. I always considered this city like my second home so it was a no brainer for my personal life, and I loved the support that Louisville gives volleyball and all of the sports here, and a community that loves volleyball. So, it really has a lot of the pieces where you can build a really awesome program. And it was a program that didn’t need to be rebuilt. It was already had a great foundation of success and expectations, so a lot of those things made it really appealing.
Did that foundation of success and having a team who had been to the NCAA Tournament in recent history and also your familiarity with the program help with the transition?
I think the familiarity was huge. I really wanted to go to a school that had high expectations. That is really why we coach. Me knowing what they expected here made it a really easy transition and also knowing a lot of the players that were already in the program because I had followed Louisville volleyball since I left and had payed attention to what was going on. Both of those made it pretty seamless for me to feel comfortable and building relationships with the players happened pretty quickly and naturally.
Speaking of your players, you came into a pretty good situation with a pair of Preseason All-ACC players already in place in senior Tess Clark (2.68 kills per set, 0.53 blocks per set) and junior Molly Sauer (4.22 digs per set, 12 aces), but you also brought in a couple of transfers – Wilma Rivera (10.63 assist per set, 26 aces) and Amanda Green (2.53 kps, 0.50 bps) – who have made an impact this year. Talk about that group and what they bring to the table.
I will start with Molly. She has really kind of been an unsung hero, even those she has gotten some awards and is a well-known libero nationally, but she does so much for our team with the role she has passing with two and taking up a ton of court. She has become a really great leader, so it has been really awesome to see her develop this year, even since I got here in January she has improved so much and is a big part of why our team is successful. And then, Tess was All-ACC in the middle and we moved her to the outside and she hasn’t never once blinked an eye. She has done everything she can to work on the things she needs to be an outside hitter. That instant trust was there and without that I don’t think Tess, nor would our team be as successful as we have been. She is also a senior who really has a desire to go out with a great season.
Wilma came in from Penn State and she has been here and wants to prove herself. She really didn’t get much of an opportunity at Penn State, so this is really her first year running an offense and running the show. It has been great to see her develop throughout the year and get more comfortable and more confident. She can be feisty, so she is also an emotional leader on the court. Amanda Green was similar to Wilma. It has taken her some time to get comfortable and gain some confidence, but she gets better every match as she is also really in her first year since she didn’t play a lot at Marquette. You forget that even though are transfers and they are older, that this really is really both of their first year with significant playing time and are still learning to manage a season and helping the team over the long term.
As a former setter and libero, having key players in place like Rivera and Sauer to rely on has to be a great blessing for you.
Those are the anchors of any team because they touch the ball the most. You want those players to not only be talented, but to be great leaders, easy to coach and hungry to get better.
One more player we would be remiss in talking about is your top hitter this year statistically, Melanie McHenry (3.63 kps, 2.00 dps, 0.63 bps), who has played an even larger role in the offense this year.
Mel has done everything she can off the court to improve. She gained significant inches on her vertical. She has worked really hard in the weight room. She has been working very hard on her mental game. We challenged her back in January to really take that seriously because she was going to have a huge role this year as a six-rotation player. We started planting that seed back then and she has been awesome. She really tries to get better every match and do everything you want her to do. For her, it is just about becoming lower error. If she can cut down on errors, she will be even more successful, but when she does miss, they are only outside three or four inches. She is always the type of player that is going to go for it. She really wants to take over the match and can.
One change for your program has been the renovation of and move to a different facility. What impact has giving your team a real home had on your program and the atmosphere?
Cardinal Arena is where volleyball used to play 10 years ago. When I got hired, I just threw it out there as a suggestion and it kind of blew up from there. It was kind of let’s do it, let’s move you there full time. We switched facilities with women’s basketball, so they are in our old practice facility. It has been awesome. It can be a great environment. We added some mezzanines so now there are fans completely around every wall of the gym. We can practice in there, we have our own training room, locker rooms and team rooms all in one building. We call it the volleyball compound.
The atmosphere gets better and better each match as we have some momentum in the community with winning. I think the community is really loving this team because they can tell that they are a close-knit team and they work together. It has been fun to see it develop and I think the sky is the limit for Cardinal Arena. It could be one of the best facilities in college volleyball.
You had a tough opening slate with two top 10 teams to start off, but have really seemingly settled in and found great success, especially in the ACC season. Do you feel good about where your team is 18 matches into the season?
I feel pretty good. I don’t think any coach is ever satisfied and you always want to keep improving… but I think starting out with a really tough schedule helped us in the long run, not just with what we learned we needed to do better but in showing us that we do have a lot of the pieces to be successful. Even those we lost those match (to Wisconsin and Minnesota), they did give us some confidence. It has been fun to see us go into the ACC and really have high expectations. I don’t know if those really would have been set if we had started the season any other way.
Louisville was picked eighth in the preseason ACC poll and obviously that is a far cry from where you are now (third at 7-1). What is your assessment of the league and what openings have allowed you to be successful so far?
There is a lot of parity in the ACC, which makes it fun, because literally every match is very important. So many different teams can come out on top at this point and we’re only halfway through.
For us, we have made defense our motto and I think that is one thing that has helped put us in this position near the top of the ACC. We have been a great defensive team and our players take a lot of pride in slowing down the opponents’ best players. They are taking it personally, which is what we preach on defense. In any sport, defense is a lot about attitude and effort and pride.
You have been fortunate to play most of your league games at home to this point, but now you hit the road for a stretch. What do you see when you look at the rest of your schedule?
It is funny because as a new staff, we are asking our players a lot about each facility and what is like to play there because we don’t have the experience. I know Florida State is a tough place to play and really loud with a great crowd. I’ve also never been to Miami, so it will be interesting to see how we do this weekend and if we can prove that we can be a great road team.
Looming near the end of your schedule are matches with North Carolina and N.C. State. Do you allow yourself to look ahead to those or do you truly have to take it one match at a time with every match being so important as you alluded to earlier?
Honestly, we really have been taking it one match or one weekend at a time because we know that in order to earn the right for the next one to be meaningful, we have to take care of the game before.
With half a season left, a lot can happen, but when you look long term, what are your goals for the Louisville program?
I think we have a very high energy staff and we all believe that this place can be amazing year in and year out and that is what we are here to do, to make it great every single year. I think that this university and this community deserve that. We are pretty excited about the future and where we are headed.