Nathan Matthews won his second consecutive volleyball coach of the year in leading Wittenberg. | Molly Kennedy

By all accounts, Wittenberg University head men’s volleyball coach Nathan Matthews has been a success, winning two consecutive coach of the year awards in his conference and leading his Tigers to two regular season conference titles.

Doing it all as an out gay man is actually a big reason for his success, he contends.

“I absolutely think it’s an advantage at this point,” Matthew told Outsports after winning his second consecutive coach of the year award from the Midwest Collegiate Volleyball League and leading the Tigers to a perfect regular season record before losing in the tournament finals.

“This year was probably the coolest team culture that I’ve ever gotten to be a part of,” said Matthews, 27. “It makes it a pretty safe atmosphere for any of our players that are queer. … But it extends beyond that.

“Our guys feel safe to express their genuine self, whether it’s the type of music they like, or that they’re a nerd or that they want to play video games. It’s a pretty low-judgment zone, just kind of accepting people for who they are. In sports, it’s not always like that; it can be hypermasculine or chest-beating. I do think what we have is pretty cool.”

That he has fostered a safe space is shown by the fact that “several” Wittenberg players have come out to him, Matthews said, adding that assistant coach and former Tigers player Ryan Roarke is also an out gay man. Matthews, who came out as gay in an Outsports essay in 2016, had no need to have a “coming out talk” with his team because “I think that’s something that’s very well known on campus and in the men’s volleyball community.”

Natan Matthews is the men's volleyball coach at Wittenberg University in Ohio.
Natan Matthews says his Wittenberg team bonded through adversity. | Sarah Trisel

This is Matthews’ third season as head coach at Wittenberg, a job he took after a successful stint at the University of Kentucky women’s volleyball team as technical coordinator, which culminated in the Wildcats winning the 2020 NCAA title. He has long had the desire to coach, coaching two high school volleyball teams while at the same time playing in college at age 19.

This season started with the Tigers stumbling to a 1-5 record, which led to some finger-pointing for a team with lofty expectations. Matthews said the team worked hard to “transcend selfishness” and the Tigers wound up the regular season with an unbeaten record in conference play.

Everything on court became secondary in February, when Stephanie Monnin, the mother of Tigers player Reese Monnin, died unexpectedly, sending the volleyball community into mourning. Monnin was a longtime club and high school volleyball coach and someone Matthews described as Wittenberg’s “team mom,” the person who would offer sage advice while serving up brownies. There was no playbook for how to help the team cope.

“She had coached and known several of our players growing up, and then she’d gotten to know the whole team,” Matthews said of Monnin. “That added another element that made it really difficult.”

Two people who helped him the most to deal with his emotions and how to help the team process her dying were Craig Skinner, the head women’s coach at Kentucky, and the Rev. Tracy Paschke-Johannes, a pastor at Wittenberg. Paschke-Johannes was “super helpful in helping us navigate the whole situation. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise,” he said.

Matthews won the conference coach of the year award last season after taking Wittenberg from last to first place. He said winning it a second time meant more “given everything we went through this season.”

In an Instagram post after winning coach of the year, Matthews’ message was brimming with pride.

“The 2024 Wittenberg Men’s Volleyball team was special. They persevered through tragedy and adversity to become a true team. They forged a well-oiled machine that reached a level of performance this program has never seen. They achieved greatness on their way to the first undefeated conference season in our program’s history. But what every member of this team will never forget, is the way they made each other feel. They loved each other, they supported each other, and they grew into something great together.”

Being out and visible “does send a really good message to our guys that they should be genuine and that they should be themselves and that it’s safe to do that,” said Matthews, who added that he’s not aware of any other out gay head coaches in men’s college volleyball.

“I think it’s pretty clear that that’s taken root in our team’s culture. It’s allowed all of our players to thrive and really feel like they’re part of a family.”

Off the court, Matthews just bought a house in Columbus, Ohio, with his partner of two years, Daniel Koloff, himself a volleyball player. The two grew up near each other and played on a high school all-star team together. Ironically, they were roommates on that team, but neither was out at the time.

Nathan Matthews, left, and Daniel Koloff are partners and live in Columbus, Ohio.

While Matthews stayed close to home and played collegiately at Wittenberg, Koloff attended Liberty University where he played on the school’s club team. The two men then reconnected two years ago in Columbus and have been partners since.

When I asked Matthews if he and Koloff would play on a doubles team together, he laughed, saying “that could be risky.”

Matthews is one of those LGBTQ people in sports who make a difference daily simply by being themselves (in addition to being a great coach). The impact of being out transcends the person and influences the culture of their team and sport. His second straight coach of the year award is testament to the power of authenticity.