Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Influential Coaches #12: Marv Dunphy

Previous entries: Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)
June: Michael Minthorne (strength & conditioning)
July: Steve Radotich (football)
August: Tessa Paganini (volleyball)
September: Lynn Seitz (swimming)
October: Micah Hartman (volleyball)
November: Steve Chronister (basketball/baseball)

One could make a case, by looking at my dozen years in coaching, that I have been at my best when coaching volleyball. What's funny about that is that if you count my baseball experience towards softball (and apart from the action between the mound and the plate, they are practically the same), I have significantly less experience with volleyball than with any other sport that I have coached save for football (and I was never a head football coach). My playing experience can be boiled down to a camp or two in southern California when I was in middle school and PE in ninth grade, but I didn't really learn the game until my freshman year at Pepperdine, for which I can thank my friend Alex Moore.

Alex was a frequent visitor to my dorm because he was good friends with my next-door neighbor, and on a January evening he happened to stop by on his way to Firestone Fieldhouse for a volleyball match. He invited me to come along, and having little better to do that evening (cue my mom talking to the screen; "Couldn't you have been studying for a change?!?".........aaaaand we're back!), I accepted. I liked volleyball, but at that point would not really have gone out of my way to watch it, either on television or in person. But my decision to put my blue and orange wig on and go down to Firestone that evening completely altered my life (for the better).

I knew that we were really good at volleyball (men's and women's), because I had been in the gym often enough to memorize the eight giant banners commemorating our national championships: small college football (1947), baseball (1992), men's water polo (1997), men's golf (1997), and FOUR for men's volleyball (1978, 1985, 1986, and 1992).* And I had been to one women's match that fall, when the team was enjoying their finest season ever up to that point, reaching their first Elite Eight (they have since been again). But I never gave much thought to going often, seeing as how I had not really grown up around the game.

*We have since added another in men's volleyball (2005 - we're getting to that one), men's tennis (2006), and women's sand volleyball (2012 and 2014). As long as we're here, allow me to point out that my alma mater has also produced four individual national champions, 164 conference championship teams, 281 All-Americans, and 48 Olympic athletes (at least one Pepperdine alum has competed in every Summer Olympiad since 1964, with 18 of them medaling). This from a school with an undergrad population of about 3000. Not bad, right? Okay, enough bragging.

It made all the sense in the world that I should find high-level men's volleyball exciting, what with the huge verticals, the fast pace of play, and the absurd power with which the best players can hit the ball. The first team that I happened to watch play featured two first-team All-Americans (Brad Keenan and Sean Rooney) as well as a second-teamer (Fred Winters) on a team that went 24-6 and lost in the national semifinals. They were good, and what is more, they were extraordinarily well-coached by Dr. Marv Dunphy. And so, when I wasn't heckling our opponent du jour between points,* I learned the game as taught by one of the greatest masters of all, a coach who combines supreme technical knowledge with the ability to motivate and inspire, all while remaining incredibly modest.

*Shout out to my fellow hecklers Alex, Collin, Jason, Ben, Ryan, Johnny, Michael, Joel, Josh, and anyone else I may have forgotten. I feel like we were worth a point or three a match.

Marv has been with Pepperdine volleyball, excepting a couple of sabbaticals, for its entire existence, and around the school itself as long as it has been located in Malibu (they moved there in 1972). He was a middle blocker for the Waves who graduated with a degree in kinesiology in 1974, whereupon he promptly became an assistant coach for the team, and then was named the head coach three years later. Think about that; basically as soon as the last guys that Marv played with had been given their diplomas, he took the reins and was running a strong program at the age of 24.

