Evidence of the humblest dynasty in college sports is encased in glass just off Hamline Avenue in St. Paul. National championship trophies are wedged in a case far too small to handle the volume. And they won’t stop coming.
The architect of these triumphs does not come in the expected flavors of the successful collegiate coach. He’s neither saccharine salesman nor blustery sociopath. He is soft of voice, a bit sheepish, clearly reticent to be speaking of himself.
He’s Brady Starkey, coach of Concordia University’s women’s volleyball team, winner of eight Division II national championships in the past 10 years.
This is an unlikely place to build an empire. The school is an afterthought to most Minnesotans, stuffed between factories and freeway in central St. Paul, enveloped by a neighborhood that’s seen better days.
In the beginning, the team was just as inauspicious. They were too small, and Division II allows for only eight full-time scholarships, not enough to complete a roster. So Starkey recruited bright young women who could win academic scholarships.
“When you get smart kids, they already have a work ethic because they want to get good grades,” he says.Thus began the ascent.
“It started with the kinds of kids we were getting. They were incredibly hard-working. They kind of built the culture.”
That culture would begin to attract bigger, more talented players. The order of the day would be relentless improvement. “We just push our kids. You’re never done getting better. We try to push them until the moment they leave.”
As the championships mounted, Starkey found himself behind the wheel of the perfect sporting machine. It was a team that would out-smart you, out-work you, and wouldn’t fall prey to the ingredients of self-combustion like ego and jealousy.
“These kids are such exceptional people. We don’t have any problems, any drama.”
You don’t win eight national titles without the bigger fish noticing. More prestigious schools have come calling, wondering if the coach might be willing to transport his winning ways to their teams. He’s not moving.
Starkey was raised in south Minneapolis. His extended family is here. His daughters, 12 and 13, are thriving in Lakeville. This is where he truly parts company with star coaches of the college ranks: He is not one to put his own ambitions above the needs of others.
“For me to take them away from that,” he says of his daughters, “that would be selfish of me.”
Besides, the tiny school in St. Paul can offer something more than money or acclaim.
“It’s always so cool to see how unbelievably confident they are when they leave,” he says of his players. “That’s the one thing that hooked me the most.”