GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The hairstyles have changed over the years. So have the colors. Some seasons Mary Wise preferred a darker look, others the familiar blond of today.
Much else has changed, too. Florida’s campus has expanded in all directions. The players she recruits are bigger and stronger. Wise’s two sons, Matt and Mitchell, have grown up as mom grew the UF volleyball program into a national contender year in and year out.
Of course, the roster changes yearly. Every time the calendar carries off one group of players, a new wave arrives the next season. Time to start over.
That’s the life of a coach, a life Wise has lived at UF every year since the day she was hired in March 1991. A few months after being hired Wise led the Gators to their first SEC regular-season title.
The next year another SEC title and a cover story in USA Today’s sports section in October 1992 that featured a photo of Florida’s two program-changing coaches: Wise and former Gators football coach Steve Spurrier.
Wise’s accolades continue to pile up. On Monday the 53-year-old Illinois native was named SEC Coach of the Year for a 13th time in her 22 seasons.
In many of those years you could have penciled Wise’s name onto the ballot before the Gators played their first match. That is how dominant UF has been in the SEC over the years. Remember, this is a program that once went more than a decade – from 1994 to 2004 – without losing an SEC regular-season match.
Think about that. It really happened.
Wise has done everything a college volleyball coach can do other than win a national title. The Gators have been to the Final Four seven times – they made it to the championship match in 2003 before losing to Southern Cal – but have yet to capture that elusive title.
That remains the ultimate goal, one the Gators will start to chase once more beginning Friday night when they host Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the O’Connell Center.
But this season has been different. Sure, the Gators are back in the NCAA Tournament and they won their 20th SEC title under Wise earlier this month, but they had to clear more hurdles than usual on the way to this year’s title.
“We had no idea what this team was going to look like, how this team was going to respond,’’ Wise said.
The Gators opened the season ranked behind defending SEC champion Tennessee and Kentucky in the polls. They were picked to finish third in the conference.
Talk about uncharted territory. And then boom, down goes a key piece to Florida’s bid of reclaiming the league crown.
Sophomore outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season even started. Santos-Lamb was expected to be a key contributor and help pick up some of the points that exited the O’Dome with the departures of five seniors from last year’s team, including All-Americans Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel.
“When Naomi went down there were a lot of question marks,’’ Wise said.
The players rallied around each other, using the motto “No Excuses” to push forward.
They also looked toward their veteran coach for a helping hand. Wise tinkered with the roster – Florida has used seven different lineups this season – and started to push different buttons to see what worked.
Former player Missy Aggert, now Missy Whittemore and the team’s radio analyst, has seen Wise work her magic many times.
Whittemore lettered for the Gators from 1992-95 and was on a team loaded with players Wise inherited when she took over the program. The program took off from the start despite a transition that can cripple a team if everyone isn’t on the same page.
“Mary came in and made it work,’’ Whittemore said. “She took the players already in the program and meshed them with the players she recruited and got everyone to buy in. That’s the sign of a great coach and really shows how she made an impact on the program from Day 1.”
Fifth-year senior Betsy Smith is one of a handful of current Gators who were born when Wise arrived in Gainesville more than 21 years ago. She can appreciate Wise’s impact in a way many of her young teammates might not be able to.
Smith grew up in the Atlanta area and as she began to transition from basketball to volleyball, her parents took her to back-to-back NCAA volleyball Final Fours. Smith was at Reunion Arena in Dallas in 2003 when the Gators lost to Southern Cal for the national title.
She remembers the excitement and energy in the building as the teams took the court. Smith left Dallas with a Florida poster signed by players such as Aury Cruz, Jane Collymore and Benavia Jenkins. The poster is still in her room back home.
“My parents just really wanted to expose me to what this could lead to,’’ Smith said.
Smith committed to the Gators her sophomore year in high school and nine years after that trip to the Final Four, she is preparing for her final NCAA Tournament with the Gators.
While the Gators are considered a long shot to advance deep into the tournament – drawing one of the toughest paths to the Final Four – Smith doesn’t want to hear any excuses.
“Whatever happens, whatever cards are dealt, we are going to try and play them as graciously as possible,’’ she said. “We want to have each other's backs.”
That’s the way the Gators have approached every match this season. That’s the way they earned another SEC title when not many gave them a chance before the season.
That’s the attitude they will take on the court Friday night against Tulsa. That’s the mentality that starts at the top with Wise.
The Gators lived by their motto of “no excuses” this season and they are back where they usually are this time of year. The place Wise tells recruits where they should expect to be if they come to Florida.
A message that still rings as true today as the day she showed up. Regardless of what else has changed.
“It’s who we are,’’ Wise said. “We want them to know that if they come to Florida, we’ll at least work to be in position to win a championship. That’s what we do year in and year out, to be in position to compete for one.”