by Thomas Hoffman
Twenty eight years ago, huddled in the back of a bus at the American Volleyball Coaches Convention, three college coaches were brewing up an idea that many had thought about, but none followed through.
Brenda Williams was one of those three coaches. Williams had taken over the volleyball program at the University of Alabama Birmingham after a storied playing career at the University of Alabama. At the ripe age of 24, she captained the Blazers for 11 years, amassing a record of 290-227, but it was the legacy she built on a national level that leaves a lasting impression.
“We had won two consecutive conference championships between the Sun Belt and Great Midwest Conferences,” said Williams. “My girls and I, we were all itching to play into the postseason.”
Back in 1988, the NCAA Volleyball tournament included only a handful of teams, a far cry from the full 64-team field that we know and love today.
Along with Charlie Daniel from Western Kentucky and Geri Polvino from Eastern Kentucky, the three conceived the first NIT of Volleyball in 1989, the Women’s Invitational Volleyball Championship. Together, the Hilltopper, Colonel and Blazer would attempt to lure in schools from around the nation to play in the inaugural event.
“Charlie was just so excited; he just wanted to do something for volleyball.” Williams said. “Geri was the business woman, always looking forward as to what sponsors we’d need and how to keep this thing afloat.
“I was just the young coach thinking, I just need a postseason, and my kids are the ones who really want to play in this.”
A month later, the three forward-thinkers convened at Western Kentucky and planned out the first year’s tournament, complete with a 16-team field, all while coaching, recruiting and keeping up with the daily rigors of being an NCAA Division I coach.
Minor details were worked and reworked, while each institution inched toward the end of their regular seasons. That first year, the WIVC was slated to kick-off at Western Kentucky. When gym availability presented the first real issue, fortunes turned in favor of the fledgling tournament when the UAB men’s basketball team rescheduled to take a trip to Auburn, instead of playing in Birmingham.
Unlike the NCAA tournaments, the WIVC format featured pools of four to five teams, allowing each team multiple days of games before returning home.
“We couldn’t pay for each team to travel to the host sites,” explained Williams. “We knew that these teams couldn’t buy in to what we were selling unless they could justify traveling for more than just one game.”
After four days of cutthroat competition, Wisconsin eventually lifted the trophy in that first year, besting Boise State in the championship match, three sets to one.
“Steve Lowe and that Wisconsin team were all tremendously classy,” said Williams. “Winning our tournament provided them a springboard into the national program that the Badgers have become now.”
It was also exactly what the WIVC needed. Under Lowe, Wisconsin took the Badgers’ 1989 WIVC title and turned it into the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1991. His success proved that the WIVC not only served as a tournament to incubate success, but also provided national attention.
It wasn’t just the collegiate clashes that made 1989 such a success for the WIVC and its organizers. Williams, Daniels and Polvino also championed the creation of the National High School Coaches Clinic. Over 90 high school coaches from around the nation arrived at the clinic that first year, not only increasing membership in local area associations but some even established their own volleyball programs in areas where there were none existed before.
In year two, the WIVC was ‘Settin in the Smokies’ at the University of Tennessee. Tournament directors watched in awe as the field grew from 16 to 20 teams, while attendance exploded from 500 to 5,000. A keen eye would have even spotted the legendary Pat Summit aiding the staff any which way she could.
“People saw that this was a way to help teams get better,” said Williams. “Coaches, fans and athletic directors saw that this was a great way to get national recognition.
“Even the girls were excited again. They had more to fight for it too, and it made a tremendous difference in their motivation. I could see it in the way that they were practicing, and it all had to do with the fact that their season meant something, even if they didn’t make it into the NCAA tournament.”
The 1991 tournament featured a field that included 10 different conferences, representing more than 10 states. It was then that the Women’s Invitational Volleyball Championship officially became the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
After 1992, the NIVC garnered so much popularity, a college sized gymnasium was no longer sufficient. From 1992-1995, Kansas City, Missouri, welcomed the elite field and its fans to the Municipal Auditorium.
“We couldn’t have grown like we did without Sandy Vivas from the AVCA and Dave Epperson,” Williams said. “They jumped on board that first year and their experience helped us grow into the NIVC that we had envisioned.”
In response to the rise in popularity of the sport and the national recognition of the NIVC, the NCAA expanded its volleyball tournament from 32 to 48 teams in 1993. By 1998, the field would reach its current size of 64.
“That was our goal from the very beginning,” said Williams. “We wanted to see the field grow and include teams like the ones we were coaching to have the right to earn their way into the NCAA tournament.”
For the next 22 years, the NIVC and teams just outside the cusp of the NCAA selection committee sat dormant in the postseason.
Running the Women’s National Invitation Tournament for basketball for the past quarter century and re-introducing the National Invitational Softball Championship just last spring, it was only logical that Triple Crown Sports would step into the spotlight to bring back Williams’ brainchild to the world of collegiate Volleyball.
A full bracket of 32-64 teams will kick off the 2017 version of the NIVC with the first rounds slated for late November.
“I was so excited to get a call from Kathy DeBoer at the AVCA who told me they might be bringing this thing back,” said Williams. “It was so exciting to meet Renee (Carlson) and Sean (Hardy) at the convention. I told them that the NIVC was the best thing I ever did as a coach.”
Excitement has been brewing across the nation with schools, just like the UAB teams Williams once coaches, who came up just short of an automatic or at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Teams and athletic programs who have been accustomed to working with Triple Crown in the WNIT and the inaugural year of the NISC, are all eager for Triple Crown’s latest installment of a first-class collegiate championship.
“I think that all of us in college volleyball have been watching every other sport with an NIT and asking ourselves when a volleyball one would come back,” said Williams. “When it did come back, it needed to be first class and after meeting everyone at Triple Crown and understanding the resources they have, it will undoubtedly be first class.”
Presently, Williams can still be seen coaching the sport that captured her heart more than 40 years ago. For the past 22 years, Williams has been at the helm of Olivet Nazarene University in Chicago, and while her NAIA team wouldn’t qualify for the NIVC, the Tigers’ trips to the NAIA Championships haven’t been too few and far between.
Come early December, many wouldn’t be surprised if Williams and a few others who played, coached and volunteered all those years ago, made all-star appearances during the historic revival of the NIVC.