Catching up with Jackie Simpson

Former All-American setter Jackie Simpson talks about her opportunity to be a first time head coach at George Mason this fall.

This past February, George Mason University hired Wisconsin All-American Setter Jackie Simpson to be the head volleyball coach. After holding assistant coaching jobs at East Carolina, Marquette and Iowa, Simpson gets to run a program for the first time. During her playing career, Simpson was a multiple first-team All-Big Ten honoree and a second-team All-American in 2006. She ranks second on the UW career list in assists.

With her team’s practice starting Monday, BadgerNation reporter William Keller checks in with Simpson as she embarks on the next journey in her career.

BadgerNation: Describe where you have played and coached since your playing days at Wisconsin ended.

Simpson: Right out of school I was an assistance coach at Division II Winona State along with former Badger All-American Shelia Shaw (who later became UW's Director of Volleyball Operations). It was a great opportunity to get my feet wet coaching and to see all the things that coaches do behind the scene that I never really was able to see. I still had the itch to play, so Shelia and I played together professionally in Germany – at Wiesbaden, just outside of Frankfurt. I also played a year in Cyprus. Then I became a volleyball nomad for a little while – just trying to find a place to play or coach anywhere I could. I went to California for a while – tried to play on the beach circuit, but the AVP tour folded, which took away that opportunity. I also coached some club volleyball, but with the tour folding, I realized that playing wasn't an actual career opportunity anymore and it was time to really go into coaching full-time.

I was fortunate that there was an opening at East Carolina University, near where my grandparents live in North Carolina. I had known the coach, Pati Rolf, from the recruiting process when she was at Marquette, and she brought me on as the volunteer coach. It was a great way to break into D-I coaching and spend some time with my grandparents. Then Pati kept me on as the graduate assistant, and when her full-time assistant went on maternity leave and didn't return, I was bumped up to the assistant position. So the first season as a full-time coach it was just Pati and I, kind of a trial by fire, and I really had to hit the ground running and I was able to learn everything that a program needs to do. I was at East Carolina for a total of three seasons, one as the volunteer assistant and two as the full-time assistant. While there, I also received my master's degree in Sports Psychology. It was an interesting challenge taking 10 grad credits while being a full-time assistant, especially when I was on the road recruiting many weekends.

BN: It sounds like you really had to hone your time management skills.

Simpson: It was the best and worst that ever could have happened to me – having to time-manage as a student athlete is one thing, but when you have the same class load, and have the same practice schedule, but also have to plan the practices and go recruiting and working a full-time job, it is a different level. I am extremely grateful for that opportunity to learn the ins and outs right away. I had to wear a lot of different hats.

With my degree, I had a choice to make – try to be a head coach at a lower level or try to get as high as I can as an assistant. I interviewed for the head coaching position at Concordia College, but when the opportunity to go to Marquette came up, I knew that it wasn't really a decision. I had known (then Marquette head coach, now Iowa head coach, Bond Shymansky) since my freshman year when we had played against him while he was coaching at Georgia Tech. That was one of my favorite matches I played in my college career – I love the speed of his offense, all the moving parts of the middles and right sides. I started paying attention to him as a coach and he became a mentor to me on the recruiting trail; when I would see him, I would ask him a lot of questions.

I was hired as an assistant at Marquette, I was also the camp director and the recruiting coordinator. During my first season there, we won Marquette's first Big East title, both regular season and tournament championships. The Big East player of the year was Madison native Elizabeth Koberstein, our setter. I had known her family forever – during my senior season in Madison, I had actually coached her older sister in club volleyball, so it was great that I got to coach the younger sister. It was an amazing run, finding success at a high level. I learned a ton.

BN: What was it like coaching at Marquette – a school that is a rival to Wisconsin in other sports, although they don't play in volleyball?

Simpson: It was funny – especially when I first got there – people would tell me not to wear red. Usually joking. One thing I learned is that a lot of people at Marquette are big fans of Wisconsin football. Obviously a huge basketball rivalry. A great game every year. I realized that my success as a recruiter meant going after the same kids as Wisconsin was recruiting. As an alum, you want the program to do well, but the school where you are coaching is your school. It was fun being that close and I see the current coaches on the recruiting trail all of the time.

All of the alums have been incredibly impressed with Wisconsin's alumni relations. They have done such an amazing job of reaching out to us – (Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield) called a number of us in coaching and asked what we would like to see. It is really cool to reach out and keep us in mind. That is something I made note of in my mind when I started here, and that is something that I wanted to do when I started here.

BN: Have you spent much time in the DC area before this?

