A chance encounter with a hall-of-fame tennis player put former USA Volleyball setter Donald Suxho at the helm of what promises to be one of the world’s premier volleyball academies.
In July, IMG Academy hired the two-time Olympian to oversee its new girls volleyball program. IMG Academy, a private boarding sports academy in Bradenton, Florida, Suxho said, had been discussing ways to increase the female population on its 600-acre campus.
Volleyball was seen as the logical choice.
“Because of the popularity and the growth (of volleyball), they said this is a no-brainer,” Suxho, 46, said. “Girls volleyball is the fastest growing youth sport in America.”
IMG Academy began in 1978 as the Nick Bolletteri Tennis Academy. The success of the tennis program led to the academy expanding to include golf. For the next 30 years, more sports were added, and the inception of the girls volleyball program brings IMG Academy’s roster of sports to 15.
IMG has students from middle school through high school (age 19). Students can go to “day” school there but not participate in sports, choose boarding school but no sports, do both boarding school and sports or just come for the sports programs with no boarding.
The school draws from all over the world. Of the approximately 1,400 students who attend, Suxho said, about 30% come from outside the USA.
And while IMG Academy accepts students from everywhere, it doesn’t accept everyone.
“There are certain standards in terms of grades and level,” Suxho said. “If kids have red flags at school or in sports or there are issues, it doesn’t matter if you are the son of LeBron James. If your kid is getting arrested or kicked out of school, you will not get in here.
“The overall culture at IMG is we prepare the best student-athletes for the next phase of their lives. Aside from the (education) curriculum we have, we have leadership training, we have mental training, we have yoga, nutrition training, peak performance training. We create really effective human beings on and off the court.
“For sure the No. 1 goal is to go to college, the best college possible, and earn a degree. But some of these kids want to go pro. Basketball, football, they want to go pro, so we do that as well.”
The plan for the girls volleyball program was to open in 2023, adding it to the list of the Academy’s girls sports that also includes basketball, golf, lacrosse, soccer, tennis and track and field. But IMG needed someone to oversee volleyball.
Enter Lindsay Davenport, former world No. 1 women’s tennis player and winner of three Grand Slam tournaments. Though she made her mark on a different court, Davenport came from a volleyball family.
Her father, Wink Davenport, played volleyball for Team USA in the 1968 Mexico City Games. Her mother, Ann, was the head of the Southern California Volleyball Association, and her two older sisters were college volleyball players.
Suxho, who played collegiately at USC, was in the Los Angeles area coaching his son’s club team, and, he said, he often visited the Emerald Bay neighborhood in Laguna Beach, where many of his friends lived. One of those friends introduced him to Davenport, who happened to be looking for someone to coach her daughter, an aspiring setter.
“So I was coaching her daughter. She really liked it. They really liked me,” Suxho said. “We became friends. (Davenport’s) son goes to IMG for tennis, so she said, ‘Donnie, IMG is starting volleyball. They’re hiring a director. You should really put your name in the hat.’
“I applied and went through six months of interviews, so I guess they liked me.”
IMG Academy, which is owned by sports marketing firm Endeavor, has preparations for volleyball in high gear. Suxho said a facility that will house a championship court and 10 to 12 practice courts is under construction.
The facility will be complete with LED lighting, a training center and “all the whistles and bells.” Suxho said he can foresee the facility hosting tournaments and, potentially, having Team USA come in for a tournament.
There also will be sand volleyball courts outside the new building.
“We own 600 acres,” Suxho said. “So my leadership said, ‘How many (sand courts) do you want? Six? Twelve? Thirty?’ ”
Suxho will oversee the entirety of the volleyball program. Though every sport at IMG is under the Academy’s watch, each sport has a degree of autonomy, so Suxho will hire a cadre of managers and coaches for the program. There will be a program manager, who reports directly to Suxho, a student-athlete advisor, coaches, assistant coaches, etc.
All are full-time posts.
“I was shocked that they hired me this far in advance, a year in advance,” Suxho said. “It’s kind of a honeymoon. They on-boarded me slowly. There’s a lot of departments here. It’s kind of learning every day, shadowing other departments, how they do it.
“It’s going great. I love it. They are who they say they are. What they say, they do, and that’s hard to find these days.”
The volleyball teams will compete at the club level, and Suxho hopes to launch three teams when the program begins next fall. Eventually, beach teams will be added, and boys volleyball also could be on the horizon.
Suxho said he has been impressed by IMG’s commitment to volleyball. It wasn’t just an add-on for the sake of window dressing. He said the Academy is “very invested and committed” to the sports. So, too, is Under Armour, a major sponsor of IMG Academy that also is heavily invested in volleyball.
In the long run, Suxho wants to create elite club teams that will compete for national championships as well as have development teams for local players. How big volleyball gets, he said, is still to be seen, but he is optimistic the program will be a huge success.
“For me, when they were interviewing me, they asked, ‘What is your vision?’ ” Suxho said. “I want this to become the best training center in the world, where people from all over the world can come and train and develop here and reach their full potential.
“We have the data. We have the services. We have the technology. We have the facilities. We have the staffing. I want IMG to become the center of volleyball in the world for training and for events and learning and sharing.
“Basketball started with 20 kids. Right now they have 20 teams, so the sky is the limit.”