Its been a decade defined by success for Ryan Theis — but he’s done a lot more than just win

It’s been a decade defined by success for Ryan Theis — but he’s done a lot more than just win

Ryan Theis sat back in one of the 3,700 seats inside the Al McGuire Center as his mind raced through everything he’s accomplished. He looked up at the rafters adorned with banners, some of which he helped hang, thinking about what in his illustrious career matters most to him.

He has a lot to consider. After all, he has done a lot in his 10 years as the head coach of Marquette volleyball. Highest winning percentage among all head coaches in Marquette history? Check. Led the Golden Eagles’ to their only two Sweet 16 appearances in program history? Yep. NCAA Tournament births in all of his full seasons at Marquette? You bet.

It’s been a pretty — “pretty” is probably an understatement — successful decade for Theis with the Golden Eagles. And he knows it too.

But nothing compares to what he deems the most “satisfying” thing in his career: the growth that he has curated at Marquette in his decade at the helm.

Something so noticeable that it doesn’t take him more than a glance to see.

He first noticed it at camp. Of course, the annual volleyball camp he runs through the university that 1,200 Milwaukee-area volleyball enthusiasts attend. When he first started, that number was 200. 

He then noticed it outside the confines of the Al. He attended a Milwaukee Sting — a local volleyball club team — practice his first year at Marquette. It was a sea of red. 

“(I) counted three people wearing a Marquette shirt, that didn’t say volleyball, just three people out of hundreds of volleyball players were in a Marquette piece of clothing,” Theis said. “While 75 people had on Wisconsin badger stuff.”

Theis walks back into that same facility now, long removed from that initial sea-of-red introduction, to a much different sight, one with a lot more blue and gold.

Finally, he noticed Marquette volleyball publicized everywhere on his way home — from hoodies and shirts to bumper stickers on cars at stoplights.

“None of that stuff existed 10 years ago,” Theis said, now leaning forward in his seat, his mind at ease.

Ryan Theis has led Marquette to three consecutive Big East regular season championships. (Marquette Wire Stock Photo.)

Theis started playing volleyball when he was 14 years old.  

Growing up in the volleyball town of Middleton, Wisconsin — which is just outside of Madison — his attraction to the game was almost inevitable. 

He jumped into the sport in high school as a setter. He knew he wanted to work in volleyball, but it didn’t take long for him to realize it would not be as a player. 

“I was certainly not a high-level player,” Theis said. “A career for me was going to be in coaching or officiating.”

Little did young Theis know, coaching would be a more-than-feasible life plan. 

After high school, Theis went to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and immediately joined the men’s team as a walk-on one year before it was cut. After the school ended the men’s program, he turned to the only two places he could: the men’s club team and women’s scholarship team.

With the club team, he was pulling double-duty, working as both player and coach; not that he necessarily wanted to. 

“It was more, ‘coach out of necessity,’” Theis said.

But that didn’t matter, he was a 19-year-old coach, and whether or not he wanted to be, he had to lead people who had no interest in being led by him, like the 27-year-old veteran on his team.

He calls those three years a “heavy learning curve,” but they are three years that paid dividends for the rest of his life. He learned the importance of treating “everybody fairly but everybody differently.”

“Whether it be to joke with them, to be hard on them, to encourage them, to be positive with them,” Theis said, “that part I learned at a really young age.”

So, after two years as club coach, Theis took his insights and put them to use as a student assistant with the UWM women’s program.

Because the rules back then were a “little less strict,” Theis would do everything. Generate scouting reports, practice with the team, keep stats during games and set up the nets. He was involved with every facet of the program. 

“Student assistant, student manager, practice player, all those things were lumped together,” Theis said. 

Head coach of Milwaukee’s volleyball team at the time was Kathy Litzau, who is currently the senior associate director of athletics at the school.

Litzau was so impressed by Theis that she advocated on his behalf to her old friend, Eastern Illinois head coach Brenda Winkler, during the 1999 Final Four in Hawaii.