Simpson: Not much – I've come out for some recruiting events and coached in a match at Georgetown when I was at Marquette. But otherwise the most time I spent here was my 7th grade field trip. I'm really excited to be here. It is kind of awe inspiring when you fly in. I didn't realize precisely where the airport was located and my jaw dropped looking out the window at such a historic area. There are so many great things to do that are free – it is a great opportunity for our student athletes. The university runs a free shuttle bus to the metro, why would you not want to take the metro downtown with a sack lunch some Saturday or Sunday that you have free and hang out and see the sites. A lot of universities are plopped in areas without much going on around them – that was a great thing about being in Madison, there was always something going on. I'm excited about that here.

BN: Did you know Coach Williams from Georgetown at all? She played at Wisconsin in the early 90s (as Arlisa Hagen).

Simpson: We've met through Badger alumni things, we sort of have a Badger coaching network that meets up at conventions. She gave me a call when I got the job and said we should get coffee once I get settled in. She has been here for a long time, and it is fun having another Badger in the area. She is the most seasoned of the head coaches in our little network – Amanda Berkley at Southern Mississippi, Lizzie Stemke at Georgia and Arlisa Williams at Georgetown.

BN: When you were at Iowa, your title was Offensive Coordinator – what does that mean in a volleyball context?

Simpson: Coaching staffs differ on how to divide up responsibilities and team preparation – some teams divvy things up by positions – Outsides vs Setters vs middles. At Iowa, Bond had an offensive and defensive coordinator. As the offensive coordinator, I dealt primarily with the setters and the setter-middle combination – building that relationship. Anything we were doing in the gym that had an offensive goal or thought process was my job. So when we watched game film, I would watch the opponent’s defense and look to find ways our offense could score. So my job was to make sure the offense was firing on all cylinders and that we were really prepared for what we would see from an opponent’s defense. I would call out the offense every play – a lot with the setters but moving beyond a pure setters coach.

BN: Will you run your staff at GMU the same way?

Simpson: Yes – very similarly – a lot of things will be a slight variation of what Bond did at Marquette and Iowa. I learned a lot from him in terms of staff responsibilities, accountability, and ownership. I think that if it isn't broke, don't fix it. I really enjoyed how he split things up when I was working for him and I hope my staff here will feel the same way.

BN: Can you describe what it was like coaching against Wisconsin?

Simpson: It was a really neat experience coaching against Wisconsin. People kept asking if it was weird to be on the other side, but to me it was more bizarre going to a place like Michigan, where I might stay in the same hotel and go to the same locker room, but I was coaching, not playing. At Wisconsin, I was in the visiting locker room, so that made things feel different. The response from the fans was tremendous – to feel the warmth from the crowd was wonderful. Only a handful of programs in the country have the type of fan following that Wisconsin does.

BN: As the offensive coordinator – how would you attack Wisconsin?

Simpson: I think you would try to run the slide and isolate the left side blocker as much as you can – Wisconsin didn't always get the strongest block on the left side. The biggest problem attacking Wisconsin is that the back-row always controlled the ball – they seemed to put up a setter-friendly ball every time, although some of that was the fact that Carlini makes all the sets look great. That great back-row defense is what you see from a Sheffield coach team. It was very tough to put together any kind of string of points against the Badgers.

BN: Coach Sheffield has talked a lot about using analytics to help with some of the aspects of coaching and it seems to be really spreading in the world of volleyball. What role do you see analytics playing in the future as a volleyball coach?

Simpson: Technology helps quite a bit organizing the data, especially on the offensive side. You can look at attacking numbers on a rotation basis, things like side out or attack percentage from each position or each play set, looking at special plays like when running a combination or how do we score with different options.

We use Volleymetrics. They code every contacts that happens and accumulate the data for us and then we as coaches can use that data to run a statistical analysis. That way you can see where we are winning or losing points. We can also look into specifics (like) what contacts happen, what pass ratings are on different types of attacks. We used Volleymetrics at Iowa and I think most of the A10 uses it. They save a lot of work by the coaching staff and provide an enormous amount of data.

Within the conference, both last year in the Big Ten, and this year in the A10, there is a video exchange. We spend lots of time breaking down the film in a traditional sense in addition to getting the data from Volleymetrics. We analyze the film looking at both offensive and defensive tendencies, such as any special kinds of attacks or combinations or defensive positioning.

BN: One of the new rules this year will be replay. How do you think it is going to work? Are you for or against it?

Simpson: I think it is going to be interesting to see how it works in practice. It is an intriguing way to enhance and help our game in terms of spectator experience for the TV matches. There will probably be a trial and error period and it may take some time in terms of determining just how helpful it is going to be. I am curious about it.

It would be really nice if it could be retroactively applied to the 2007 Penn State game (Wisconsin lost the fifth set, 15-13, on a missed touch call) and see how it would have changed things. The touch was clearly evident from the replay, not that I’m still frustrated by the outcome of that match.

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