Shane Davis remembers the exact moment he realized he was about to have the hardest conversation of his life.
He stood in front of a mirror, toying with different approaches, knowing all too well that none of them would make the deed any easier.
How do I start this? Do I try and make it seem like a normal conversation? Should I get right into it? How will they react?
He couldn't get through the rehearsal, let alone the actual talk, without breaking down. Perhaps his emotions were particularly volatile due to a lack of sleep. After all, he had just gotten off a plane that departed early that morning from Tampa, Florida. That's where he'd met with the brass of Northwestern Athletics and agreed to become the Northwestern's next women's volleyball coach. His 18-year career at Loyola (IL.) — including his time as a player and 12 years as coach of the men's volleyball program — had to come to an end.
On the heels of a second consecutive national championship season with the Loyola Ramblers, Davis was calling it quits. Think of a 35-year-old Nick Saban leaving Alabama at the height of his dynasty.
Davis thought of the freshman who he'd recruited less than a year ago, the kids he promised he'd guide through their collegiate journey. He thought of his time as a player at Loyola, the school he'd given the vast majority of his past 16 years to, the small Jesuit university he beat Stanford with in a national title game in 2014. It was all coming to a relatively unceremonious close in a meeting room at the Norville Center for Intercollegiate Athletics.
"It was only a year and a half ago that I'd signed that five-year contract," Davis says in his new office at Northwestern's Anderson Hall. It's a modest room, adorned with relics of his past triumphs at the school just four miles south. "So everybody's thinking that I'm going to be there for the next few years, that I'm going to stay.
"I had to walk into a room filled with my players who were getting ready to start the first practice of the season. I had been with them all fall, going through the training and competition, then we had the holiday break. And that's when everything was happening with Northwestern."
When Davis entered a room holding every member of the Loyola men's volleyball program — players, assistant coaches, strength and conditioning personnel, the whole lot — and he wasn't in gym clothes, his players knew something was up. It was the first day of practice, the first step toward chasing a third consecutive national championship. Their coach entered with a stern look on his face, his words measured. For a man who describes himself as a player's coach of sorts, such a sterile countenance created a gulf between him and his players that hadn't yet existed. It betrayed the severity of the message he was about to convey.
"They were really quiet. It was so quiet." He remembers it as clear as day, as you remember your first breakup, your first really heavy conversation. Every single detail is vibrant, etched in the depths of your memory.
"It got really heavy. I stood in front of them and you could hear a pin drop."
"As soon as I started talking about my journey of being a student athlete, I think they got a sense of where I was going. Then when I started to struggle to get through it, that's when heads started going down."
Just like that, Davis had spoken the final words of his lengthy Loyola chapter — over a decade-and-a-half of service. The hard part was over. Davis admits the positive reaction he received from his players was a testament to their maturity. It made the ending just a bit less sour.
At Northwestern, work needed to start immediately. Davis was leaving a men's program he'd groomed into a perennial powerhouse to take the reigns of a women's program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
"I was at the top, and I wanted something new."
To describe Denver, Iowa as a small farming community is like to describe New York as a big city. It just doesn't do either any justice. According to the 2010 census, 1,780 people call Denver, located an hour and a half North of Iowa City, home.
When Davis was growing up there, there was exactly one stoplight to serve the entirety of the "City" of Denver. It is, somehow, officially considered a city. After 9 p.m., the light would blink yellow because there wasn't enough traffic to justify a full green-yellow-red cycle. When Davis returned to Denver from his freshman year at Loyola, one of the first things he noticed was that the stoplight was gone. It was wasting too much electricity.
"It's a small town," Davis says. "My dad owns a mechanic shop... You learned those values of discipline and hard work, because, if you screw up, everyone knows it."
Davis comes from the bluest of blue collar families. His grandfather was a farmer — worked every day of his life. His mechanic-shop-owning dad still works every day. And Davis has been a worker since his earliest days, even if those days didn't include volleyball until he was 14.
"Fourteen is late for now, but it's early for when I played," he points out. "You used to wait until you got cut from the basketball team."
His high school didn't have a volleyball team; virtually none in the area did. But various towns around Iowa would have adult volleyball leagues every night. Tonight at town A, tomorrow at town B. If you wanted to play every night, you had to drive, and drive, and drive around Iowa, which is exactly what Davis and his older sister Shari — now the program director for Northwestern women's volleyball — did. When he was 16, he got noticed by someone who was running a boys volleyball club, the only one in Iowa at the time, two hours' drive from good ole' Denver.
