Humans of Hinkle: The trailblazing career of Sharon Clark

Sharon Clark coaches a volleyball match from the sidelines last season. Clark currently serves as the president of the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association. Photo courtesy of Butler Athletics.

HENRY BREDEMEIER | ASST. SPORTS EDITOR | hbredeme@butler.edu

Humans of Hinkle is a feature series highlighting the people who make Hinkle, Hinkle. From head coaches, security staffers and administrators, The Butler Collegian will bring you the Fieldhouse’s uncovered stories in weekly installments. 

Even after 25 plus years of leading teams, Butler volleyball head coach Sharon Clark wrote in an article published on June 11, 2020 on the Big East website, that she still experiences racism regularly.

“I still go to an airport to check in with a gate agent and be asked: ‘Who is in charge?’ or ‘Where is the head coach?,’” Clark wrote. “‘Don’t you see me standing in front of you with 20 tickets?’ We have been marginalized, passed over, stepped on, ignored and yes, called the ‘N’ word while simply doing our jobs.”

She calls it “coaching while Black.”

Despite her dealing with racism to this day, Clark has had an extremely successful career since being hired at Butler 21 years ago. She has accumulated 334 wins, making her the all-time wins leader in Butler volleyball history. Clark has also helped three players reach American Volleyball Coaches Association honorable mention All-American status: Erica Stahl in 2013, Jessica Wolfe in 2009 and 2010 and Areal Bienemy in 2003 and 2004.

In 2000, Sharon Clark was hired as the second Black head coach in Butler athletics’ history. Clark says that she doesn’t feel a tremendous amount of weight on her shoulders given the position she’s in, but she does feel some.

“I mean I look at it as someone that is just tapping on the ceiling to let other people in, to be honest with you,” Clark said. “I don’t feel this great sense of responsibility, but I do feel a sense of responsibility. Because I think there are so many amazing coaches out there and I think Butler, as well as other campuses could benefit from them. So, if it takes that, it takes that. I’m always going to be supportive and push the envelope in terms of being an inclusive space and giving everyone a shot at it.”

The Road from California to Indiana

When Clark was playing at California State-Sacramento in 1988, her coach, Debby Colberg, staged her annual senior night skit: impersonating all of the seniors on their future endeavors. For Clark, Colberg impersonated a head coach.

“She was like, ‘Oh, I always knew Sharon would be this great coach,’ and that kind of sealed the deal for me,” Clark said with a smile. “I was like, well someone else thinks I could do it, maybe I could do it.”

After watching Colberg perform, Clark received affirmation she could be a coach — and a good one at that. Her route to Butler, however, was circuitous. She started her volleyball playing career in high school, at Hiram Johnson in Sacramento. This earned her the opportunity to play for California-State Sacramento from 1985-1988, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in physical education and in 1994, a master’s in sports administration. In 1993, she started her head coaching career at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., where she coached just one season before moving to UC-Davis. She spent seven years coaching at UC-Davis.

Feeling comfortable in her first Division I head coaching job, Clark initially had no intention of leaving California or UC-Davis. In 2000, her fiancé, Tim was working for the NCAA in California, when he was relocated to Indianapolis. He asked Clark to come with him, but she was reluctant at first. 

He told her there were some excellent schools and volleyball programs in the area and she should consider coming with him to Indianapolis. Clark told him if a Division I job came open, she would consider moving with him across the country.

As luck would have it, just a couple months later, the Butler head coaching job was vacant. Clark flew to Indianapolis and interviewed for the job. Falling for the campus and the city, Clark took the job. Even though California still has a place in her heart, Butler and Indianapolis has become her home.

Taking notice of her success at Butler, flashier programs and bigger schools have attempted to pry her out of Indianapolis. Her husband and son, Myles, told her they would be supportive if she decided a move to a different program was right for her career. Although one job offer in particular — an unnamed school in the west — “tugged at her heartstrings,” Clark has found a home at Butler.

“I think our campus is wonderful and I think it’s a great place for people to live out their college years and find who they’re going to be,” Clark said. “Butler has kept me here, and being in a very, very competitive conference is always something I’m up for.”

The Trailblazer

In 2017, the hiring of men’s basketball head coach LaVall Jordan made the headlines. And rightfully so —  he was the first Black head coach of a men’s sport in Butler’s history.

But, 17 years prior — when Jordan was still a student-athlete and a basketball player at Butler — Clark was hired as just the second Black head coach in Butler’s history.

Sally Wirthwein, a Butler graduate and unofficial Hinkle Fieldhouse historian, said in an email to The Butler Collegian through her research she has only been able to find one Black head coach who preceded Clark.

Butler women’s basketball hired Wendy Gatlin in April 1999, making her the first Black head coach in school history, but she was let go after just three seasons. Clark’s tenure began one year after Gatlin was hired.

Clark being hired at this predominantly white, wealthy school offered a pathway for Black head coaches in the future, like Jordan, to be hired nearly two decades down the road. Although she doesn’t think about being that trailblazer much, she said it takes someone to break the mold.

Not only is she a groundbreaker for Butler, Clark is one for the sport of volleyball as a whole. In addition to her lengthy career at Butler, she currently serves as the President of the AVCA, the overarching body for volleyball coaches in the United States. The organization does not just represent college volleyball coaches, it encompasses every level of volleyball, including collegiate, high school, men’s, women’s, beach, indoor, junior college and club.

