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Over the Net: A Mizzou Volleyball Interview Series - Coach Dawn Sullivan

I sat down with Coach Sullivan to discuss this season’s team, her background in coaching, and the lofty goals already set for next year and the program’s future

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Welcome back to Over the Net, the weekly interview series with players and coaches from Mizzou Volleyball that’s been taking place over the last few months.

Week One: Cullen Irons, assistant volleyball coach

Week Two: outside hitter Janet deMarrais

Week Three: libero Lauren Forbes

Week Four: freshman setter Sierra Dudley

Week Five: middle blocker Morgan Isenberg

Week Six: assistant coach Wendel Camargo

Week Seven: right-side hitter Jordan Iliff

Week Eight: middle blocker Colleen Finney

Week Nine: libero Maya Sands

For the last installment of this season’s series, I talked to head coach Dawn Sullivan, who guided the team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in her first year at Mizzou and was named one of the SEC Coaches of the Year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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To start off, what are your thoughts on the tournament as a whole and then especially the Nebraska match?

Dawn Sullivan: As a whole, just really thankful and grateful for that opportunity. I think our team put themselves in a really nice situation with some significant wins throughout the season to allow us to get in. First round, I think it was a nice gift for us, to be honest, and a round that I think we could find just our comfort level playing in Nebraska. I thought they handled that one really well and served really tough and passed great, we were just in a nice rhythm all night long.

Night two, obviously going against the number one team in the nation at that time. They were phenomenal, and I think it took us a little while to just get comfortable playing with fans that were now against us right on the other side. But once we kind of settled into ourselves, I thought you saw the real Mizzou team coming out with that third set and just battling. I’m really proud with what they gave all season, but also for sure how they finished up that match. What a stage to do that in, and it helped us prepare for everything to come. And so I’m really excited about where this program is going.

There seemed to be a lot of growth that took place throughout the season. From start to finish, where did you see some of the biggest areas of improvement that allowed you to reach the tournament?

DS: I think the number one area I saw growth is just confidence. Confidence comes from being able to do the things they want to do over time. Some of those performance-based and just that self-talk. I thought their confidence really shone through a couple of the first ones, even just preseason. The games kind of escape me - which ones they were -but there was one we came back and we won in five, and that was incredible. Winning at A&M on the road, taking that match was was significant for us. (The) Auburn game, we dominated that match. So I think there were a couple of those over time, that was the confidence that really shining through.

But that confidence, I think, came from just being able to perform the skill that they’ve done every single day in practice, and the consistency that came with it. I don’t know if there was one area; I think it’s all the areas, to be honest. It was the serve, it was the pass. It was our attack percentage, it was being able to have Maya dig over five balls per set sometimes. There were many areas of growth there. And I think they saw kind of what we worked on that week kind of come into play in the match, like ‘Oh, wow, this works.’ And then just believing in themselves more and more every time that happened. And so that was really fun throughout the season.

You placed a really strong emphasis on culture throughout the year. How would you describe this team’s culture, and how were you able to grow it as time went on?

DS: This is family. And families, it’s real... it’s a mess and it’s beautiful all at the same time. And I think that’s just what a team is, and their ability to accept each other for who they are. I think we were very mindful about making sure we who we brought in were very high character individuals that shared similar values, that we wanted to work really hard and we were going to be very intentional. How we talked to each other was very positive, and that they all want to be learners.

The way they went about it was similar and so I’m just really proud of my staff for doing a really nice job there. But then also, once they got here, allowing them to each have a voice. I remember getting off of a call and I think I shared this one a lot, (about) Taco Tuesday. They’re like, ‘Hey, we’re having Taco Tuesday today,’ and that was really special for me. And it wasn’t anything we had to push or lead. It’s just something that they wanted to be a part of, and that they were creating themselves and that was one of the moments.

