Skype can be a poor substitute for talking face-to-face.
In the summer of 2009, Karch Kiraly and his wife Janna logged plenty of Skype time. Travel had always been part of his professional volleyball career. Now, though, he was a full-time assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s National Team, on a month long Grand Prix slog across the globe.
And coaching was not the same as playing.
“That first year was gnarly,” Kiraly remembered. “It was a very cold bucket of water in the face.”
“‘Cause, in that first year, we weren’t very good,” said former USA head coach and current University of Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “It was really hard. There were a lot of growing pains for all of us.”
Scouting reports and game plans were scarce. Players and coaches barely knew one another. Hours were brutal. Overseas accommodations were sometimes little better than cold, filthy college dorms.
“We played in a vacuum,” said Kiraly, “very, very far from family.”
“Karch went through a period,” said USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal, “where I think he and Janna asked themselves and asked each other if this is really what they want to do, if this is really the life that they want to have for themselves. It was pretty tough.”
“At some point,” says McCutcheon, “he could have gone the route, Hey, look, I’m Karch Kiraly. I don’t have to do all this stuff. I could go do something else!”
But to the surprise of no one who knows him well, Kiraly persevered. The team jelled, rose to number one in the world, and just missed Olympic gold. Now Beal has tapped Kiraly to try to fill McCutcheon’s considerable shoes and lead the U.S. Women’s National Team through the next quadrennial.
“The National Team job is unlike anything that’s out there,” said McCutcheon. “It forces you to grow and evolve. It stretches you in ways you never thought possible: the pressure, the grind, the amount of work that goes into it, the travel. All of the pieces of the puzzle that make it the best job out there also make it the toughest job out there.”
In truth, Kiraly wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice.
“He might be the greatest player that’s played the game,” said Beal, who coached Kiraly to a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “But you can count on perhaps two hands the really outstanding players who have successfully transitioned to outstanding coaches. The mentality, the focus, the personality – everything about it is different.”
“You don’t have to be intelligent to be a great player,” said Al Scates, Kiraly’s coach at UCLA. “That’s not true with great coaches.”
But that, say those who know Kiraly best, is what sets him apart.
“Karch has a volleyball IQ that’s off the charts,” said McCutcheon. “Not just great – phenomenal.”
“I consider myself somewhat of a volley-dork,” Kiraly admited. “I’m constantly seeking other coaches out, athletes out. I’ll talk to lots of other people about is there a better way?”
Credit for his volleyball IQ, Kiraly said, belongs to those who coached him, all the way back to Rick Olmstead at Santa Barbara High.
“Rick taught us athletes the value of preparation,” said Kiraly, “meticulously and relentlessly well-prepared, especially physically. There is a lightness that comes along with that. And a freedom.”
From Scates, he learned about a different sort of preparation.
“Al was particularly adept at breaking opponents down and studying them,” said Kiraly. “He could pick the lock, find the combination, and exploit opposing teams’ weaknesses.”
Scates also taught him how to handle time outs. “Instead of focusing on the past and on mistakes, Al tends to focus on the future and on the next play. That’s very helpful for athletes.”
Kiraly credits Beal and fellow national team coach Bill Neville with showing him a new and better way to run practices. “As Bill Neville would say, we don’t drill volleyball. We play volleyball.
“They structured an environment of ferocious competition. We had battles in our USA gym that most people couldn’t really comprehend.”
“People who would come and watch would literally be uncomfortable,” said Neville. “It would look like it was a bunch of guys who hated each other. Not true, but they competed that hard.”
Marv Dunphy replaced Beal as U.S. Men’s head coach in 1985. “Marv did a really good job of managing personalities and connecting with athletes and establishing relationships. He based it on a lot of trust,” said Kiraly.
“It wasn’t the easiest of circumstances to take over a team that was number one in the world.”
That, of course, is the same situation facing Kiraly today. But, he says, he and McCutcheon come from the same coaching lineage. He wants the women’s program to emulate the coaching and philosophical continuity pioneered by the U.S. men back in the 1980s.
“This program has tremendous inertia to it,” he said. “I would be crazy to make wholesale, radical changes at this point.”
That suits many of his National Team athletes just fine.
“It’s a huge step for the program,” said libero Tama Miyashiro. “Having ‘The King’ around for another quad allows us to build on all we’ve accomplished the past four years.”
“Karch is a teacher, a motivator, a competitor, and is willing to do whatever necessary to help the team win,” said setter Courtney Thompson. “I’d follow him into battle any day.”
Those whom Kiraly credits for “teaching me how to teach” are equally pleased about Karch’s selection.
“You know what? Karch is wired differently,” said Dunphy. “One of the rarest things people do, is do the best they can. I think we all know Karch is a really rare person.”
“The chances of him being good are great,” said Beal.
But is “being good” good enough? Will anything less than gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics be viewed as failure?
“A lot of your work will be defined by the two hours at the end of two weeks at the end of four years’ worth of effort,” said McCutcheon.
“Everybody’s free to judge me however they want,” responded Kiraly. “But I’ve always been harder on myself than people on the outside are. And I’ll be hard on myself here.”
Four years on, the disruptions of 2009 seem a long way off. His sons are grown. His wife joins him on long road trips. And he’s settling in to perhaps the most high-profile coaching job in American volleyball.
“Someday, the USA women are going to win a World Championship,” he predicted. “Someday they will win a World Cup. And someday they’ll win an Olympics. That’s one of the things I’m excited about, is the opportunity to try to help make that happen sooner rather than later.”
One Spot up the Bench
“When assistant coaches move one spot up the bench, life’s a little different.” So said Hugh McCutcheon. We asked McCutcheon and others who have mentored Karch Kiraly to share advice they wish they’d known when they first became a head coach.
DON’T CUT CORNERS
“Go balls to the wall,” advised McCutcheon. “You’re asking your athletes to try and become the best in the world at what they do, so I think you better try to become the best in the world at what you do, too.”
WATCH THE GREAT COACHES
“I used to watch John Wooden’s practices in Pauley Pavilion,” said Al Scates. “After watching one practice, I changed my practices. I ran shorter drills. I stopped stopping the drill to explain things; I always explained things quickly without stopping the action, like Coach Wooden did.”
HIRE GREAT ASSISTANTS
“Don’t hire a ‘yes’ person,” said Bill Neville. “Hire someone who is loyal, but who is also willing to be honest, give you new ideas, and see things from a different perspective.”
TALK WITH YOUR ATHLETES
“Communication is a very, very high priority,” said Doug Beal. “It’s not just having a system of play or having a philosophy. It’s being able to communicate that philosophy and articulating it clearly and continuously. You can’t do enough of that.”
“Have the courage to make tough decisions,” said Marv Dunphy. “You have to develop the ability to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes.’ You get what you tolerate. If you tolerate serving errors, you’re gonna get ’em. If you tolerate bad behavior, you’re gonna get bad behavior.”
Coaching Women vs. Coaching Men
Most of us know Al Scates spent decades coaching the UCLA men’s team. But, for 35 years, he also coached middle school boys and girls in the Beverly Hills School District.
“There is quite a difference when you’re delivering a message to women and girls,” says Scates. “If I was teaching boys how to do something, I would just tell them to do it, and then if they did it wrong, I would correct it. Whereas, girls wanted to know how to do it correctly before they even attempted it.” Karch Kiraly agrees there are differences, but likes the analysis of University of Washington coach Jim McLaughlin. “Jimmy Mac says, when you huddle the team and point out that we are not meeting our standards, every guy in that huddle is thinking, ‘Well, I’m playing great, he’s obviously talking to everybody else.’ With women, it’s, ‘He’s not talking to anybody else, he’s directing this only at me.’”
For more on the differences between coaching men and coaching women, read "Navigating the Fine Line," coming to the website December 11.
The Unkindest Cut
For most coaches, it’s one of the worst parts of the job: telling a player she didn’t make the team. On the U.S. National Team—which takes a long look at dozens and dozens of players each quadrennial—that duty now falls to Karch Kiraly. “It’s certainly not my favorite part of the job,” he said. “I could be the deliverer of news that could, I guess, bequeath an athlete the worst day of her life. But if I couldn’t stomach it, then I shouldn’t be taking this job. And athletes who can’t handle that process shouldn’t be in the USA gym either. It’s just a part of the equation.” An oft-repeated story that basketball’s Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team was recently debunked by Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake. Likewise, Kiraly has never felt the sting of being cut, although he turned down a chance to play for the U.S. National Team in 1979 because it would have interfered with his sophomore year at UCLA.
Originally published in January 2013