How strong? Well, in Marv's second season, the Waves rolled to a 21-4 record and a national title, which the coach accomplished while he was also getting his master's degree in physical education at USC. When one considers the all-consuming grind that coaching college athletics has become, that accomplishment becomes even more impressive. After a three-year absence to get his Ph.D in the same subject at BYU, Marv returned for the 1982 season and barely missed a beat, with a 12-6 season followed by two national runners-up and then his second championship banner in 1985. He then took another leave of absence to coach the USA national team (featuring, naturally, four of his Pepperdine players), which during his time at the helm went 197-31 and won every major tournament it played in: the 1985 World Cup, 1986 World Championships, 1987 Pan-Am Games, and the coup de grace, the 1988 Seoul Olympics (the Waves, meanwhile, won their third national title in the first year of his absence). He returned to Malibu once more and has since won two more titles and appeared in eight more Final Fours.

This profile would be pretty boring if it were merely a recitation of Marv's considerable accomplishments. How did he build such a remarkable career? From what I have observed without the first-hand experience of actually playing for him, I believe that it can be boiled down to two words; dedication and consistency.

I would say that the most striking aspect of Marv's personality is that he is, as near as I can tell, always the same person. He keeps a very even keel whether he's in a classroom, at practice, or in the middle of a close match against UCLA. I've never heard him raise his voice louder than was absolutely necessary to reach the players running stairs at the top of Firestone during practice, and I've never seen him display any outward emotion that could even loosely be called "anger." If this all sounds like what you've read about John Wooden at UCLA, then you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that Marv studied the Wizard of Westwood closely and became a good friend of his; up through the fall of 2003, Wooden's annual visit to Marv's "Concepts of Coaching" class was the obvious highlight of the semester.*

*It is to my everlasting regret that I didn't get to take Marv's class until the fall of 2004, and thus missed out on meeting arguably the greatest coach in American sports history. Alas.

Marv's consistency also means that he treats everyone with respect, and teaches his players to do the same. One of the things he does is that whenever someone new is in the gym watching the team practice, he will remark upon the newcomer at a convenient break, whereupon the entire team will rush over to the observer, line up, and introduce themselves one-by-one with a firm handshake. I had heard about this practice in Marv's class, but never saw it in action until I dropped in on a New Year's Eve practice in 2010 when I was visiting my grandparents in Orange County. Since by that point the only people who knew me were Marv and graduate assistant J.D. Schleppenbach (a freshman outside hitter during my senior year), I received the treatment myself, and the players could not have been more polite to me throughout my stay at their practice.

Marv displays incredible consistency in how he defines and assigns roles on his team each year, and those roles rarely change except in extreme circumstances. He typically deploys a short rotation (rarely do more than eight or nine players see the court in a match except in case of a severe blowout), and doesn't deviate from that rotation unless someone is incredibly ineffective or injured. This allows players to get familiar with their roles, and to play with confidence, although always with the knowledge in the back of their minds that there's another high school All-American waiting to step in if they don't play up to their abilities, or if they just happened to be a better fit for the team.

For example, consider the 2005 national championship squad. The previous two years, our setter had been an excellent player by the name of John Mayer, who was basically everything a coach could want in a setter: excellent hands, left-handed, huge vertical (he held his own blocking at the net despite being, at 6'2", the shortest player on the team), great defensive ability. He had directed the offense for a Final Four team as a sophomore and a very good team as a junior, so it stood to reason that he would be secure in his place entering his senior season. The only problem was, freshman Jonathan Winder was just better enough to take over a team with legitimate (and realized!) championship aspirations, meaning that Mayer slid to opposite hitter to make way (Mayer went back to setting for a couple of mid-season matches when Winder was out with a thumb injury). Both players thrived in their roles, and a team that had gone 43-15 the previous two years turned in a dominant 25-2 performance, with both losses coming on the road against our two toughest opponents; UCLA (without Winder), and Long Beach State.

