Coach Close-Up: Ryan Theis’ Unlikely Path To Ohio

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If you were asked to name the Ohio University head coach who, in his first four seasons at the helm of a Bobcats athletic program, has accumulated four consecutive regular-season Mid-American Conference Eastern Division Championships, three consecutive MAC Tournament Championships, and an overall winning percentage of .716, would you be able to name them?

The name “Ryan Theis” is not one of the most well known at Ohio University, but if you look past the high-profile sport programs on campus, you will find one of the most successful coaches in the athletic department. Not bad for a guy in his first head coaching position at the Division-I level, and who is just 12 years removed from college himself. 

Theis’ path to his current position was an unlikely one, especially considering that he may have never picked up a volleyball in the first place had it not been for an injury.

“I couldn’t play football anymore because of my knees,” said Theis, “I had a really bad case of Osgood-Schlatter.” 

Osgood-Schlatter is an irritation, characterized by painful lumps below the knee, which often affects the developing bodies of adolescents.  Typically, the injury is treatable.  Most young people with Osgood-Schlatter stop feeling it’s effects after treatment and/or when they stop growing.  Theis was not so lucky.

“Mine actually got worse,” he said, “I ended up having surgery after my junior year in college.  But in terms of football, I couldn’t get hit in the knees and I was a running back.  So I just kind of switched to volleyball.”

This unlikely transition to volleyball was even more preposterous when you consider that Theis’ middle school did not actually have a men’s volleyball team.

“My eighth grade year, I basically only got to practice with the girls team,” explained Theis, “But I couldn’t play in any games…I just practiced every day.  But when I got to the high school [where there was a men’s team] I had a little bit of a jumpstart.” 

Theis had demonstrated, through that early dedication, that he had a true passion for the game.  After four years of high school competition, he was able to walk on to the squad at his university of study, Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  The branch school in the University of Wisconsin system had a Division-I men’s volleyball program at the time.  Still, he barely made the roster, as a third-string setter.  Theis rarely played his freshman season.

Things were further complicated when Wisconsin-Milwaukee cut the varsity men’s volleyball program.  The situation did not appear to have the ingredients to make a Division-I varsity head coach out of Ryan Theis, but his love for the sport allowed him to continue to compete.

“Me and some teammates stayed and ran a men’s club team,” Theis said, “We turned out to be pretty good.  We had four or five D-I players.  We made [the national club tournament] all three years and finished fifth once.”

Still, Theis, a kinesiology major, was not even considering making a career out of volleyball, until a chance conversation with a friend.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” said Theis about his early career prospects, “I thought maybe P.E. teacher and coach high school volleyball on the side.  I never really thought of it as a career until a teammate told me that he wanted to do volleyball.  He wanted to be an assistant out in California and get his grad school paid for and help coach.  I was like ‘Wow!  That sounds like a really good idea.’ I had never really thought about it as a job before then.”    

Before his college career ended, Theis began to assist the Wisconsin-Milwaukee women’s volleyball team.  The university helped him get his first job as an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois University.

“I had a phenomenal full-time salary of $15,000,” Theis said, “But Eastern Illinois gave employees six free credits for graduate school.  So I finished my masters while I was there.  I stayed at Eastern for two years.”

Theis took up duties as recruiting coordinator for Eastern Illinois in his final season, in which the Panthers won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and earned their first berth in the NCAA National Championship.

After his time with Eastern Illinois came to an end, Theis began a period of recurring transition.  He first moved to assist at Indiana University for two seasons.  He also served as a scout and game plan coordinator for the Hoosiers.  Indiana made the NCAA Tournament in 2002, and finished just outside the AVCA poll top-25.

Theis was then hired to assist at Northwestern University where, in another two seasons, he enhanced his reputation as a top recruiter.  In 2005, during his second season in Evanston, the Wildcats collected 10 more wins than they did the previous year.  But something even more significant happened while he was coaching there.

“I got engaged,” he said, “My wife, Jennifer Manz, was an assistant at Northwestern when I was an assistant at Northwestern.  We ended up going to the University of Florida, her alma mater, to coach as a package deal.”

Jenny Manz was an All-American volleyball star during her time in Gainsville.  Ironically, she had been playing in the NCAA championships while Theis was an assistant with the varsity team at Wisconsin-Milwaukee when they traveled to Florida to play in the same tournament.

“I saw her play,” reflected Theis, “I never met her. I never saw her again until I was an assistant at Indiana while she was assisting at Northwestern.  When we both assisted at Northwestern we got engaged.”

Talk about a small world.

Theis’ two-season tenure as a coach and a recruiting coordinator at Florida was special.  The team compiled a silly-good overall winning percentage of .908 (.950 in the Southeastern Conference), won two conference titles and went to the national semifinals two times.  One of Theis’ recruiting classes was ranked as the no. 1 class of the year.

After all of his success as an assistant, Theis was hired to be the head coach of the Ohio University women’s varsity volleyball team before the 2008 season.  Now in his fifth season coaching at Ohio, Theis is continuing his success.  However, after speeding up the career-ladder, it finally seems like he has found a home in Athens. 

Through a wild, unpredictable, and perhaps destined ride to Athens, Ohio, Theis and his family finally seem to be settling in.  Carter, the five-year old son of Ryan and Jenny, was just signed up to play in a local Under-6 soccer league and is beginning his second year in Athens School District.  Their other son, Caleb, is five-months old.

When asked about his feelings on coaching in this community, Theis immediately responded, “I love it here.  It’s home.  I’ve never been anywhere this long, but what I’m doing next is an afterthought.  I love the community and their support of the volleyball team.  It’s a great place to live and my comfort level is very high.”