It may have been a disappointing season for Indiana volleyball, which finished last week with a 10-22 overall record and 4-16 in the Big Ten. But you never would have known it from being inside Wilkinson Hall. Since head coach Steve Aird's arrival in 2018, games have sometimes felt more like a party than a sporting event.
Before the Hoosiers took the floor, fans would tailgate outside, complete with cornhole, free food and a live DJ manning the turntables. When fans entered the stadium, they would find the Indiana University drumline and the lively Crimson Guard student section.
That’s the environment Aird has aimed for throughout his four seasons as the head coach of the Hoosiers.
“It starts with a community — the student section — to really get behind it,” Aird said. “There will be some ups and downs as we get going, but I think we have a loyal fan base.”
☺️ Thank you for the support this season, Hoosier Nation! pic.twitter.com/LKlxCYpbKc
— Indiana Volleyball (@IndianaVB) November 29, 2021
The buzz inside the new arena is the most visible example of a broader trend brewing inside Wilkinson Hall. While the box scores might not yet favor the Hoosiers, dig deeper and it’s clear that the university’s financial commitment to the volleyball program is starting to contend with the conference’s elite.
Now the only question, for Aird and for his bosses at Indiana, is whether the money will translate to wins down the road.
Indiana’s volleyball program has little history of winning as it competes in the nation’s top volleyball conference, but the athletic department is investing unprecedented resources into the program. According to a review of the financial reports the university submits to the NCAA, IU spent $2,184,689 on the volleyball program in Aird’s first season in 2018, a huge jump from the $1,639,181 in the previous season.
This financial commitment moves Indiana closer to Big Ten powerhouses like Nebraska and Wisconsin, who sat atop the conference standings in 2021. Wisconsin averaged $2,912,314 in total operating expenses for volleyball from 2016 to 2020 with Nebraska close behind at $2,759,191.
Indiana hired Aird before the 2018 season and paid him $308,919 — 36 percent more than the head coach in 2017. That paycheck also came with wholehearted commitment to the program at large.
Start with Wilkinson Hall, the $17 million, 3,000-seat facility that opened in 2019 that is also home to Indiana’s wrestling program. In Wilkinson Hall’s first — and so far only complete, non-COVID season in 2019 — the Hoosiers drew a total attendance of 30,753, which ranked 15th in the NCAA. An average of 1,809 fans per match that year set a program record and ranked in 24th in the NCAA.
This growth in attendance isn’t by chance. During Indiana’s record-setting season of attendance in 2019, the program committed $34,670 to fundraising, marketing and promotion around the program. This figure is a steep increase from $10,533 in 2017 and $13,196 in 2018.
And this commitment inches Indiana closer to Big Ten powerhouse programs it one day aspires to be. Purdue always finishes near the top of the Big Ten standings; it also consistently commits big bucks to fundraising, marketing and promotion, averaging $27,599 per year since 2017. In volleyball, IU is finally matching its biggest rival.
Aird’s arrival in Bloomington also came with several material improvements. An 81 percent increase was seen in equipment spending from 2017 to 2018, and Indiana has nearly tripled its volleyball game expenses to $86,326 in 2020.
But so far, Aird has struggled as much as his predecessors in the win column — finishing 12th in the Big Ten in 2021. That lines up with previous finishes: ninth in Aird’s inaugural season in 2018, 13th in 2019, and 11th in 2020.
Reviving the volleyball program is clearly an enormous challenge. Still, there are reasons for excitement.
Following Indiana’s record-setting year for attendance in 2019, Aird translated that momentum to recruiting. Indiana spent $13,465 more on recruiting in Aird’s first full offseason than it did in 2017. Aird was hired with a reputation as a first-class recruiter, and with a brand new, world-class Wilkinson Hall to show off to visiting recruits, he’s living up to it. Indiana’s 2020 recruiting class ranked No. 15 in the nation, setting another program high.
This recruiting class featured the 6-foot-3 Savannah Kjolhede from Colleyville, Texas. As a sophomore this season, Kjolhede led Indiana with 92 blocks and also tallied 160 kills.
The attendance, investment, and early recruiting results are all reasons to think that Aird’s and IU’s big bet may pay off.
“When you can stack enough of those recruiting classes together where you’re bringing in that kind of person,” Aird said. “That’s where you’re going to start getting that traction.”
Indiana has made the NCAA tournament just five times in the program’s history, but the university is banking on the idea that wins will follow money. And for Aird, gaining relevance starts with not only recruiting, but belief.
“Really it’s about the energy of the students and the people that want to support IU athletics,” Aird said. “Women’s volleyball in the Big Ten is a big deal, and there’s a lot of great programs and we’re hoping to become one one day.”