It wasn’t Sean Byron’s choice to have Charlie Sullivan on his coaching staff during his first volleyball head coaching gig.
While coaching at his alma mater, Springfield College, the school assigned Byron a new graduate assistant coach to take under his wing for the 1997 season. Byron had never met Sullivan; they had never played volleyball together, and both were adjusting to new positions for the first time in their coaching careers.
Despite the unfamiliarities, the Springfield Pride men’s volleyball team went 16-11 their first year coaching in ‘97 and won the Division III championship. After the short tenure together, the two flourished into successful volleyball coaching careers for the next two decades.
While Byron became a successful Division I men’s and women’s volleyball coach (now the head coach of women’s volleyball at Marist College), his apprentice took the reins of the Springfield men’s volleyball program in 1999 and created the winningest program in Division III volleyball history. Along with their successful careers, a strong partnership and friendship emerged; their relationship has led to benefits for both Byron’s and Sullivan’s programs to this day.
Sullivan didn’t have a career path laid out for himself after college. He received his bachelor’s degree in general education from Springfield in 1991. After teaching overseas for four years at the Marymount International School in Rome, Italy, he ultimately decided to take a chance for his first coaching opportunity. Venturing out of his comfort zone, he headed west to Marycrest International University, an NAIA school that ceased to exist in 2002.
Marycrest is where Sullivan discovered his love for coaching, as he received an opportunity as the men’s volleyball head coach. Even though the athletics at Marycrest were comparable to a Division III level, Sullivan knew right away that coaching was what he wanted to do with his life.
He quickly applied to his alma mater, this time pursuing his master’s degree in physical education from Springfield. Simultaneously, he wanted to coach volleyball and learned that he would be assigned to Byron as his graduate assistant.
“I was contractually obligated to be his assistant coach for the year, which was a really bad start for him in his career,” joked Sullivan.
The two wasted no time and captured the program’s first championship title in the 1997 Molten Division III Men’s Invitational tournament, the unofficial title game for the Division. The Molten Championship didn’t grant berths into the National Volleyball Men’s Championship before being officially adopted in 2012.
“I had never coached before at a high level,” said Sullivan. “Sean [Byron] taught me everything, but specifically working with data analysis and distribution tendencies that give you reasons why things happen.”
When Byron departed the program in 1999 to pursue a higher coaching opportunity at Rutgers University, Sullivan was next in line to take over Springfield’s Division III program. In the next twelve years, Sullivan led the Springfield Pride to six Molten Division III championships, including a run of three consecutive titles from 2001-2003.
As if six championships wasn’t enough, when the NCAA tournament officially sanctioned a nine-team tournament for the playoffs, Sullivan’s program kicked it into overdrive.
Springfield once again three-peated the tournament in the first years of its official existence. Even after failing to win the next two tournaments (they were the runner-ups in both 2015 and 2016), they won back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018 for a total of 11 national championships – official and unofficial – during Sullivan’s current tenure as head coach.
Since 1997, Sullivan has slowly developed the most successful Division III men’s volleyball program in the country. He gained access to some of the best volleyball gyms in the country, including that of the United States national team, where he volunteered from an early stage in his coaching career.
“I think that’s how my progression accelerated; just forcing myself to be in the best gyms possible,” said Sullivan. “I’ve been around such great coaches, to absorb from and almost professionally plagiarize from, by copying and imitating. I think that’s how I was ahead of the curve.”
It seems impossible to fit the accolades on a single sheet of paper. Sullivan has a head coaching record of 442-186 and bests other Division III programs at an absurd 93% rate since 2012.
The list of Sullivan’s accomplishments goes well beyond the Springfield success. In 2001, he took over the U19 U.S. boys volleyball team and recently finished a program-best fourth place at the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball World Championships in 2023. While volunteering to coach as a scout and consultant for the U.S. men’s team, he was part of the gold medal in Beijing in 2008, the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and several more international tournaments over the past two decades.
“That gives me a little more in life,” said Sullivan. “It gives me a bigger appetite for doing more, and I appreciate having an opportunity to work with U.S. Volleyball in the summer.”
As his first mentor, Byron admired how Sullivan carried the program throughout the years, breaking down the personal relationship with his athletes.
“He’s really positive with his guys,” said Byron. “He’s intuitive in terms of how their emotions are… I know they talk about being steady in their gym a lot. Not necessarily have highs, not having lows, and just being able to come in every day and get a little bit better.”
The landscape of Division III men’s volleyball has evolved since Sullivan was merely Byron’s assigned assistant coach. It took 15 years from the start of the Molten tournament for Division III volleyball to have a sanctioned national title. In that time, Sullivan transformed the competitiveness of the program from when Byron was head coach, so much so that the Pride can keep up with the likes of Division I talent.
“They would beat probably half of the Division I schools,” said Byron.
One of the most drastic differences is the physical strength of players at Springfield. Byron noted that the personal jump height of a player on the Pride today is almost a foot higher than it was when he was a player.
“The physicality of the gym is way, way beyond what it was when I was a player or coach,” said Byron.
Sullivan also utilized the resource of having instant replay available at practice to obtain immediate analyses of plays during practice sets, allowing him to make immediate corrections rather than watching tape days later.
The coaching relationship between Sullivan and Byron extends far beyond their two years coaching together at Springfield. Even while Byron coached in various places in the northeast – Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan, and now Marist – the two kept in close contact. The two became so close that Sullivan was Byron’s best man at his wedding.
Becoming close friends means constantly exchanging coaching tips; Byron credited the Springfield head coach for the inspiration behind Marist’s own replay system, as the program uses a monitor to watch back tapes during practice.
Coaching men’s and women’s volleyball respectively also has its advantages. While women’s volleyball has its NCAA season in the fall, men’s volleyball is a spring sport. During their respective offseasons, Sullivan and Byron have time to collaborate and exchange tips, sometimes even helping individual players or reviewing tactics.
This season at Marist is the third year Sullivan has attended Marist women’s volleyball practices to help out his former mentor. He has accrued knowledge of returning players on the Red Foxes, working with veteran Red Foxes such as senior outside hitter Jordan Newblatt.
“When you have the same coaches, you get used to what you’re seeing a little bit,” said Newblatt. “It’s nice to get a little different perspective; I think everyone really likes him.”
Newblatt is one of a number of veteran Red Foxes; a complementary outside hitter and captain to fellow senior Sasha van der Merwe, and a returning Second Team all-MAAC-caliber athlete. For a team with high expectations, Newblatt is an essential piece in the quest for a successful 2023 season. High expectations require a strong mental game, and Newblatt credited Sullivan for her personal improvement in that department last year.
“Volleyball is much more than the physical aspect, and so I was struggling a bit mentally,” said Newblatt. “We talked about breaking the process down individually, which was really helpful. For example, you can have a great swing and it can still be out of bounds, or you can have a kill that’s not a great swing. Just making sure you look at each individual step in the process rather than a result.”
Sullivan is an asset for the Red Foxes and gives the Red Foxes a second opinion and a refreshing coaching perspective. Coincidingly, Byron takes time to head back to his alma mater in the spring to give back to the team that launched his career, and to the assistant coach and friend he did it alongside.
“I could never be where I am today without having the opportunity to be his assistant starting my college career,” said Sullivan.
The pair have had different careers within the same sport, but a relationship that keeps them in contact has led to mutual respect and improvement for their programs. Their passion for volleyball brought them together in the first place, led to a first-time championship, and continues to sustain a friendship that hasn’t faltered.
Edited by Luke Sassa
Graphic: Cara Lacey