Winkler needed an assistant, so Litzau worked to convince her that Theis would be a good hire despite not having a lot of experience. 

“He, to this day, is good at building relationships. And he could connect with the players in a positive way,” Litzau said. “And being in the role he was in, it was unpaid. So the fact he was committed and loyal really showed the passion for the game. That’s what it takes to be a good coach, is to have that passion, and he definitely has that and his willingness to learn.

“I would not have made that huge recommendation if he wasn’t a good team player as a staff member.”

Winkler agreed, and Theis went off to become a different kind of Panther, a blue and gray one in Charleston, Illinois rather than a black and yellow one in Milwaukee.

No more student assistant, he was now a coach.

Ryan Theis grew up in the volleyball-crazed town of Middleton, Wisconsin. (Marquette Wire Stock Photo.)

The first years of Theis’ coaching career have a recurring theme: he did a little bit of everything. 

He was the only assistant at Eastern Illinois, which meant a lot of responsibility. Scouting, travel and food fell under his — keep in mind he was 22 years old at this time — purview. 

After Eastern Illinois, it was Indiana, followed by Northwestern. As a Hoosier, Theis saw what a bigger operation looked like. Big-time travel, big-time venues, big-time environments and most importantly, big-time expectations. 

“I got to take that in, see it, study it and learn it firsthand,” Theis said. “That was a huge learning experience.”

Then came Northwestern, and with it a whole lot more responsibility. For the first time in his career, he was a recruiting coordinator and after one year on staff, he was planning practices. 

“I forever credit (head coach) Keylor (Chan) with how much responsibility he was willing to give up as the head coach and give to me,” Theis said. “I learned a ton.”

It was at Northwestern that Theis met Jenny Manz, a two-time All-American and Hall of Famer at Florida, who was an assistant coach with the Wildcats. Theis and Jenny — now husband and wife — got engaged, then the Gators called for Jenny to come back to her alma mater and coach. 

At the time, she didn’t have aspirations to coach, instead wanting to be a mom. So Theis got the job.

“Florida wanted her, they settled for me,” Theis said with a laugh. 

Theis was now in the majors of college volleyball at a program with the highest of expectations — much more than Indiana — and now in charge of recruiting the country’s top volleyball prospects and a top offense.

Everything about it was eye-opening. From the size of the department to brightness of the lights, Theis had his very own Dorothy moment. He was far from home, no longer in the Midwest, no longer in his own kind of Kansas. He was in Gainesville, but it might as well have been Oz.

So, like anyone that puts an importance on learning, Theis became a sponge. He soaked up how to handle the pressure of matches in front of thousands of people and the stakes that come with advancing in tournaments.

“I’ve gotten that experience a few times here,” Theis said. “And I’d like to think we handle those well because of things I’ve learned in the past, and Florida has a role in that.”

His role as offensive coordinator brought its own set of new responsibilities. His experiences as a setter helped, but he’d previously been a defensive coach. So, instead of watching film for how to slow teams’ offenses down, he had to train his mind to focus on overwhelming opponents’ defenses. Once again, doing a little bit of everything.

But it was his role as a recruiter that put him to new heights.

He had recruited before at Northwestern, but the Gators have a different set of priorities, and a much higher bar to hit.

The Wildcats weren’t — and still aren’t — consistently a Top 25 team, but a massive importance was placed on academics, so Theis needed to respect that. The Gators, however? Winning a national championship mattered most.

So Theis went out and got championship-level players — amassing a Top 10 2007 recruiting class, the No. 1 2008 recruiting class and the top overall 2008 recruit.

“In both roles, it was learning what the head coach needs, wants, is looking for,” he said.

Theis had now learned from a bevy of people; most recently being Mary Wise, who is still at Florida to this day, having just finished her 33rd season as the Gators’ head coach.