She is the first Black President of AVCA, which is an inclusive step for the organization, but there is still more work to be done. Of the 17 members of the Board of Directors, Clark is only one of two people of color. By no means does this deter Clark, because as she said, it takes someone to break the mold.

Clark never planned on running for President of the AVCA. She had served on the AVCA Board of Directors previously and had been asked in the past to run for President but never did. In 2019, she received a few phone calls from other members who implored her to run, telling her the organization needed great leadership and felt like she could provide it.

“I felt more like it was a call to action, it wasn’t something I had aspired to do or had even really thought about doing to be honest,” Clark said. “So here I am, and hopefully I am helping to keep things moving forward for the organization but also just to keep coaches in a good space so they can do what they do well.”

Clark said her time has been an eye-opening experience for her. She has had a tenure like no other President has, as her term began last January, and two months later, the pandemic hit. She said that despite the pandemic making the job more difficult, at the end of the day her job is to make sure volleyball stays sustainable long after she is gone.

“My job is to make sure that our organization stays healthy and alive and keeps going, to continue to be a voice for all coaches, not just for Division I women’s programs, but all coaches,” Clark said. “And just help be another solid source in the volleyball community to look out for everybody.”

Clark said that she owes so much to volleyball; it has allowed her to travel the world, opened doors for her and she got an education because of it. Now, as a prominent figure in the sport, she is using her position to try to grant opportunities to those who may not otherwise have access to them, and further inclusivity in the sport.

“I have always tried to make sure that somebody somewhere can get a shot at something better and a better life through volleyball,” Clark said. “You know, everybody has their own thing, and this just happens to be my platform, and while I’m in it and while I’m here, I’m going to make sure that it’s the most inclusive space that I’m in. And so every meeting I’m in, every conversation I have, every match that we play, I want to make sure that those around me recognize that life is better when it’s inclusive, and when all people are there.”

Coaching style

Amidst the protests over the summer battling for racial justice spurred by police killings of African-Americans, specifically George Floyd, Ahmad Aubery and Breonna Taylor, Clark created an inclusive space for her players, spearheading Zoom calls and encouraging her players to have tough conversations, redshirt-junior middle blocker Melody Davidson remembers.

“She is very big on having us just sit down and just talk about those conversations,” Davidson said. “Especially during the summer we had a lot of Zoom calls where you just come on and talk about what’s going on in the world and kind of like bring up videos, bring up important facts and topics and put it all together. And like we don’t all have the same views but we’re able to talk about that and learn something from it.”

That same approach translates on-the-court as well.

Under Clark, the discipline to get better every day is on the players, not the coaches. Davidson said Clark is not the type of coach to yell at the players when they are doing something wrong, instead she sits back and observes, waiting until after the game or practice to tell them what needs to be worked on. Clark also doesn’t have a single team identity that she forces onto all of her teams. That onus, again, is on the players.

“Just letting us lead the team ourselves and [Clark] kind of gives us a space to do that, but she’s also there as a resource to make it better and help us be a more competitive team,” Davidson said.

This style has enabled Clark to become the all-time wins leader in Butler volleyball history.

One of Davidson’s reasons for coming to Butler to play volleyball was Clark. She said it was great to see a Black woman in that position and liked how the team was constructed of girls from all different cultures and backgrounds. 

While most Division I volleyball players play club volleyball year-round, Davidson only started playing club volleyball as a senior in high school. Since then, Clark has helped Davidson reach new heights, making All-Big East in 2019 as a sophomore. Davidson ranked first in the Big East in total blocks and was 46th nationally.

“Immediately when I came in freshman year, I was doing a lot of individual work with the assistant coaches and working on the technical skills of volleyball,” Davidson said. “But also, like watching a lot of film, watching myself and watching other teams. It just takes a lot of time and discipline to keep doing it every day.”

This season has been the most unique of all of Clark’s two decades at Butler. Not only is the season being played through a global pandemic, and in the spring instead of the fall, but the team is extremely young. Davidson is the team’s most veteran player, as there is not a single senior on the team. Due to the abundance of youth on the team, Clark is starting four freshmen.

One of those freshmen, middle blocker Amina Shackelford has been thrown into the fire as a starter, but Clark said she’s already playing like a seasoned veteran. Clark has helped her transition from high school volleyball, Shackelford said, to a Division I starter.

“She definitely prepared me to start, like she didn’t throw me in situations where I would be blindsided,” Shackelford said. “She prepared me in practice, she prepared me outside of practice with film and individuals. She helped a lot.”

Clark said she cares about winning and the success of the program, but because of the pandemic, winning is not her number one priority.

“Trying to make sure that every decision I make as the head of the program, I do so thinking about and making sure my athletes and staff are safe and healthy,” Clark said. “That is probably the hardest thing we are dealing with right now.”

Clark has faced many challenges throughout her career in coaching. Despite all that, she is extremely grateful for the more than thirty years she has spent in the career.

“Although there is no formal way to get into coaching, it’s a great profession,” Clark said. “I hope and pray that others will see it and those who really have a drive for it will want to do it. It’s great to affect the lives of others, but more than that I get so much from my players. I get so much more from them than I could ever give to them.”

Want to submit a subject for Humans of Hinkle? Email Editor-in-Chief Meghan Stratton at mrstratt@butler.edu.

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