USC: Righting the Chariot

Ed Chan
USC head coach, Bill Ferguson

Awesome. That’s the word head coach Bill Ferguson uses to describe coaching one of the most storied men’s programs in the world of NCAA volleyball. A recent game on March 5 that pitted number one USC against number two BYU (as of press time) also featured a jersey retirement ceremony for Celso Kalache and Dusty Dvorak. A list of SC alums that have deeply impacted the sport include the likes of Brian Ivy, Steve Timmons, Pat Powers, Tom Duke, Tim Hovland, Bob Yoder, Jen-Kai Liu, Dan Greenbaum, Lawrence Hom and Adam Johnson. Several of these legends were on-hand for the ceremony.

Ferguson’s unabashed excitement to be a part of this rich history is palpable. For him, the journey to number one began, literally, before he can remember. Born into a family of volleyball elite, the game is in his blood. His childhood was spent listening to dining room conversations hosted by his father, Tom Ferguson. The elder Ferguson was a two-time All-American who won collegiate National Championships in 1961 and ’62 while playing for the legendary Bert De Groot at Santa Monica College. As founder of the Palisades Volleyball Club, Tom led his older son Bob to gold in 1984. That team featured Eric Sato, Scott Fortune and Doug Rigg and was coached by current Olympic Team assistant Gary Sato.

Bill Ferguson’s own relationship with top players goes back to playing on the kiddy courts of the elite Santa Monica Beach Club, of which his family was a member, and his “street-cred” includes winning a Six-Man Championship with team Fletch.

When asked if it is fair to say USC has been hit or miss since Brian Ivie graduated in 1991, Ferguson answered nearly on top of the question, yes. Those programs good enough to get their licks in while SC suffered lack-luster years under coach Pat Powers and the brief stint of Turhan Douglas (who Ferguson duly credits with much of the program’s re-positioning for the turnaround) were fortunate. Coach John Speraw and UC Irvine perhaps benefited more than most, scoring not only big wins year in and year out but more importantly recruits who propelled UCI to their first ever championship. But according to Ferguson, those days are done.

At the moment USC is solid with Ferguson at the helm. He has a program with National Championship pedigree (SC has won four National Championships and appeared in 12 Final Fours), the university sits in the epicenter of the volleyball world, he has a brand new multi-million dollar playing facility, and the school itself is a highly respected academic institution. Through his success in the club ranks and private beach club connections, Ferguson also has a pipeline to the most skilled players coming out of Southern California and Hawai’i, and he has an athletic department that understands what it takes to be number one.

“USC knows how to win,” Ferguson said. “My office sits between NBA World Champion Michael Cooper and Mick Haley who has won four National Volleyball Championships. When we went to the Final Four two years ago [football coach] Pete Carroll gave our team a speech and helped us create a travel routine. Our coaches meetings are unbelievable. They know what it takes to get it done.”

Ferguson continued: “I don’t think I am a master at any one thing, but I know enough to know what I need. It doesn’t take a genius to know Jeff Nygaard could really help our middles or J.J. Riley can help a setter flourish. If I am good at anything it’s getting my ego out of the way.

“Volleyball people tend to follow other volleyball people,” Ferguson said of different coaching styles. “I model my program off of football coaches.”

When asked which volleyball coach other than himself he would be, Ferguson responded: Bill Belichick.

“The level of intensity he brings to everything he does is incredible. It’s something I can’t even get close to but something I strive for,” he said about the New England Patriots head coach. “His attention to detail. The way he recruits players. The guts he has to cut—even good players—he knows won’t fit in his system. His level of preparation for an opponent. Everything.”

Perhaps the Bill Belichick influence on Ferguson is the most prevalent and nowhere more apparent, than in Ferguson’s attention to detail in the player recruitment process and in pre-game preparation routines. For Ferguson, a player’s numbers are just the beginning.

In 2004 Ferguson had a coaching “problem.” Coach Walt Kerr made the decision to step away from his 18’s club team in order to coach his younger son. Ferguson’s 17’s, the team he personally coached, hosted an array of great players including Hunter Hayley, Chris Acaza, Max Klineman and Matt Rosen, who at a lengthy 6’6” already had a scholarship to Hawai’i. Ferguson suddenly had two amazing teams to coach and just one of himself to do it. It was at that time that a friend, John Featherstone, invited him to watch a USC football practice.

“The Trojans were getting ready for the Rose Bowl and John Featherstone had coached SC quarterback coach Steve Sarkisian, so we were actually down on the field,” Ferguson said. “I’ll never forget, we were so close one of the coaches asked us to back up so they could run a play that needed more room.

“Watching that practice and the way Pete Carroll divided his staff and seeing the way they worked with players gave me the keys I needed. I decided to combine my 17’s and 18’s teams into one huge team and run practices across multiple courts. We then divided the courts further and ran individual drills on each half.”

The 18’s team went on to win gold that year at the Junior Olympics, now titled the Boys Junior National Championships.

The concept of dividing volleyball practices into skill-specific drills is nothing new to the sport. Most major programs practice this to some degree. In the film room players get uncanny insights into other squad’s tendencies.

“You have all pre-season where guys compete for starting slots. If a guy doesn’t hit for a great percentage but he is passing well and making big blocks when we need ‘em, that’s huge,” Ferguson said. “A team has to play well together. I need guys on the floor that understand how to play as a unit.”

Watching USC play, one is instantly impressed at how well such a big team handles the ball, especially since team members have an average height of 6’5”. To handle the ball well an entire team needs to have a complete understanding of what is expected of them as individuals and what their personal responsibilities are. For Ferguson, game-time compatibility starts off the court.

“Cut your hair, shave your face, tuck your shirt in,” he said. “Nobody is special. We are all trying to win. Volleyball is one thing but guys who come to my school are also looking to have careers, and the kinds of jobs they are looking for, I want to make sure they understand what’s expected. I want them to be welcomed into anyone’s home. I want them to know how to win in life.”

At SC Ferguson has installed a strict routine of pre-game preparation that includes copious hours of game tape review on opponents. Like Belichick, Ferguson believes that the most prepared team wins and that means he expects his players and assistant coaches to put the same amount of attention into dissecting their opponents as they do improving their own game.

“It’s about a three-day process,” Ferguson said of game preparation. “When we have multiple games coming up each coach will take a different team.”

The stats are boiled down to tendencies and then reduced to a game-time summary—which Ferguson puts together himself—that lists actionable items his players can hone in on during game-time situations. If the process sounds laborious, that’s because it is. But at 13-1 as of press time, the proof seems to be in the win column. After losing in the finals two years ago and failing to live up to expectations last year, the Trojans are hungry for their first banner since 1990.

“We only hang one kind of banner in the Galen Center,” said Ferguson. “We don’t hang Conference Championship banners or Final Four banners. We only hang Championship banners. We want to hang a banner this year…If we focus on what we need to do night in and night out, I truly believe we will win.”

Originally published in May 2011

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