David Kniffin has been named the new men's volleyball coach at UC Irvine.

David Kniffin has been named the new men's volleyball coach at UC Irvine. (Courtesy of UC Irvine / July 9, 2012)

For so many years it had seemed John Speraw would leave UC Irvine to become the coach at UCLA, where he would succeed Al Scates.

While the speculation took place and the feeling that Speraw's departure from the Anteaters was inevitable, David Kniffin always thought about becoming the next UCI men's volleyball coach.

"I truthfully felt like I could be the person," Kniffin said of his thoughts of taking over at UCI when all that speculation took place. "That's the reason more than any that I jumped on it."

Kniffin now has the opportunity. Kniffin, 31, a former assistant coach and player for the Anteaters, has been named the new men's volleyball coach at UCI.

This will be his first head coaching job on the collegiate level. He takes over for Speraw, who led the Anteaters to three national titles in his 10 years as coach. The three championships came in the past six years.

If 31 seems young, Speraw was hired as the UCI coach when he was 28.

Kniffin has goals to continue the winning tradition.

"I know it's a little strong, but I'd like to demonstrate that UCI is an institution that wins championships," Kniffin said. "We have a group of great guys. We have the opportunity to demonstrate who we are as a program right now.

"The overarching coach goal is to the help each one be the best they can be. They come to learn, they come for the social scene, they come for the whole package. And I'm excited to teach them."

Kniffin last coached at the University of Illinois, where he worked as an assistant and helped lead the women's volleyball team to the NCAA title match in 2011 for the first time in school history.

"We are very excited to have David Kniffin back with the Anteater family," UCI Athletic Director Michael Izzi said in a press release. "David's deep passion for UC Irvine and the men's volleyball program is what ultimately made him the right choice to continue the success the program has achieved. The program is in good hands with David Kniffin."

Kniffin beat out Karch Kiraly, the big name among the finalists.

Familiarity with the UCI program certainly did not hurt Kniffin's cause. He spent five seasons (2007-2011) as an assistant coach under Speraw with the UCI men. He was an American Volleyball Coaches Assn Division I-II Men's National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2010.

While Kniffin was a member of the UCI staff, the Anteaters advanced to the postseason each year, winning national titles in 2007 and 2009. In his five years at UCI, the program posted a 96-52 record and was nationally ranked each of those five seasons, including 12 weeks at No. 1.

He said he'll keep Mark Presho as an assistant at UCI. Presho was also a finalist for the job. Kniffin said Rob Chai will stay on as the team statistician. Kniffin plans to hire another assistant by the end of the month.

"I thought it was a great decision," Chris Austin, an incoming senior setter, said of the Kniffin hire. "I was pulling for him. He knows the culture of the team and doesn't want to come in and change the physical outlook of the team. He has his own way of doing things too though. I think he will pick up where Speraw left off real well. More importantly he'll be able to help us compete for a national championship right away."

Austin was one of three UCI volleyball players on the hiring committee, along with Jeremy Dejno and Ian Castellana, Kniffin said.

"I heard about Karch applying for the job," said Austin, who said he sat in for the interviews of Kniffin and Presho but not Kiraly. "I thought he was a good candidate. Personally I wanted someone who was part of the program and who knows our program."

Kniffin, who credited Speraw and Illinois coach Kevin Hambly as primary influences, graduated from UC Irvine with a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 2003. He was the starting setter for the 2002 and 2003 teams, guiding UCI to the school's first No. 1 ranking and first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation postseason victory as a senior. He ranks fifth in UCI career assists (2,806) and posted the second-most single-season assists (1,632) in 2003. Kniffin earned UCI Scholar-Athlete and MPSF All-Academic honors during his Anteater career.

Following graduation, Kniffin played professionally for CAI Voleibol Teruel (Spain) for two seasons, helping the team to the division championship one year, while teaching English and helping organize European Tours for American volleyball players looking to compete abroad.

A graduate of Chico High, Kniffin began his playing career at Loyola Marymount until the program was dropped following the 2000 season. He transferred to Los Angeles Pierce College and started on the undefeated state-championship team in 2001, garnering first-team all-conference honors.

"This is the only job in America that could have pulled me away from the culture and promising future of Illinois volleyball," Kniffin said in a release. "The confidence of the players, administration, alums, and the amplified investment of the University in the men's volleyball program have been overwhelming. I am honored by the opportunity to carry the torch as we expand on our Championship foundation."

steve.virgen@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveVirgen