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Indiana Volleyball's record-setting recruiting class is a product of attention to everything else

To say at this point that Steve Aird is in some ways just like the rest of us isn’t exactly breaking news. Always personable and relatable, he too is navigating these strange times from home, albeit with three kids under the age of 10. But even then, he’s still managing to set new standards ahead of his third year at the helm.

Indiana Volleyball Head Coach Steve Aird gives direction during a practice last fall inside Wilkinson Hall. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Aird and his program, a relationship three years young, provided some much-appreciated positive news with the announcement of Indiana Volleyball’s 2020 recruiting class, a group ranked 15th in the country by, and one that includes two Under-Armour All-Americans and the No. 32 ranked player in the class, 6-2 outside hitter Tommi Stockham. It's the highest mark ever for an Indiana class.

“It takes a couple years to get your feet underneath you,” he recently said. “They’re bright, they’re tough, they’re fun. We’re very excited about it.”

But what makes Indiana Volleyball’s rebuild unique isn’t necessarily the type of players now being recruited to Bloomington — though talent and skill is obviously a crucial product of the process, which of course sooner or later leads to results. Rather, it’s Aird’s acknowledgement of and focus on just about everything else.

“I’m an outside-of-the-box thinker,” he said. “I’m a 30,000-foot view kind of guy who likes to think about a lot of different things.”

The hype of the past two seasons and the culture Aird has quickly implemented in Bloomington gives you the sense that this is a plan with years and years under its belt. Amidst the tailgates, revamped student section and buzz generated by the team’s new home inside Wilkinson Hall, it’s easy to let slip that while this technically is his second full class, it’s this incoming group that makes Indiana’s head coach most excited about the future. He anticipates many of its members to play a major role in what IU does this fall.

Humble from the moment he was introduced as IU’s new head coach, he’s quick to acknowledge that nothing successful happens overnight, or without a support system:

At the same time, none of the support from IU’s various departments and outlets happens to such a great extent without energy and excitement being constantly pumped into a once dull program, and Steve Aird has been the captain of that ship from day one.

Call it cliché, but what makes Aird and his program different is that he’s simply much more than just Indiana’s head coach. Where most college programs in the nation would create two or three additional jobs in order to accomplish the same amount of work, he satisfies these roles alone, and obviously does it with great success, making the transformation that much more impressive:

It’s not at all to say the ability to build a program came out of nowhere. There always has to be a foundation, and there is, with Aird having set consecutive new program-highs with the No. 16 and No. 9 ranked recruiting classes in his final two years at Maryland.

But it’s difficult to argue that the timing of his move to Indiana could have been better, considering the immense level of support from the great number of resources at IU, all of which were suddenly at Aird’s disposal when he arrived.

Indiana University launched its campaign of “Fulfilling the Promise” in 2015, and it is a mutual promise between Aird’s staff and IU that has been the difference through the past two years. For that, both parties are grateful for the situation IU now finds itself in, launching into a new era of Indiana Volleyball, and poised to compete by taking this next crucial step. Indiana’s newest recruiting class is just another box checked.

This all continues to happen as IU welcomes new athletic director and in-house hire Scott Dolson, someone who represents Aird’s “ecosystem,” as he calls it, and someone who understands the importance of the things that make a program go.

These off-the-court actions take many different forms, but in the end, it comes down to building a brand for Indiana Volleyball a brand so powerful that it has an entire community excited about the product before the product is even completely in sight.

Steve Aird is interviewed last fall for Indiana Volleyball's "Ambition" docuseries. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Aird stays positive about the future, while simultaneously remaining realistic and grounded in what he expects from himself and his group, always keeping close with the work still left to be done. Admittedly, the pandemic will take its toll on teams that don’t have as much raw talent at their disposal.

The advantage for Indiana this fall?

“These kids are really great players.”

In terms of depth at each position, IU is still working toward where Aird wants the program to be. But in the vision of Indiana’s leader, it’s par for the course. He doesn’t claim for Indiana to “be there” yet because he knows IU can be better. But it’s possible he won’t ever admit to “being there” until Indiana wins a national title. It’s the “trust the process” mantra, epitomized.

Yes, Indiana’s newest recruiting class is another milestone on the way to creating a nationally relevant program. But it’s also the first sign of the work being done now paying off and coming full circle.

“It really is about people,” he said. “Everyone (at IU) has done exactly what they said they were going to do. As a coach, it frees you up.”

Aird knows that in a truly successful program, the community, culture and support around him are just as important as the talent he has at his disposal. Indiana may still be working toward the level of success Aird wants and expects, but thanks to his 30,000-foot approach, the opportunity and possibility for an incredibly bright future are clear and in sight. If this year’s recruiting class provides any indication, the Hoosiers are well on their way.

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