We do a lot of other things with battle buddies and making sure they all feel comfortable and understand what we do here. Battle buddies is essentially where we connect two different people together and they rotate throughout the season. And so someone’s checking in during the practice, but a lot of times it’s off the court stuff, so how do you make sure you’re a sister, right? We’ve had some moments where we’re very vulnerable with each other, and we shared some stuff that maybe it’s really hard to share. But then we were accepted by each other too, and not judged by that. And I think those moments also pushed us forward really, really fast. We have conversations almost every day. And so I think it’s always in those small moments. It’s not like this big grand gesture, right? That’s how families are built. It’s those small moments that you just build trust and you understand what it is that builds that trust and making sure you live in that every day.

You’ve talked extensively about family and sisterhood. Having actually coached your sister at Iowa State, did that have any effect on your views of team culture or coaching in general?

DS: It was a blast to coach my sister. Everything I’ve done in my past has very much influenced decisions I make today. Some were good decisions, and some were not good decisions, and some where you see things and how they affect people and you’re like, ‘Okay, that maybe wasn’t the best choice there.’ Maybe this tweak here could have been better. And so I do self-reflect a lot and make sure we’re trying to provide the best opportunity possible for everybody that comes through our program. We care a lot about them and they may not feel great at the time, but we try to be very direct, very caring and we do want the best for everybody. That’s part of our program.

Did you ever notice one particular moment in the offseason or towards the beginning of the year where you felt the team come together in a way they hadn’t before?

DS: Almost every single time we come to practice. Even last spring, we had situations that would come up, and the way they chose to have those right conversations and the way people would step up and be willing to share. But also their willingness to have hard conversations and their willingness to give and give and give. You could almost any single day of the week say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sit back and just let things kind of roll by and not necessarily care what happens.’ And this team just never did that. And I think that’s why you saw so much growth every day, every time they stepped on the court, from the time I arrived to the last day. And even today, we had a Zoom with some of them and they’re still stepping up and they continue to grow, and it’s just really impressive the type of people we have for this program. What we’re still building is a special place.

This next question is one I’ve asked several players, and they each had unique answers, so I’m very curious about your response. What was your favorite memory from this season?

DS: That locker room right after Nebraska match was really special for me, and hard for sure. Your season just ended, but there was so much love and so much caring for people, and they didn’t want to take their jerseys off. They just loved being a part of this family. I think you see that, how much confidence they grew and what they wanted to continue to be a part of.

Even now, Lauren (Forbes) and Dilara (Gedikoglu), they’re not part of our program. They are, but they’re not here physically here anymore. I literally text them probably every other day; it’s really amazing. It’s really special to me when I can see that growth, that confidence, and then them kind of go off into the world and take it on. But I think probably the most special (memory) is just them not wanting to take their jerseys off when we’re in that locker room at Nebraska, and more so just because they care so much about each other and they really wanted to make sure they continue to give.

What did Lauren Forbes and Dilara Gedikoglu, two players who hung up their Mizzou jerseys for good at the end of the Nebraska match, mean to this team?

DS: Lauren Forbes is just one of the most high character individuals I think you will ever meet, and will go to bat for anybody and will be there for anybody. When you see her with people, she brightens the room. And there’s her smile, the way she gives her heart, it’s really incredible. And so I think what she gave to this team was just a really strong foundation, like this is who we are. And we’re going to love each other and we’re gonna be real with each other. I think it was really special, that little piece that she continued to give is just that positive smile every single day and how it made you feel.

Dilara is this fierce competitor, and she gave that piece. Then what we learned is she had this other soft side to her, but she was with us for such a short time I think early she just was like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go.’ She showed up every single day and competed, and that is a lot easier to learn when you have someone right there showing you how to do it with both of those skills. Both skills are hard to do. And so I think we were just very fortunate to have someone that was a big, big competitor.

Not that Lauren wasn’t, not that Dilara didn’t have the other. But I think what Dilara had was she just was so competitive. And Lauren was so loving and caring and had this beautiful smile that just literally brightened the room when you saw her, and vice versa. And so I think that’s what traits they brought though to this program, and it was really easy to follow and they just said, ‘Hey, come along. Let’s go.’

This team as a whole is fairly young, and this was also your first year as a Power Conference head coach. Is there one moment you wish you had back, and you learned from it?

