Steady hand at the helm

In nearly three decades at Queen’s, Brenda Willis has built men’s volleyball into a perennial contender

Brenda Willis has led the Gaels to six OUA championships in her 27 years as head coach.
Brenda Willis has led the Gaels to six OUA championships in her 27 years as head coach.

Men’s volleyball head coach Brenda Willis has seen a lot since taking the helm back in 1987.

Willis wrapped up her 27th season with the Gaels this year, and while she’s taking her career on a year-by-year basis, she doesn’t see herself putting her clipboard away just yet.

Although the six-time OUA champion has seen many players come and go during her time at Queen’s, Willis said they still keep in contact, adding that she’s “been to a lot of weddings.”

Willis, who will be inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame on May 2, spoke with the Journal this week about her career and the team going forward.

Over the 27 years you’ve been head coach, you’ve won six OUA titles. How do they compare to each other?

Well, I think every one is completely different. It’s really been with three or four different generations of players. It takes two or three years in a cycle to develop the trust among athletes and the timing and confidence to build a contender.

I think with the group we had that finished in 2012 — we won in [2010] with that group, probably should have won in [2011]. We won again in 2012 and finished fourth in the country. That was our peak group, the best group we’ve probably had. I think we’ve won with some groups that probably shouldn’t win, but clearly that group should have won and did.

You’ve also been named OUA Coach of the Year five times. What does it mean to receive that sort of recognition?

I’ve always believed those awards are a compliment not just to me, but to the entire coaching staff and the team. I guess the first time was special — especially being the opposite gender to all of my peers. It was recognition from my peers that they’re respecting what I do is as credible as what any of them do.

Now, it’s just I do my job and if I get recognized, great. If not, someone else does and that’s great too. I don’t put a lot of stock in those awards, but it’s always nice to be recognized, for sure.

You will be inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame. What does this recognition mean to you?

I was pretty overwhelmed and flattered by that. I think it’s an acknowledgment of the overall contribution. I don’t believe I deserve to be in the Kingston Sports Hall of Fame for my 27 years of coaching at Queen’s, because there’s a lot of great coaches that have long careers at universities, across the river and here. We’re doing our jobs and I don’t think that’s a reason to be honoured at that level.

I’ve had a lot of involvements outside of the University. Between coach education — which I’ve done over 100 certification clinics for coaches — and being involved in provincial teams. I was the president of Ontario Volleyball for 10 years. I’ve been involved with national programs and hosting national championships.

I think this recognition is because of those pieces, as much as the accomplishments at Queen’s.

For you, what was the highlight of the past 27 years?

No question for me, without even stopping to think, the highlight was hosting the CIS championship [in 2012] and beating a top Canada West team in the first round. That was a huge highlight.

I think another highlight was getting the job. I think at the time I got it there were a lot of schools that wouldn’t even consider a female for a men’s team and to the credit of Bob Carnegie, who was the person who hired me at the beginning — he’s about four Athletic Directors ago — he took a chance on me. I outlasted him by a long, long time.

What would you consider your coaching style to be?

I guess I’d say I try to be a democratic coach most of the time. I like to have some dialogue with my assistant coaches and captains, so we try to come to consensus on most things. I’m willing to give on some things and then there’s the odd things that [are] just not negotiable.

I’m not a screamer by any means. I hate losing. I’m very driven to be the best I can be, and I guess I operate on a philosophy that you should really never let an opponent outwork you.

How much of an emphasis do you place on building a team over several years at Queen’s? Or is it less of a cycle and more trying to win every year?

No, I think it’s definitely cyclical. You set yourself up for failure if you think you can win every single year. You definitely need seasoned leadership, you definitely need physical strength, that takes a couple of years to develop.

It’s not easy to come in as a rookie and play against 22-year-olds who have been training for four years. So I will say being young is a reality — it isn’t an excuse, you’re still trying to be the best you can be. But you have to have realistic expectations.

The last two seasons, you’ve been bumped out of the playoffs in the first round. How does that shape your desire for a title next season?

I think it’s a reminder that every match is important. How does it shape my desire? I don’t think it changes anything. I think what it does for the players is that it makes them extra hungry to break into the final four.

The goal for next year is to get not only to the final four, but three [OUA] teams go on to nationals next year and we’re bound and determined to be one of the three.

You are the only female men’s volleyball coach in the CIS. What does it mean to you to be a trailblazer in that sense?

I didn’t set out to do that. I try not to focus on that. I think the athletes who are here, for the last 25 years at least, knew who I was and knew I was female before they came. So to their credit, gender’s not an issue for them, they’re accepting of it.

Have you ever come across problems being a female coach in a men’s sport?

No, to be honest I haven’t. I think the disadvantages are no different than [women’s basketball coach] Dave Wilson … or whenever you’re coaching the opposite gender.

In the past, a lot of the media have turned the angle of the article towards me and the whole gender thing. I want them to ask ‘what’s your win-loss record? What have you accomplished?’ as opposed to the whole gender issue. It’s been a distraction more than anything.

After 27 seasons, do former players still stay in contact?

Lots. You like to think that as a coach, you’ve had quite a big impact on people’s lives. I can think of quite a few people whose lives I’ve possibly changed in a positive way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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