Mary Wise: ‘Winningest’ Coach at the University of Florida

2012 Woman of Distinction

Mary Wise arrived as head coach of the UF women’s volleyball team in 1991.

Previously, she’d been the youngest Division I head coach (Iowa State, 1981) of any team in any sport in the history of the National College Athletic Association – she was just 21! After Iowa, she was a graduate assistant, and then head assistant coach, at the University of Kentucky (1986-1990).

Then came Florida.

Her Gators have won 19 SEC regular season championships. She is one of only two coaches in SEC history in any sport — men’s or women’s — to win that many titles. Since 1991, the Gators have amassed 571 victories in matches — more than any school in the nation.

“I love winning. I really hate losing,” says Wise. “We’ve communicated that volleyball at Florida matters. We’ve been in the top 10 in attendance every year since I’ve been here.

“The best parts, other than winning, are the relationships that are formed with the staff and players. We’ve had awesome talent come through our program. I tell our players, ‘you’re Gators for life.’ What we hope the legacy will be is not just the wins, but did we grow the players? Did we change lives?”

Mary was awarded SEC Coach of the Year 12 times. In 2006, she was named All-Time Great Coach by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. That was after having been named National Coach of the Year. Twice.

“I came from being a head coach at a Division I school because of Mary,” said Assistant Coach Sally Polhamus. “For her to sustain the level that she has for so long, being a perennial top 10 team in the country, constantly getting the most out of her athletes, being a woman of character — it was an easy decision. I wanted to learn from her how she’s been so successful for so long. A lot of females don’t last in this sport.”

Mary’s husband of 27 years, Mark Wise, is a broadcaster for Gator basketball. Their sons are Matt, 23, and Mitchell, 17. (“I work in a sorority but I live in a fraternity,” she quips.) Matt played basketball in college and is a graduate assistant with the UF Gator basketball team. Mitchell plays basketball for Buchholz High School.

When their sons were young, Mary said there was not a single female coach of a top-20 team raising kids. Traveling, juggling schedules. It was tough.

“I had an unbelievably supportive husband who’d coached and understood the time commitment,” she says.

They got a lot of help from the community as well. For instance, the boys’ pediatrician, Dr. John Hellrung, once dropped off a prescription to Mark in the midst of a Gator basketball game.

“That was the kind of thing that allowed us to stay in this profession,” she says.

Gainesville embraced her, and she’s since returned the love. 

“We’ve tried to showcase all that’s good in athletics to girls in this area,” Wise says. “We’ve done some things to facilitate that: camps, clinics, helping local club teams. Our players go out into the community.”

Every Thanksgiving, her players spend the holiday on the pediatric floor at Shands Hospital visiting with children and their families, passing out mini volleyballs and T-shirts, signing autographs. The team eats Thanksgiving dinner together at the Wises’ home.

“They kind of adopt us as part of their family,” says Betsy Smith, 22, a senior. “And she’s teaching us life is more than volleyball. It’s more fun to put a smile on someone else’s face. It’s not all about you. She tries to grow us into young women who will be set for the real world after volleyball is over.

“I went through a tough love period with her, more on a personal level. She said, ‘if you keep going down this road, it might not be the best for you.’ She then really encouraged me through the learning and maturing process.

“We’ve all had different issues where we’ve been sitting in her office in tears, or laughing, or telling her things about our life that were hard for us. She wants us to do so well. It’s that positive, competitive, ‘go get ’em’ energy that she has. If you were ever in a dog fight, she’d have your back.”

Mary says even when they’re not technically mentoring, they’re still doing it.

“It’s a byproduct of our profession,” she says. “One of the things we try to do is instill confidence in our players, even when they begin to self doubt. Everything’s fixable. There’s a road map. A player can have a bad match or be dealing with an injury, and we teach them it’s how they respond. We can control our actions.”

Mary has supported PACE Center for Girls for the past decade. She visits PACE with her players to encourage the girls, speaks at PACE’s fundraisers, and headlines the Mary Wise “Scramble for PACE” Golf Tournament (coming up April 27).

“She is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met,” said Kathie Southwick, PACE’s executive director. “She does so much for the community. She has such a crazy schedule. I don’t know how she can be so thoughtful and positive all the time. She exudes, ‘we can do this.’ She’s a problem solver. She has a wonderful sense of humor. She’s a great person to be around. She just lifts you up. She ‘walks the walk’ in life.”

For Mary, volunteering with PACE is about giving back to girls who didn’t have the advantages growing up that her players have had. They grab her heart.

“There’s so many wonderful things that sports and athletics provide,” she says. “The girls who go to PACE didn’t have those opportunities. How different their lives would have been if they had a chance. Through no fault of their own they’re trying to survive and get through the day.”

Mary grew up in the Midwest, one of six children. Her dad was Richard Fischl, a dentist, and her mother Lila managed his practice.

Her four brothers taught her how to throw a baseball at an early age. She was the pitcher, but they wouldn’t let her bat.

“I grew up in a big neighborhood with lots of kids, playing outside,” she recalls. “I learned to compete at a young age. My brothers took care of me but they didn’t take it easy on me.”

She played three sports in high school. She thought she had the best future in volleyball, so she went with it. Title IX had passed, and scholarships were available. She went to Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., and played volleyball from 1977-1980. She was a standout setter, and was twice named to the All-Midwest Regional team.

Her Purdue coach, Carol Dewey, did an amazing job of mentoring her, Mary says.

“She really worked hard to teach me,” Mary recalls. “She shared her insights, we watched films, she had me do practice planning, coaching clinics. She treated me as if I was a graduate assistant. She talked to me once a week my first year at Iowa. She gave me so much confidence. She used to say, ‘you can go forward if you’re not looking back, doubting yourself.’ She believed I would do a good job.”

In turn, Mary communicates that same confidence to the young women she mentors.

“She’s very motivating,” says Polhamus. “She puts the time in to personally get to know all our players to find out what makes them tick. She knows how to talk to them so that they hear what she’s saying. She’s a great leader. She’s who we want driving our bus. She sees the big picture. She’s a great trainer. She’s the total package.

“She’s changed so many females’ lives, and has been an inspiration. She’s in touch with so many of her former athletes. She’s invited to their weddings, they correspond with her. That just shows that they have an incredible respect for her.”

When she’s not working, Mary enjoys running about 3 miles a day. She takes awesome vacations with her family, such as ski trips, renting a sailboat in the Virgin Islands, or touring New York City. And she loves to read, both fiction and nonfiction. She’s in a book club with “total non-sports people.” Some of them have never attended a volleyball match.

“I totally enjoy it. That’s my outlet. I get to go there and be Mary, not Mary Wise.”

Event and ticket information

Celebrate Women’s History Month at the 25th annual Women of Distinction (WOD) of Alachua and Bradford Counties event honoring prominent women from within the college’s service area.

This year, the WOD celebration will be held at Santa Fe’s Northwest campus in the beautiful new Fine Arts Hall. The event features a program and a finely catered reception with heavy hors d’oeuvres and wine, and is scheduled for 4:30-7 p.m. Thursday, March 15.

Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for students, and $10 for children 12 and under, and may be purchased at the SF Box Office, online or by calling 352-395-4181. For more information about the event, please contact Event Coordinator Cheryl Farrell at 352-395-5181.

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