DS: I think I make a lot of mistakes. Probably even in the spring, the way I had certain conversations...I always evaluate and think ‘Okay, how could I have done that just a little bit better?’ I don’t know if we ever do it absolutely right. I think we just tried to do it our best and continue to learn, so I would say it even goes back to my first conversations with players and making sure I show enough love and caring but keep it fair. And all that stuff goes hand in hand.

Once we got to this fall, I remember a practice once like, ‘Okay, that was too long.’ Or my first drill was kind of slow where if we’re gonna say we’re gonna start strong, we need to start practice strong, and I need to make sure I have that competitive edge just the same. So I think after every evening or every conversation I’ve just kind of self-reflected like, ‘Okay, how can I do that just a little bit better next time and make sure we continue to grow and change and improve?’ And so I think the team continues to teach me that every day.

So far we’ve talked about this season, but now let’s go back to when you were going through the hiring process. Can you walk us through the steps in the process, and how you were hired?

DS: Desiree (Reed-Francois) just called me, she was my AD at UNLV back in the day. When she decided to make this change here, she just gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, come on, take a look. And this is a place that it’s kind of been on my list, if that makes sense. Playing against them in the Big 12 but also competing against them when I was at Iowa State, Kansas State coming over here. As a player, I recognized more of the fans and how special of an environment it was. As a coach, I recognize even just the community in when you drive in that I could raise a family here. This is a really cool place. It’s beautiful with the trees and the rocks and the river, and so when she called me I was like, yeah, I’ll come take a look with my husband. He’s got to come because he’s 100% part of this decision.

And so that’s one thing that Desiree has always done so well is making sure she understands for me, it’s a family decision. I have four children and an incredible husband, so she brought him and myself out and we kind of went through that process, take a look around, and I left thinking, okay, who knows right? And it’s then figuring is this something that I could see myself in, is right now the right time to make that move? And it was.

I had some other things to take into consideration, and this seemed like the best situation for my family and a place that I felt that I could build a national championship. And so I kind of made the jump and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I think I was out here before Christmas, and I flew back for a day and I flew back out here. And so it was it was pretty fast. Zoom calls and transfer portal right away.

What was going through your head when you were first offered the job?

DS: I had to tell my team. And then within 30 minutes, I think I was supposed to talk to the other team (Mizzou). Almost back-to-back. I’m like, I can’t do that. I’m in tears right now because it’s so hard to leave that family, I need at least an hour because it’s not an easy thing to do to tell someone you’re not going to be there next year. As close as I am with this group, I am just as close still with UNLV and all those people. But I do remember that I’m like, ‘Okay, how am I going to collect myself fast enough?’

You’ve lived in the Midwest for a lot of your life. Was the ability to move closer to where you grew up a large factor in your decision?

DS: Yeah, it for sure did. I had a little bit of family out there (in Vegas), and they had moved back to Minnesota by the time I got here. My husband’s from Kansas. It has been very nice; I was able to actually go back there even this weekend to see some family. My parents have been down here a little bit, and we’re able to go up there for Christmas, but yeah, it’s just a lot of people that are pretty dear to your heart, and when they can drive down four or five hours and see you I think that’s it’s pretty meaningful. People mean a lot to me. It’s always been why I make decisions. And so yeah, it was very important for me to be getting closer to family.

Looking back at your time with UNLV, you made the postseason in all five years as the head coach. How did you create such consistent success, and how is that going to help you as you attempt to replicate that at Mizzou?

DS: Yeah, I really always think about the same things. It’s always about the people. It’s about the culture and what you build there, and the way you go about your training. And so, for me, it’s always making sure you have the right people in place, and whether that’s with your staff or your support staff, I think it always starts there. You want to have people around you that are going to support the people that are bringing you in. This is your family, these are your kids that you’re bringing, so making sure you bring in the right people within your team.

At UNLV, it was making sure to bring in high character individuals who were competitive, who worked really hard and and cared a lot about what they’re doing. And then it’s just the training, making sure when you train, there’s a level of expectation and standard that you set every day and so this is just what we do, right? It’s not like, ‘Oh, I go up against Nebraska now I gotta be way so much different of a player.’ No, we just got to be us. And that is good enough. And so I think being at UNLV and seeing how that I could do that probably just gave myself confidence, right? It’s an action that you perform over time, and then being able to just remind myself when those freak out moments where you’re just second guessing as everybody does, you got this and that helped a ton when I came here.