So Davis (who actually started playing volleyball before he was cut from the basketball team) would get in the car after basketball or football practice, drive two hours, practice volleyball, the drive two hours back home. He'd arrive around midnight, hurry to his bed to try and maximize sleep before going to school and starting the whole process again the next day.
Those long nights punctuated by barren highways and sweaty gyms paid off. Davis became good enough to play at the Division I level, and chose a school in Chicago: a close-but-not-too-close to home school with a young but surging volleyball program. Davis excelled at Loyola, earning Second Team All-America honors his senior year. He set a school record for assists and reached as high as second all-time in digs. Yet his biggest impact at Loyola wouldn't come as a player, but as the product of a coaching career with a remarkably unconventional beginning.
Loyola struggled fiscally in the early 2000s, and the athletic department bore a good deal of the financial burden. After Davis's junior year, the university made the men's head coaching position a part-time job. Mind you, this wasn't an struggling program; Davis recalls his team, full of fifth-year seniors, being ranked 8th nationally when the decision was made. A man named Tim O'Brien, who was an assistant with the women's program, coached the team for a year and did a fine job doing so. But after a single season, he realized he couldn't handle both coaching duties and recommended Davis, who had just graduated, for the job.
"I was captain for 3 years, so it was just the logical choice," he says without a hint of irony, despite believing that the "logical choice" for filling a head coaching vacancy for a top collegiate program was to hire a just-graduated player. "I was 23 years old, and I told the athletic director I was just not interested.
"I didn't know what I was doing. I was playing a lot of beach [volleyball]. I was talking about maybe moving to California. I knew I wasn't prepared, didn't have the experience to take over a collegiate program."
It was then that the athletic director was about to hand over the keys to the program to a man Davis knew his former teammates wouldn't respect. He decided to step in a custodial role—the thought was he'd take over for a year, maybe two before handing it off to someone older and better qualified.
It wasn't hard for Davis to yell at his former teammates, to get them to listen to him as a coach and not as a friend. Being captain for so long help established that dynamic, plus his players appreciated the sacrifice he was making by coaching them. He did, however, make an effort to distance himself from college life and moved away from Rogers Park. If he were going to coach, he needed to remind himself that he was not in college any longer.
"The big thing I had a problem with was recruiting. If you're a parent, and you come on a visit to Loyola, and there's a 23-year-old guy sitting on the other side of that desk. It's like, 'you're telling me you're going to take care of my son?' I looked like a kid myself. So that was the real struggle."
But Davis is a charming character. So charming, in fact, that Cosmopolitan magazine named him one of "Illinois' Sexiest Men" in 2010. Seriously. He won't comment, but Google can confirm. It's very real.
Whether it was his charm or the substance of his recruiting pitch, he was successful in bringing apt players to Rogers Park. The team tied for second his first year at the helm, and he was "kind of liking it a bit." Then the athletic department came up on some additional funds and made the position full time and Davis took the job officially. In his second and third season, his teams won the conference championship, and the blueprint for a volleyball powerhouse had been laid.
Eight years later, Loyola beat Stanford for its first ever men's volleyball national championship. The next year, the Ramblers successfully defended the crown. 7 months later, Davis found himself in Tampa, Florida discussing a new career opportunity with Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.
Coaching men and coaching women is, as you'd might expect, quite different.
"On the men's side, if it's my assistant's birthday and we have practice, everyone is like 'hey, happy birthday,'" Davis says. It's clear he's been asked the difference between coaching men and women multiple times and that this is his favorite way to answer the question. "On the women's side, my assistant had his birthday. We walk in the gym and everyone is all quiet and acting kind of funny. Then all the sudden, this big cake comes out and we're all singing Happy Birthday. So that's a bit different."
While the x's and o's are largely the same, he'll need to figure out how he can best communicate with the women's team. That's no easy task, and he's still in the early stages of learning his team. What makes matters even more difficult is that he's been thrust into the Big Ten, the best women's volleyball conference in the country, a conference with coaches he describes as "rock stars." In five years, he sees his team in the NCAA Tournament. He's hoping to bring an intensity and attention to detail that's been lacking of late. Davis warns that "it won't happen overnight."
We'll take his word for it, but it's difficult to doubt a small-town boy from Denver, Iowa who took over a Division I program at 23 and turned it into a national powerhouse.
Now, over a decade later, he'll look to do the same at Northwestern.