That team played the same rotation like clockwork: national player of the year Sean Rooney and John Parfitt at outside hitter; All-American Andy Hein and Tom Hulse manning the middle; Winder at setter; Mayer at opposite; and James Ka at libero. Winder's brief absence shifted Mayer to setter, Ka to opposite, and Tanner Sutherland to libero, but other than that very little changed. You always knew that the team would try to get out of serve receive by feeding whoever was next up to serve; you always knew that they were going to throw a block party at the net;* and you knew that in crunch time the ball was going to Rooney, wherever on the floor he happened to be.** Brief aside; that team was so dominant, and so much fun to watch, that Marv even had some fun with some of us who were loyal fans. Typically during blowouts, when we had an overall lead in the match and a double-digit lead in the set, a group of the regular hecklers would start a "WE WANT GROBE!" chant (just about all of them except myself had lived in the same freshman suite as Grobe - and Hein). One time Marv answered our pleas by signaling for Jon, who dutifully shed his warm-up shirt and jogged over, whereupon Marv told him "I think your friends want to see you. You should go talk to them." Marv paused long enough to let this sink in and for Jon to start going back to the line at the end of the bench before recalling him once more and subbing him in to our wild cheers.

*Our seven starters that year were collectively gigantic: 6'2" (Mayer); 6'3" (Ka); 6'8" (Winder, Hulse, and Parfitt); 6'9" (Rooney); and 6'11" (Hein, who had a ridiculous hitting percentage of .529 - for you baseball fans out there, hitting percentage in volleyball is roughly equivalent to on-base percentage, so Hein was basically Barry Bonds at the net - except for, you know, being a skinny white guy).

**Rooney remains one of my all-time favorite athletes to watch, in large part because of the ferocious power of his swing. One time that year he hit a ball so hard off of some poor libero that it shot up to the ceiling and shattered one of the lights, stopping play for ten or fifteen minutes while that was cleaned up. Good times!

Consistency, however, would merely mean little without the constant hard work and dedication that Marv brings to his job each and every day. He puts an extraordinary amount of time and effort into preparing his team to get better each and every day, all without being showy or ostentatious about it, and his players recognize that. Because he puts in so much work for them, they reciprocate, and will all but run through a wall for him. Even the teams that haven't been championship contenders (in what is far and away men's collegiate volleyball's toughest conference - UCLA, Stanford, USC, UC-Irvine, Hawaii, Long Beach State, and BYU all boast national titles in addition to Pepperdine) compete every day, such as the 2006 team captained by Hein and Jon Grobe that went 17-8 in the year after replacing Rooney (a four-time All-American) and Mayer.

Through it all, Marv remains an exceptionally humble person who refuses to engage in self-promotion and does not insist on any of the frills that schools typically grant institutional Hall of Fame coaches. His office is fairly ordinary (apart from video tapes - yes, they were still VHS when I was a student in this century - on floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall), the locker room is positively spartan (metal grate lockers like a middle school gym, plain blue carpet, and a TV cart that you'd recognize from science class), the warm-ups are little more than plain navy t-shirts, and while I cannot be the only person who believes that the court in Firestone Fieldhouse should bear his name, I equally cannot imagine such a thing happening so long as he remains employed by the school.

I was extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to learn from such a legendary coach who has helped mold dozens, even hundreds, of young men throughout a lifetime of coaching (this season will be his thirty-second as the Waves' head coach) at his alma mater. Though I played precious little organized volleyball myself, I was able to impart his lessons and become, for a while at least, a pretty decent high school coach, and to have even more fun coaching that sport than either of my first loves (basketball and baseball). I hope that all of the others who have played for Marv or worked under him at one point or another feel just as fortunate, and that they continue to apply his teaching into whatever they are doing today.


For those of you who have been following this whole twelve-part series (and in case you missed the obvious, there are links to each of the other profiles at the top of this page), it has been a rewarding project. I have spent some time remembering things that I've forgotten (and hopefully I will retain that information this time around!) and reminiscing on many moments throughout my twenty-five years of playing and coaching organized athletics that were fun, poignant, or both. If you are a regular or semi-regular reader, feel free to drop a note to me in the comments or via email ( if there's something or someone that you feel I should write about. Thanks to all of you who have read my thoughts here, and once again, thanks to Paul, Tara, Robert, Rickey, Mike, Bob, Michael, Steve, Tessa, Lynn, Micah, Steve, and Marv for being such a help to me throughout various times in my life and career.