Prior to coaching at UNLV, you spent 13 years on the staff at Iowa State. What is your connection to that university like, and how did your time there as an assistant help shape you into the coach you’ve become?

DS: It was huge. I loved my time (at Iowa State). All my four kiddos were raised right there, so it was huge in helping me develop as a coach and as a person. Christi Johnson-Lynch, she was the head coach there, she still is the head coach there, and I think just taught me a ton of how to think a little bit bigger. You know, that bigger vision of how you’re going to go about building this program, and what you need in the stages you’re going to put in place. When I first went there, there were a couple things I wanted to learn from her.

One was recruiting, how do I do that really, really well. Second was, she was one of the best setters in the nation. She played at Nebraska and was trained by Terry Pettit, who was a phenomenal coach. He’s since retired, but he’s the one that kind of established Nebraska even before John Cook came in. And then the third one is like, okay, how does she have success? You know, what is she doing here, and me being there very early in her coaching (career) because that was her first head coaching job as well to see how that’s done?

So those three things were really important to me when I went there, and I felt like I needed to spend some time kind of learning every facet. Some individuals jump a little bit faster than maybe I did. I felt like I really wanted to understand it. I think honestly, in a job the first three years you don’t really know. It sounds crazy, but until after year three, you’re like okay, I understand where I need to go. And now, how I make sure I can be really consistent in how I’m doing it. And so I just I feel pretty blessed that I was there that long, I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved every coach I coached with there and every player I coached, and I just think it’s got some really strong Midwest values. That went a long ways for me, that helped me develop who I wanted to be as a person, but also as a coach over the years.

After finishing up your coaching career and spending some time playing professionally, you headed to Illinois State as an assistant. How did you enter coaching, and was that always your plan?

DS: No, not always my plan. I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I just wanted to play volleyball. But professional, not that it’s easy to do now, but there’s more opportunities now than there were back in my day. I went through a coaching change after my freshman year and very different styles, but I felt very fortunate to get Jim McLaughlin. He’s phenomenal. He won a national championship on the men’s side, won a national championship on the women’s side, and I was fortunate to have him part of my life, and still am.

I think he just taught me how important people are as well his assistants, Jeff Grove and Susie Fritz, they’re dear to my heart. How important people are but also, this is just the expectation, this is just what we do every day. And so I think they laid a very strong foundation of what it means to coach, and they allowed me to have many opportunities even as a student-athlete to come into the office and learn how to scout or make recruiting books or break down film or whatever. Even then, I don’t know if I knew at that point that’s what I wanted to do; I was just someone that was all-in no matter what. It’s just my personality. I am all here, I’m not a little bit of each.

I just feel that time there taught me the value of people and how to do it the right way. From K-State, I went to play pro one year. Maybe saw a different style of coaching, just different going from collegiate to professional, And I left that first season thinking, okay, I was gonna play one more year, and then by the time I even got to fall I was like, no, I need to affect people differently. It’s not about me, it’s never been about me. And so it’s when I decided to go into coaching.

Like I said, I don’t do one or the other, I just don’t do it very well. So I decided at that point, you know, I’m all in. I’m gonna affect people differently. I had a lot of really good coaches growing up that gave me a lot of opportunities that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else but in this sport, and they accepted me for who I was. And so I just feel very fortunate as I look back, but whether it was a coach I loved or I struggled with adversity it didn’t matter, they all gave me a piece that I grew and helped develop who I am today. So feel very thankful that I found my route.

You’ve talked about your relationships with some of your volleyball coaches, but now I want to talk about your relationship with a coach outside of volleyball, Coach Gates. He was there for the selection show and when the team left the Hearnes Center for Lincoln, and you seem to have a strong connection. What is that relationship like, and how did it develop?

