Bill Steele can be forgiven for allowing himself a little more “me” time these days.
After devoting more than 30 years of his life to coaching, primarily volleyball, the retired teacher (2008) can point to a lifetime of involvement that benefitted young athletes. The fact that so many have followed in his footsteps leaves behind a lasting legacy.
Having relocated to New Hamburg (Ontario) and spending most winters in Arizona, Steele now maintains his perpetual attachment to sport in a different manner than during most of his time in Sudbury.
“I had a really great ride with volleyball, I really enjoyed it,” said the soon-to-be septuagenarian. “But when everyone else was out golfing or playing tennis, I didn’t do that - so it’s my time to catch up.”
With a competitive background in basketball, football and track, Steele moved from his homestead in Kirkland Lake, attending Laurentian University in the early 1970s, pursuing his degree in Physical Education. For the next thirty years, he would call Sudbury home.
As is so often the case with stories such as this, Steele was a product of his environment. His first job posting as a teacher would come at Chelmsford Valley District Composite School at a time when the Flyers were the envy of many a volleyball program in the city thanks to the work of the late Rod Lum.
“He was a different kettle of fish,” said Steele, with a laugh. “He always treated me really well. He was a hard core fundamentalist, a real stickler on technique and detail when it came to skill instruction. That was the great thing that I picked up from Rod; that’s where my grounding in volleyball came in.”
“He encouraged me to get my levels in coaching, and then to attend volleyball camps.”
Working with the CVDCS boys team, Steele quickly established a program of excellence, as his Chelmsford lads captured the SDSSAA banner every single year from 1980 to 1984. “I was very lucky to be exposed to some very high end coaches early,” said Steele. “I was just a reflection of many of the great coaches that I was around.”
It was a time when plentiful were those upon whom he could draw inspiration, both in his own sport and otherwise. From the likes of mentors like Ron Preston to those who more closely paralleled his own journey, Steele was part of a larger vision.
“It wasn’t even really a job, more of a passion,” he said. “I had guys like Mitch Lalonde around. We competed in high-school against one another - in the shot put, football, basketball. All of a sudden you meet up with this buddy from high-school, look over and see what he was doing in basketball.”
“I wanted to do the same in volleyball. We were good friends - there was a camaraderie within the coaching group.”
By the time that his local powerhouse climbed to the very top of the provincial mountain, laying claim to the OFSAA A banner in 1986, Bill Steele had moved on, building a whole new dynasty with the Marymount Regals. Though he had established a pathway to success with the Flyers, this new challenge would require a different approach altogether, something of a life-changing approach, to some extent, for the man calling the shots.
“Moving from coaching boys to girls was a night and day change for me,” he said. “I started to understand group dynamics much better when I started working with the girls, just because the makeup of the group was so much different. I quickly started to understand that your approach had to be different.”
“It made me a better person, I can assure you of that, Steele added. “I had grown up in a very male oriented atmosphere, in the locker rooms, on the field, on the courts. Marymount, as an all girls environment, changed me for the better.”
And in return, he would change volleyball for the better at the Regals academy.
From 1987 to 1999, Marymount would emerge no less than nine times as city champs, eight of those coming with Bill Steele at the helm. Though the biggest adjustment may have come in the form of the critical interpersonal relationships he developed with his athletes, the truth is that the game itself is also played somewhat differently when moving from one sex to the other.
“With the girls, rallies were longer, so passing was that much more important, particularly defensive passing,” said Steele. “Technique was just so much more important. Obviously, we were still teaching the attack skills, but they certainly weren’t putting the ball down with the power that the guys do.”
All the while, the sport of volleyball itself was in transition, morphing to accommodate the needs of a newly-emerging viewing audience. “It just continued to evolve,” said Steele. “The introduction of the libero was a big one; jump serving at one time was unheard of. The game became faster. I think the evolution of beach volleyball really had an impetus on the development of the indoor game.”
“You just adjusted to it.”
Looking back, the memories are less about the systems and strategies, and more about the people.
“From my Chelmsford boys’ teams, Tim McCue jumps to mind,” said Steele. “One of the toughest competitors that I ever met - he absolutely drove that team. He wasn’t the best volleyball player I ever had, but what stood out to me was the character.”
In a very similar vein, there was his heir-apparent at Marymount, Tammy Jutila. A driven young athlete when the two met as she entered her first year of high-school, the woman who served as assistant coach throughout her post-secondary years would become the face of the program once Steele shifted his allegiance to the St Benedict Bears, where he closed out his teaching career - along with his work as a volleyball coach.
Two years after his retirement from teaching, Steele moved south.
“I became a snowbird, going to Arizona,” he said. “I did a lot of things that I didn’t expect to do there, getting into a couple of sports that I had never had any contact with: tennis and pickleball.”
Doing things that simply could not be squeezed into a very busy schedule when teaching and coaching are your life.