While sitting in Lizzy Stemke’s office at the Ramsey Center, a flood of reflections came rushing to the forefront.
The affiliations in her life and career with familiar sports figures stimulates confidence that she brings the foundation for success to the Bulldogs’ volleyball program.
Friendships and affiliations don’t guarantee victories or championships, but it is clear that she and her husband – Kevin, who played football at Wisconsin – have always been linked with successful coaches and winning traditions and at least one Bulldog she never knew.
Immediately, there was a flashback to the time when Bernie Ramsey, a small-town matriculate at the University of Georgia who took his UGA business degree, shrewd financial judgment, investment savvy and opportune timing to Wall Street where he amassed a small fortune, part of which he shared with his alma mater.
If Stemke had known the late Bernard Ramsey (the Ramsey Center is named for his wife), it is likely that they would have immediately formed a mutual admiration for one another.
They would have bonded with a handclasp of affection and a high-fiving respect toward making a great university even greater. I thought of Bernie Ramsey, a remarkable alumnus, as Stemke and I reminisced about mutual friends and liaisons, along with her enthusiasm for taking Bulldog volleyball to the top.
She is the daughter of Billy Fitzgerald, who coached basketball and baseball at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans, where a trio of kids named Manning – Cooper, Peyton, and Eli – came under his tutelage.
"Lizzy was a fine athlete whose father has influenced a lot of kids, including ours," Archie Manning said. "Our kids were crazy about Billy Fitzgerald. She will do well as a head coach."
Stemke’s older brother Edmond played basketball at Ole Miss, her younger brother Robert played baseball at Tennessee and her sister Meg played volleyball at Florida.
Any casual observer would say that her DNA makes her a good fit for life as a coach.
"We grew up in gyms," she said smiling appreciatively.
Stemke, the only Fitzgerald to leave the Southland, made All-America in volleyball at Wisconsin, but a highlight of her life came about from that change of address.
It was in Madison where she met her husband.
Kevin played for Barry Alvarez, who returned the Badgers to the Rose Bowl after a 31-year drought, convincing folks in Madison that their team could compete against the dominant teams in the Big Ten – Michigan and Ohio State – and reminded everybody there were two teams in the state of Wisconsin that could win football championships.
Not everybody in the state waves Packer green and gold. Kevin was the inaugural winner of the Ray Guy Award, something of a Georgia tie for the Stemkes.
Stemke comes to Athens from Nebraska, where she was an assistant volleyball coach on teams that experienced four NCAA appearances, including a national title.
Prior to her stay in Lincoln, she was an assistant at North Carolina. Her résumé reveals that at Nebraska she was multi-faceted, handling everything from recruiting to academics to clinics and video management.
"I thought Lizzy related well to her players, was a very hard worker, and obviously knows volleyball," Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne praised via e-mail.
Interestingly, Stemke the recruiter became the recruited.
"Greg McGarity set the tone in the interview process and was so persuasive," she says. "I kept hearing what I wanted to hear. That he wants to be a pacesetter in all sports and that he will give us the resources to do our job. What more can you ask for?
"We know we will love the outdoor opportunities here, and we are great football fans. We are enthralled with sports on a college campus – the environment, camaraderie and excited crowds at an athletic contest. We hope to stay in college athletics for a lifetime. It is such a great way of life."
• Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald. E-mail: email@example.com