And it was time to use all his experience — eight years as a NCAA Division I coach at four different schools, three years as a club coach, one year as a student assistant and nine-ish years as a player — as head coach at Ohio.

He was, at 29 years young, the man in charge. No longer controlling one part of the ship, but rather the entire vessel.

“I did so many things wrong,” he said. “We survived my mistakes.”

Not just survived, but thrived.

Theis would lead Ohio to three regular season league championships, four MAC Tournament championships and never had a season in which the Bobcats weren’t the MAC East Division champions. He is tied for the most wins in Ohio history (144) and went to the NCAA Tournament four times.

He also coached Abby Gilleland, an AVCA All-American setter, who became one of his assistants at Marquette in January 2022.

“We had a strong player-coach relationship, an understanding of the game and the culture that he put in place at Ohio,” Gilleland said to the Marquette Wire in 2022. “When I was there and recruited, that was something I wanted to be a part of.”

His six-year spell at Ohio was so successful that Marquette came calling, and he picked up.

Theis celebrates with his team after Marquette swept Georgia Tech to advance to the Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

Theis was back home — sort of. Not exactly home, but 85 miles east of where he grew up, coaching (for real this time) in Milwaukee.

Now, to an even bigger extent than at Ohio, success became his middle name.

Along with the record win percentage, two Sweet 16s and nine NCAA appearances, he has never finished a season with less than 22 wins, won Big East Coach of the Year in 2017 and has been the guiding force behind a decade-long stretch that has put (and kept) Marquette in the national spotlight.

He’s dominated every year he has been a Golden Eagle — and in a way much different than many other high-level Division I programs.

In the last five years, only one person has transferred out of his program. That equals 0.2 player exits via the transfer portal, when the average among Top 50 programs is 2.5 transfers per year.

“I enjoy giving that story to parents and families,” Theis said. “I do a home visit after every kid’s committed where I go sit in front of their families and we talk about that.”

The team culture is also noticeably different. One of the benefits of having worked in five different locations is you work with a lot of different people. Theis had seen it all by the time he got to Milwaukee, and he’d seen it from every different perspective.

“I like to say from each step in the process, you take things you want to be like of a head coach you worked for and you take things you don’t want to be like,” Theis said.

He appreciates laid back, so he instilled laid back. It is one of the “mistakes” he made at Ohio. As a Bobcat, he tried to fix everything. He has since learned his lesson.

“Try and create a culture, an environment where they (players) feel comfortable and aren’t walking on eggshells, and what’s going to happen if this happens, what’s gonna happen with that, is to let things go and roll off your back,” he said. “I think that’s important.”

Luckily for Marquette, Theis isn’t going anywhere.

He’ll be in Milwaukee for much longer than 10 years, having signed an extension keeping him with the Golden Eagles through 2028. He’s the fifth head coach in program history, and he has no plans on making them find a sixth anytime soon.

He is comfortable in his quarter zips, with his side-gig as the official scorekeeper for the Muskego youth basketball 5th-grade team, with Jenny and their three boys, with everything.

Theis leaned back again in his seat in the Al McGuire Center. His mind racing once more.

Only now, it’s not a question of what he is most proud to have done, but what he hopes to do.

He’s hung banners, broke records — Marquette drew a regular season indoor arena record 17,037 fans against Wisconsin in the first-ever match at Fiserv Forum — and accomplished more than he ever thought possible.

He doesn’t know what’s next on the chopping block for him. When he will earn that coveted Elite Eight appearance or win the Big East Tournament for the first time ever. For now, he is appreciating what he has done, living in the moment, reflecting on all he has achieved.

He still remembers that first volleyball camp of 200 people, the Milwaukee Sting practice with zero Marquette volleyball representation, the first time he saw a person exiting their car in a Marquette volleyball sweatshirt.

It’s a reminder of how much he has done, how far he has come.

Like he said, none of it existed before him. And he’s the reason it exists now.

This article was written by Jack Albright. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter/X @JackAlbrightMU.

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