When he took the Indiana head coaching job in 2017, Steve Aird knew what he was getting into. He’s a Big Ten lifer, after all, having both played and coached at Penn State and guided Maryland into the conference in 2014. Aird knew about IU’s meager tradition in the sport, its dingy gym and its modest support. But with a new facility on the way and a fertile recruiting region in Bloomington’s backyard, Aird saw opportunity. He also saw a way out of the conference cellar.
“Our No. 1 thing was to try to get to the point where this program, we felt, was relevant,” Aird said Thursday. “Nationally, I felt IU had a rightful place amongst the best programs in the country. The state was too good, the area was too good, the school was too good not to be. Then our plan was to work like crazy to make that happen.”
His latest signing class appears to be a step in that direction.
Indiana’s 2020 recruiting haul is ranked 15th nationally by PrepVolleyball.com, the highest mark in program history. It’s an eight-player class that features two Under Armour All-Americans in middle blockers Leyla Blackwell and Savannah Kjolhede, along with the No. 32 ranked player nationally in outside hitter Tommi Stockham.
Aird has done this before. At Maryland, he signed the nation’s 16th-best class in 2016, then turned around and signed the school’s first-ever top-10 class a year later. His latest class is years in the making, a group he and his staff began lining up not long after taking the IU job. Volleyball recruiting is similar to that of softball, where the majority of players make their commitments as freshmen or sophomores. Some pull the trigger even earlier.
“It takes a couple years to get your feet underneath you,” Aird said. “... IU, since I took the job, everything they told me they would do, they did. That’s a testament to (athletic director) Fred Glass, (new AD) Scott Dolson, our support staff, everyone around the program. I think recruiting is really an all-hands-on-deck deal, and our ecosystem is pretty amazing. We’re excited to get this group on campus whenever that happens. For the program to have the highest-ranked class in the history of the program a couple years in is certainly a good sign for us going forward.”
So, too, is the support Aird’s program has found in the bleachers of Wilkinson Hall, Indiana’s year-old, 3,000-seat, $17 million multi-purpose arena. The year before Aird’s arrival, IU averaged merely 780 fans at University Gym. Then, the program saw an average of 1,273 fans on hand at home matches during its final year at the old facility in 2018.
Attendance continued climbing in 2019, when the Hoosiers welcomed an average of 1,809 fans per match into their new building on 17th street. All told, Indiana set program records in average and total attendance (30,749) in 2019 and ranked 15th among Division I programs in total attendance. That, too, is a point of pride for Aird, who has worked as a tireless promoter for his program in his first two-plus years on campus.
“When you bring a recruit to campus and the place is full and it’s fun and there’s big energy, the student section is having a good time, the music is live, everyone is having a good time, it’s a lot easier to sell than a dead gym when you’re not having success,” Aird said. “I’m really fired up about the recruiting class, but to be 15th in the country in attendance, I think is a massive step forward.”
The next step is getting IU out of the Big Ten basement. Indiana won only three conference games last season, while going 14-19 overall. But the Hoosiers also lost five matches by two points and weathered youth at key positions. The team, Aird believes, is on track, record aside.
And right now, at least, the coach will take the good news however it comes.
“It’s cool when there’s some good news,” Aird said. “Certainly, the recruiting class that has come out is some pretty good news for us.”