DS: He’s been so supportive of me since I’ve come in, as he is with all coaches. I think he does it to an elite level. He’d been here a year before myself, and so anything people have, you can learn from. I think men’s basketball is always kind of a step ahead in what they get and how they can do it. So how do I take this program and be on that cusp, just like they are. Just asking all the questions, making sure I can learn, but really just watching, too. I think you learn a lot, just as much from watching versus someone’s voice, and so he does it to an elite level. I feel very thankful that he is part of the Mizzou family.

Moving back to your time as a player, you were very successful as the first All-American in K-State volleyball history and had over 1,000 career kills and digs. How has your time as a player helped you as a coach?

DS: It taught me discipline. Like I shared before, I’m an all-in person. It’s all I knew, and it’s all I did is just live to breathe everything volleyball. But I think over time, it created this joy for the game that we play, and it just taught me discipline and consistency. And when you put the time in good things come. Most people don’t know I was recruited as a utility player. I was a middle in high school, I was a defensive player my freshman year, and then I moved positions to outside. So I had to learn everything from the ground up. And I think that’s why I’m just very thankful for the coaches I had who were willing to spend that time. I had some coaches that have done that to an elite level.

They could have said no, I’ll see you later, get out, and they didn’t. Their willingness to continue to buy into me because of the work I continued to put in, it just It means a lot to me. And so my time there, it probably taught me just discipline and if you work really hard at something, things will come true. That hard work matters a lot.

Moving back towards the future of the program, you brought in what has been considered a very successful first recruiting class. What are some of your overall thoughts on the class?

DS: I feel thankful. First, you know, they didn’t really know me and they didn’t know what we were gonna do here, but they heard me and they had this deep desire to be part of something really special. And so I think I feel very thankful that they said okay, I’m gonna go to bat, let’s go, and they believed in me and what I was going to build here. They are a special group. They each add something a little bit different. They’re very competitive, have this drive to be great, but also this kindness, their heart, how do we help. I do a lot of research to make sure we get the right person in here, and I’m very thankful that they bought into me as much as I bought into them.

Recruiting isn’t just at the high school level anymore, and you relied on the transfer portal for a lot of additions this past year. It’s been reported that Mizzou has followed some players in the portal on social media. Are you looking at making any additions in the portal this offseason?

DS: We’re always gonna look to make sure we’re doing our job to an elite level. We have a really good group here, and I think they want to make this family great. So if we can get some great transfers we’ll definitely look at them as well.

You had a whiteboard setting out the goals you needed to reach in order to make the NCAA Tournament, something you ended up accomplishing. Have you set a new big goal for next season, and have you already started looking at what you’re going to write on the whiteboard next?

DS: One of the first things they said is Sweet 16. We’re in the locker room, like next year, we want to host and we want to be in the Sweet 16. And I was like, okay, let’s go. But that’s who they are, they’re on a mission. And I think some things that will always be true with us is we want to make sure we have this really strong family, sisterhood, in the actions that we put place on the court and in our everyday life will matter a lot.

And so we’re gonna make sure we let it rip every day, and we’re gonna really dive into our values. But yeah, that’s one of the first things they said in the locker room. I like to let them have some ownership of that, and so I’m excited to get this new group back and really sit down and figure out okay, what is it that they want? For me, I’d love to get to that Sweet 16. We want to win some championships here. We want to continue to increase the fan base, which the fans showed up this year, no doubt. But there’s a lot of little things that we want to continue to get better at.

What is the long-term vision for this program, and what do you see as the program’s potential?

DS: I see us winning some SEC championships. When you put yourself in that situation, you just saw what Texas, a team that’s coming into our conference, did last night, and so big picture is we want to win championships here. We’re gonna serve these players’ hearts, so we want to make sure we know who they are and how we’re gonna get them there, and then we’re gonna help them lead the way.

You spoke about the fans earlier, wanting to continue to grow that fanbase. And that’s something that happened this season as attendance continued to increase as the year went on. Is there anything you want to say to Mizzou fans about this past season or next year?

DS: Our fans are incredible. I feel so thankful that they continue to show up, and let’s keep it rolling. Let’s get them out here and let’s continue to break out some records.