When I put together my Most Respected Volleyball Programs in a Top 5 list on the sidebar of the title page, I realized that Women's Volleyball should be very proud - we have a surplus of first class volleyball programs. You have to search long and hard to find any NCAA rule violations or unethical/illegal behavior by volleyball coaches and/or student athletes. No 'spin' is needed with our sport or teams, rather our challenge is to find an outlet for all the good things going on with college volleyball.
A benefit of being an NCAA Volleyball coach is having a unique view and understanding of many volleyball programs across the country. Hearing and reading other's views of certain programs can be entertaining and/or disheartening because of the chasm between perception and reality.
When I was considering My Top 5 programs, I wanted to illustrate those schools that I sincerely respect for what they have accomplished per their unique circumstances. I hesitated from listing the obvious standard bearers of Stanford, Nebraska, Texas, etc. because their environments almost guarantee a certain plateau of success.
My Top 5 Most Respected Division I Women's Volleyball Programs:
1. Penn State - Having just scooped up the latest NCAA Championship, Volleyfolks may think this is an easy pick, but I look beyond the 2007 season. A few things vaulted the Nittney Lions to the top - Russ Rose built the program into a national success before they joined the Big 10, he did it in a state not known for high school volleyball and thus has to recruit almost exclusively out of state, he did it at a school synonymous with football, the city of State College is not near any larger city or attraction, and the program has enjoyed a staggering win percentage year in and year out. Also, I have yet to hear anything negative about Coach Rose as a person or as a coach.
2. New Mexico State - While this selection may be a bit of a surprise, it is very impressive what Michael Jordan has done with the Aggies. Coach Jordan has elevated the team from a nobody to a top 20 program that is challenging the University of Hawaii as the dominant team in the Western Athletic Conference. While leading any program from the depths to the top 20 is impressive, to do it in Las Cruces, New Mexico and as a member of a non-Power Conference makes this accomplishment significant. They enjoy a large home crowd, multiple NCAA tournament bids, a comprehensive marketing campaign and they are fun to watch. If you had told me 10 years ago that NMSU would be top 20 team, a leader in attendance and knocking on the door of a WAC title, I would have dismissed it out of hand.
3. Texas State - Not too long ago, they were known as Southwest Texas and they were good then. While building a team in Texas and the city of San Marcos is easier than some locations, the Bobcats have been good for a long, long time. Karen Chisum has been there forever and a day, while consistently punching the ticket to the NCAA tournament. While the State of Texas has plenty of talented volleyball players, they also have an abundance of college volleyball programs. Coach Chisum's program wins in a tough conference (Southland) and her team laces up the shoes against any and all comers, while beating their far share of nationally known teams.
4. Clemson - Another program that may come as a surprise, but Jolene Jordan-Hoover has built a consistent program that makes its way into the NCAA Tournament enough to gain national recognition. I respect Coach Hoover for developing a winner at a school known for football, in a conference known for basketball and in a state that has never been known for producing Division I volleyball players. Creating a national recognized program is tough enough when you have inherent advantages, but to do it in a place where you have huge disadvantages is something. It is one thing when you call a recruit and say "hi this is Duke", it is another to convince a player to become a Tiger and Coach Hoover has done this well.
5. Hawaii - A choice that seems obvious on the surface, but one needs to look deeper. While many see a tropical location, a beautiful campus, unreal attendance and a volleyball oriented sports culture, there is a counter current that is also there - being successful in spite of this current is why Dave Shoji's Wahines are in my Top 5. Coach Shoji faces more community pressure to win than any other coach in the country, he is critiqued by 2 state newspapers on the front page and the front page of the sports section, local sports radio shows love to talk about the ups and downs of the program, each out of state recruiting trip is a minimum 5 hour flight, not too mention playing in the WAC. It is a tough place to run a program, never mind all the paradise analogies, and the University of Hawaii is part of a very, very select group schools that are synonymous with the sport of women's volleyball.
Looking back over my list, the characteristics that each share is a long term record of success, building or maintaining teams in a challenging environment and the character of the coach, along with their program.
With this definition, there are many, many college volleyball programs that would make any one's Top 5 and that is a great thing for our sport. My list should not be viewed as non-inclusive, but rather Penn State, New Mexico State, Texas State, Clemson and Hawaii have gained my sincere professional respect.