By PAXSON HAWS
When Lindsey Gray-Walton, University of Oklahoma volleyball head coach, and her husband arrived in Norman this year, they knew exactly what the program was missing – something the team needed if it were going to succeed.
Under the previous coach, the volleyball team finished the 2017 season with a 7-22 record. Currently, the team has a 13-10 record with five games remaining. Gray-Walton said the team members was very “cutting” in their communication with one another when she and her husband first arrived.
“I think that’s one big thing that was struggling here at Oklahoma is the kids just wanted to be loved and that was one of the biggest things we pushed when we got here,” Kyle Walton, volunteer assistant coach, said.
Gray-Walton was announced as OU’s volleyball head coach on Dec. 24. Gray-Walton announced her coaching staff on Jan. 22, which included two assistant coaches and a volunteer coach. Among this staff is Gray-Walton’s husband, Kyle, who served as the head coach at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky from 2014-17.
This season is not the first time Gray-Walton and her husband have coached together. The couple coached together at the University of Kentucky from 2012-14 where Lindsey served as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator while Walton was a volunteer coach. But this will be the first season where the couple is in a coaching position that gives them the power to make decisions.
Though Walton served as a head coach before moving to Oklahoma with his wife, he wanted to be with his wife as she created her own program for the first time.
“Lindsey and I wanted to coach together,” Walton said. “We wanted to do it together and see what we were capable of.”
While hiring a family member may seem questionable, Alyssa Enneking, senior outside hitter says it helps keep an “open relationship” and gives the team a personal connection to the coaching staff.
The university has a policy in place to prevent two family members related through blood or marriage working in the same department. The policy is in place to ensure one family member is not in a position to make suggestions about the others employment, salary, etc. OU’s Board of Regents knows there could be value in having two members of the same family in one department, so there is a way around this policy.
The appropriate vice president can recommend a waiver be signed. This waiver would include designating an objective individual to make employment and salary recommendations for the family member on the waiver. Once the Board of Regents approves the waiver, the family member can be hired.
This waiver has been used several times throughout campus, especially with the current coaching staffs in the athletic department. Patty Gasso and her son JT coach the softball team. Lon Kruger, men’s basketball coach, has his son Kevin on staff as does Sherri Coale, the women’s basketball coach, who also hired her son Colton. Women’s gymnastics has K.J. Kindler and her husband, Lou Ball.
Taking over a program is a large undertaking. Gray-Walton had to create a relationship with each student-athlete, create a work dynamic with a new coaching staff and coach the team on her “philosophies.” Walton’s previous experience in doing this played a part in her decision to bring him on.
“Those first 15 months are a grind and you need someone who’s lived that life before,” Gray-Walton said. “It just so happened that he had.”
With a 5-year-old girl, Berkley, and one on the way, Gray-Walton says the mixture of their family life and professional life makes life easier overall.
“Before it was like I’m here on this day and you’re here on that day and what are we going to do with her,” Gray-Walton said. “Now, it’s like we’re both in the same place. Either we can have a family member come in if we need someone to watch our daughter. We all know where we’re going to be.”
Before taking the job at Oklahoma, Gray-Walton and her husband spent the past three season coaching at different schools. Walton said he has different “philosophies on certain skills and how things should be taught” but he has learned a lot from his wife, especially in terms of communicating with the players.
“I think the time away helped up both establish what we believe in and what we need to do at the highest level,” Gray-Walton said. “Now we’re kind of combining those powers.”
One reason Gray-Walton and her husband work so well together is the constant discussions they have. Walton said he and his wife do not always agree on everything when coaching which helps create discussion. Gray-Walton says they balance each other out because she can become serious quickly and he is able to keep her laughing.
With both Gray-Walton and her husband having very similar schedules now, it’s not uncommon to see their daughter watching and helping out at practices. Berkley can be found passing volleyballs to her father during drills and watching the team practice from the sidelines.
“Having Berkley around helps us understand that it’s bigger than just us,” Enneking said. “We do it for more than just us. We’ll look over and see Berkley just looking at us with stars in her eyes. She really admires us. It really puts into perspective what we do here and it’s not just volleyball.”
The couple believes the team has a better connection than previous years. They also agree that there is a family feeling within the team and with Sooner Nation.
“The inclusion of family, for sure, is felt my everyone in our program,” Gray-Walton said. “Ultimately, you got to be able to laugh at yourself. Families are weird. They’re kind of funky at times so we just try to have a really good time.”
Walton says to create these relationships, he has to be able to relate to the girls so he calls himself a “players coach.” This means he watches some of the TV shows and listens to some of the same music as members of the team to help create conversations.
“They’re kind of like our fun aunt and uncle off the court,” Enneking said. “They are some of the coolest people ever. We love being a part of their family.”
Enneking and her team had been bonding with Gray-Walton and her family for several months when they learned their volleyball family would be growing by one.
In October, Gray-Walton purchased a pair of baby-sized Nike shoes with blue and pink laces and presented them to Keyton Kinley, a sophomore on the team who has small feet and struggles to find the correct shoe size.
The team laughed at the joke before realizing the shoes weren’t for Kinley. Gray-Walton was letting the team know she was expecting another child.
Enneking said she liked being included in the announce. It made the team truly feel like they were a part of Gray-Walton’s family.