Title IX: Volleyball and the power of leadership

Cyclones celebrate after scoring against Stanford at the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 3, 2021.

Christian Royston

Iowa State fans pack into a crowded Hilton Coliseum as excitement begins to fill the air. They aren’t here to see the men’s or women’s basketball teams hit the court; they’re here to see one thing, Iowa State volleyball.

For years, the Iowa State volleyball team has garnered attention from not only Iowa State fans but volleyball fans across the nation. The success they’ve seen under the direction of Christy Johnson-Lynch has put them on the map.

Volleyball may be a staple of Iowa State athletics now, but like all sports, it started from humble beginnings. All the ups and downs and overall excitement surrounding Iowa State volleyball wouldn’t have been possible without the impact of Title IX 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 throughout the years.

Slow start

The landscape of the Big 12 looked very different 50 years ago compared to now. This is also true for volleyball at Iowa State.

For starters, before 1997, Iowa State competed in the Big Eight Conference. While in the Big Eight, the Cyclones appeared in just one NCAA Tournament.

Even before that time, the conference was still finding its footing. In 1973, just one year after Title IX came into effect, the volleyball team was put together under the direction of the first head coach Gloria Crosby.

Crosby would only coach the Cyclones for two years before handing the reigns over. The early years of Cyclone volleyball didn’t look like one might expect.

There wasn’t as much organization under the Big Eight as there is now in the Big 12. The team played most of their games in regional tournaments while having occasional matches against teams that were available to play.

In 1976, the Big Eight introduced a tournament to make the conference more competitive. Even then, teams within the conference wouldn’t play each other during the season until 1982.

During the transition to conference play, Mary Fischl was the team’s head coach. Coaching changes were not uncommon at this time, as Fischl would be the fifth coach in less than 10 years before signing over her role to Vicki Mealer in 1985.

Mealer turned around Iowa State’s success within the conference, but it wasn’t until Jackie Nunez’s time 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 was anything but smooth sailing. Under three different head coaches from 1997-2004, the Cyclones had just one season with more than one win in conference play and finished 11th in the conference seven out of the eight years.

A change was needed to get the Cyclones back on the right track, and they had their eyes set on one person who would be able to get the job done.

Christy Johnson-Lynch changes the game

In December of 2004, the Cyclones named Johnson-Lynch head coach. After a very successful playing and coaching career at Nebraska and Wisconsin, it was time for Johnson-Lynch to make her impact at Iowa State.

The year before Johnson-Lynch joined, the Cyclones won just one conference game. After her first year in Ames, they moved to sixth in the Big 12. One year later, the Cyclones would be in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in history.

Under the direction of Johnson-Lynch, the Cyclones made the NCAA Tournament 15 times since 2006. The only year they missed the tournament was during the COVID year of 2020.

It is clear how much of an impact Johnson-Lynch has had on the program. She molded the team and the atmosphere around Cyclone volleyball into the winning team seen today.

Johnson-Lynch has impacted the volleyball scene from her time as a setter for Nebraska, where she contributed to an NCAA Championship win, to turning the Cyclones into perennial competitors in the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, the Cyclones have made appearances in two Elite Eight matches and five Sweet 16 matches.

The Cyclones also finished third in the Big 12 in eight of the last 10 seasons. The culture that Johnson-Lynch created has made the Cyclones a consistent national competitor.

The shift in culture didn’t just impact the success on the court but also in the stands. The popularity of Cyclone volleyball has been consistently rising, and the attendance numbers reflect that.

In 2021, the Cyclones ranked 23rd in the nation in average attendance. This isn’t the first year they have been in the national rankings, as most years, Iowa State is near the top of the nation.

The game that set the ball in motion and saw Iowa State turn into the powerhouse of recent times was back in 2009, when Johnson-Lynch led the Cyclones to a close win over a top-10 ranked Nebraska team. This was the first time in school history that the Cyclones beat the Cornhuskers and 10,203 fans were witness to history.

Now, fans continue to support the volleyball team any way they can because of how strong the program has become. The Hilton Magic plays into volleyball’s success just as much as other sports at Iowa State.

Impact of Title IX and more to come

The success the Iowa State volleyball program has seen is monumental. However, this success may not have been possible without Title IX.

Title IX opened the door for women to compete in collegiate sports and pushed for the creation of tournaments like the NCAA Championship that the Cyclones have become familiar with. Not only are there opportunities to compete on an equal playing field as men, but women also get the benefits of the education that comes with scholarships and funding.

Title IX plays a huge role in student-athletes’ experiences, but it also allows strong young women to gather skills that help them become successful leaders. Johnson-Lynch benefitted from Title IX and has done incredible things at Iowa State.

Former Senior Women’s Administrator Elaine Hieber talked about the importance of having highly talented and devoted women in head coaching positions. When Title IX was first introduced, over 90 percent of women’s programs had female head coaches. In 2022, that number dropped to just over 40 percent.

There are plenty of women who are perfect fits for head coaching careers, like Johnson-Lynch, yet colleges seem to be moving in different directions. Title IX did a great job introducing opportunities to women in athletics, but that doesn’t mean the work should stop there.

“We still have a lot of barriers to break down,” Hieber said. “Not only in competing but in coaching.”

There have been 50 years of women competing in sports, learning the skills and how to lead. But now that the salaries are competitive, coaching has become male-dominated.

One quote that Hieber said comes to mind is that “you have to see it to be it.” Currently, young women see that it is easier for them to be university presidents than head coaches.

Coaches such as Johnson-Lynch are paving the way for a bright future. The volleyball program has seen success under her direction and continues to grow every year.

As popularity continues to rise, more skilled women will be attracted to head coaching roles. It’s hard to say what the future holds, but it’s clear that the volleyball team is in good hands.

When it comes to fighting for equity, Hieber says the biggest thing to do is raise awareness and speak out about the changes that still need to be made. Title IX did a great job introducing opportunities, and it’s still evolving sports today.