Iowa State fans gather in a packed Hilton Coliseum as excitement begins to fill the air. They are not there to see the men’s or women’s basketball teams take to the field; they’re here to see one thing, Iowa State volleyball.
For years, the Iowa State volleyball team has captured the attention of not only Iowa State fans, but also volleyball fans across the country. The success they enjoyed under Christy Johnson-Lynch put them on the map.
Volleyball may be a staple of Iowa State athletics, but like all sports, it started with humble beginnings. All of the ups and downs and general excitement surrounding Iowa State volleyball would not have been possible without the impact Title IX had on women’s sports.
Now, with 50 years of history under the monumental bill, it’s time to take a look at how the Iowa State volleyball program has evolved over the years.
The Big 12 landscape was very different 50 years ago than it is today. This is also true for volleyball in the state of Iowa.
For starters, before 1997, Iowa State participated in the Big Eight Conference. While part of the Big Eight, the Cyclones only appeared in one NCAA Tournament.
Even before that time, the conference was still finding its place. In 1973, just a year after Title IX came into effect, the volleyball team was formed under the leadership of the first head coach Gloria Crosby.
Crosby would only coach the Cyclones for two years before handing over the reins. The early years of Cyclone volleyball weren’t what one would expect.
There was not as much organization under the Big Eight as there is now in the Big 12. The team played most of its games in regional tournaments while having occasional games against available teams to play.
In 1976, the Big Eight introduced a tournament to make the conference more competitive. Even then, the conference teams would not face each other in the season until 1982.
During the transition to conference play, Mary Fischl was the team’s head coach. Coaching changes were not uncommon in this era, as Fischl would be the fifth coach in less than 10 years before handing over his role to Vicki Mealer in 1985.
Mealer reversed Iowa State’s success in the conference, but it wasn’t until Jackie Nunez at the helm that the Cyclones got their first taste of victory. Under Nunez, the Cyclones made their first NCAA tournament in 1995 after finishing second in the conference.
That success would be short-lived, however, as the Cyclones’ transition to the new Big 12 conference has been anything but smooth. Under three different head coaches from 1997 to 2004, the Cyclones had only one season with more than one conference win and finished 11th in the conference seven of eight years.
A change was needed to get the Cyclones back on track, and they had their sights set on someone who could do the job.
Christy Johnson-Lynch is a game changer
In December 2004, the Cyclones named Johnson-Lynch head coach. After a highly successful playing and coaching career in Nebraska and Wisconsin, it was time for Johnson-Lynch to make an impact at Iowa State.
The year before Johnson-Lynch arrived, the Cyclones won just one conference game. After his freshman year at Ames, they moved up to sixth in the Big 12. A year later, the Cyclones would enter the NCAA Tournament for the second time in history.
Under Johnson-Lynch, the Cyclones have made the NCAA tournament 15 times since 2006. The only year they missed the tournament was during the COVID year of 2020.
It’s clear how much of an impact Johnson-Lynch has had on the program. She shaped the team and the atmosphere around Cyclone volleyball into today’s winning team.
Johnson-Lynch has made an impact on the volleyball scene from her time as a setter for Nebraska, where she helped lead to an NCAA Championship win, to turning the Cyclones into perennial NCAA Tournament contenders. Along the way, the Cyclones have made appearances in two Elite Eight games and five Sweet 16 games.
The Cyclones have also finished third in the Big 12 in eight of the past 10 seasons. The culture Johnson-Lynch created made the Cyclones a constant national contender.
The change in culture has not only impacted success on the pitch but also in the stands. The popularity of Cyclone Volleyball has continued to grow, and the number of spectators reflects this.
In 2021, the Cyclones ranked 23rd in the nation in average attendance. This isn’t the first year they’ve been on the national rankings, as most years Iowa State is near the top of the nation.
The game that got the ball rolling and saw Iowa State become the powerhouse of recent times dates back to 2009, when Johnson-Lynch led the Cyclones to a narrow win over a top-10 ranked Nebraska team. . It was the first time in school history that the Cyclones defeated the Cornhuskers and 10,203 fans witnessed the story.
Now fans continue to support the volleyball team in every way possible due to the strength of the program. The Hilton Magic plays in the success of volleyball just as much as other sports in the state of Iowa.
Impact of Title IX and more to come
The success of the Iowa State volleyball program is monumental. However, this success might not have been possible without Title IX.
Title IX opened the door for women to participate in collegiate sports and prompted the creation of tournaments like the NCAA Championship that the Cyclones became familiar with. Not only are there opportunities to compete on an equal footing with men, but women also enjoy the educational benefits that come with scholarships and funding.
Title IX plays a huge role in the experiences of female student-athletes, but it also equips strong young women with skills that help them become successful leaders. Johnson-Lynch benefited from Title IX and did some amazing things at Iowa State.
Former Senior Women’s Administrator Elaine Hieber spoke about the importance of having very talented and dedicated women in head coaching positions. When Title IX was first introduced, over 90% of women’s programs had female head coaches. By 2022, that number has dropped to just over 40%.
There are plenty of women who are perfect for head coaching careers, like Johnson-Lynch, but colleges seem to be moving in different directions. Title IX has done a great job introducing opportunities for women in athletics, but that doesn’t mean the work has to stop there.
“We still have a lot of hurdles to break down,” Hieber said. “Not just in competition but in coaching.”
There have been 50 years of women competing in sport, learning the skills and how to lead. But now that salaries are competitive, coaching has become male-dominated.
A quote that comes to mind from Hieber is that “you have to see it to be it”. Currently, young women see it as easier for them to be university presidents than to be head coaches.
Coaches like Johnson-Lynch are paving the way for a bright future. The volleyball program has been successful under his leadership and continues to grow each year.
As popularity continues to rise, more qualified women will be attracted to head coaching roles. It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but it’s clear the volleyball team is in good hands.
When it comes to fighting for fairness, Hieber says the biggest thing to do is to raise awareness and talk about the changes that still need to be made. Title IX did a great job introducing opportunities, and it continues to evolve in the sport today.