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Jerry Sullivan: Gleason's coaching odyssey winds up at Daemen

Money? Coaching volleyball has never been about the money. Back in the spring of 2013, Don Gleason worked as a volunteer assistant at USC. On his way back home to Buffalo from California, the Hamburg native worked half a dozen or more camps along the way.

Denver, Illinois, Purdue University, Bowling Green ... it was the journey of a lifetime for a young volleyball junkie. As Gleason made his way across the country, his love for the sport expanded as his wallet grew progressively thinner.

"When I got back to Buffalo, my bank account was negative-$43," Gleason said Friday after being introduced as the head coach for the Daemen men's team. "That's something I look back on fondly. Summer of 2013."

By then, Gleason knew that coaching was his calling. Two years earlier, he had earned his master's degree from RIT in industrial engineering. He had a 4.0 GPA. He had college loans. What he didn't have was the drive to be an engineer.

During his graduate year in college, at 22, he had begun coaching club volleyball in Rochester. He would spend four hours a week with the kids in practices and tournaments. During class, he'd be engineering practice plans in his head.

"It kind of dawned on me, 'Why am I so passionate about something that I'm only spending four hours a week on?' " Gleason said. " 'Maybe it's time to reassess this.' "

Sure, he could make more money if he put his RIT degree to use. Starting industrial engineers earn about $65,000 a year. He was bright and had the mind for it. But the people he encountered in coaching seemed to smile more than people in the real world.

He told his folks about his career "pivot" away from engineering to coaching. The natural concerns about finances gave way to the joy any parent feels in knowing a child has found his true passion in life.

"I was all for it, absolutely," said his mother, Kelly. "I want them to do what they love. You get older and you learn that that's important. Very important."

Don Gleason Sr. would sometimes needle his boy, saying "Do you know how much money you could be making now?"

"On the flip side, I've seen too many people miserable at work for 30 or 40 years," Don Sr. said. "Chase it, you know? He's always been great on the court – point guard, setter, helping out the other guys on the court."

So Gleason chased the dream hard. Like any novice coach, he toiled in the small places. He spent a year as a men's and women's assistant at Medaille, two years as women's assistant at Yale, then a year each with the women at UB and Stony Brook.

He was close to a couple of head jobs, barely losing out. This past season, he assisted Stephanie Albano with the Daemen women's team that reached the Sweet 16 of the Division II Tournament.

Finally, he got his big chance. Daemen announced early this week that it will be adding a men's volleyball team, which will begin competition in NCAA Division II in the 2018-19 season. Gleason is their new head coach.

"I kept the faith, stayed patient, and this opportunity is more than I could have asked for," Gleason said. "Being local, being from Buffalo, being able to work on the men's side of volleyball. For everything to fall into place, and so quickly, it's really exciting."

It's a great opportunity for Gleason, and for Western New York volleyball. Daemen becomes the first college in the area to offer the men's game – and the lure of scholarship money – above the Division III level. In fact, they're the only such program in New York State.

Gleason said the local volleyball community has long been "perplexed" by the lack of a men's program in a hotbed for the sport. Western New York turns out a lot of major college players. Matt Anderson, one of the best players on the planet and a two-time Olympian, is from West Seneca.

Ohio State, which played Brigham Young for the NCAA title on Saturday, has two players from the area. Christy Blough of McQuaid is the Buckeyes' setter. Hamburg grad Zach Yerington is a redshirt freshman. There's a long list of locals who have gone to college careers.

"There are so many players right now out of Buffalo and Rochester who are playing at high-level programs," Gleason said. "I have to assume that with this opportunity, some of them would have loved to stay local and would have appreciated the opportunity to play at Daemen."

Expanding opportunity has been Bridget Niland's vision since becoming athletic director in 2014. A year later, Daemen went to D-II. Niland said sports keep a campus "full and robust." She said the percentage of athletes at the college has increased threefold since 2010.

Niland said the announcement of a men's volleyball program – the school's 17th sport – and Gleason's hiring was a nice conclusion to an "incredible week" for Daemen. On Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke in a town hall in the school gym.

The men's volleyball program got a $60,000 boost from the MotorMVB Foundation, a national organization that is dedicated to increasing the number of DI and DII men's teams and the scholarship money for those programs.

Anderson, who played against Gleason in high school and on the club level, helped by writing a letter of support to the college.

"I reached out to Matt, and he was very responsive, surprisingly," Gleason said. "He was in the middle of his playoff push in Russia. He definitely had his finger in this, helping to get this opportunity."

Gleason will have time to put together a new program. The Wildcats won't debut until January 2019, so he has a year to prepare and to recruit 12 to 15 players for the 2018-19 school year.

"I promise I won't leave any rock unturned," he said. "It's going to start right in Buffalo and Rochester. There's plenty of talented kids in that junior class.

"It's been a long six years of paying my dues and earning my stripes. To have it culminate here today is fantastic. It reassures me that if you follow what your passion is, you're going to find your way."

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