If the all-sports pantheon were ever gathered and roll call ensued, volleyball legend Karch Kiraly's name would surely soon be called, perhaps immediately alphabetically following:
Now 53, the San Clemente resident, three-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time NCAA champion at UCLA, where he as a four-time All-American, is universally recognized as the greatest player his sport has ever produced. He won Olympic gold indoors with Team USA in 1984 and 1988. He then retired from the national team and went on to top the career list for beach tournament wins (148, including the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta).
Kiraly, an assistant coach for the U.S. women's national team that won a silver medal at the London Olympic Games in 2012, is in his first Olympic cycle as the team's head coach, heading into the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
He took time out from training this week to discuss his current challenge, his unprecedented playing career, and his sport in general, as he readies his squad for the USA Cup, a series of matches that begins with a showdown against two-time-defending Olympic champion Brazil on Saturday at 7 at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center.
Question: What is the best thing about coaching?
Answer: Probably the best thing is working with lots of people of great character, who are dedicated to becoming masters of their craft and dedicated to learning and dedicated to getting this program to somewhere it has never been before.
Q: How is the women's game different?
A: We don't view it as a lot different. We want to run a lot of the same offense, with the same speed and exploiting the same weakness in opposing blocks and defenses as the men's game does. The men's game probably has a little more power to it, so the rallies aren't quite as long. Some people prefer that power and other people prefer the somewhat-longer rallies that tend to happen in women's volleyball. There is some real excitement to the ball that comes back up, and defense, and brining it up and sending it back over, so both forms of the indoor game have their attractions. I certainly love working with these women, on this team at this time, with USA.
I don't think that's everybody's interpretation [that men and women can play the same style]. Some people are at the other end of the spectrum and think that the women are incapable of doing a lot of things the men can do. We don't feel that way. We feel that the women are capable of doing lots of really dynamic things and we try to free them to use their athleticism to be as efficient and explosive as they can be. And they are certainly capable of a lot. We have some of the best female athletes on the planet in this gym.
Q: What is the outlook for the 2016 Olympics?
A: We would love to qualify for the Olympic Games. It's an arduous process to qualify. The only team that knows right now that it is going to be at the Olympics is Brazil, since it is the host. The qualification won't start until next August and I'd like nothing more than to A) qualify and B) battle for a gold medal there. I know anybody who is going to do that, is going to go through the team that has won the last two gold medals, which happens to be Brazil. So, Brazil happens to have a lot of things going for it and I wouldn't have it any other way. I think that's the perfect place to try to make history as USA.
Q: How is your competitive nature different as a coach than it was as a player?
A: Well, those losses are still really painful. And also there is less time, especially in the course of a tournament, so the more a coach dwells on a loss, or lets a loss drag him down, the harder it is to get ready for the next match, which is often 24 hours later when you're playing a tournament like the world championships or the world cup and one good opponent after another comes at you. You have to be even better as a coach than as a player in dropping what happened, good or bad, and moving on to the next one, because there is always a new matchup to prepare for.
Q: What about volleyball has allowed it to be so central in your life?
A: It's something I love. It's something that I was pretty good at early on, and started playing when I was 6 years old. It was something that I got to share with my dad. When I was just picking up the game, he was an intern straight out of medical school and interns often work 80- to 100-hour weeks, so it's tough for a dad to get to spend much time with his kids in the midst of all that. But our time was on the weekends, on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. So, for those three reasons, I love this game. It was tagging along with him to all those tournaments all over Michigan, when he played for the Ann Arbor YMCA team. I'd go to cheer them on a little bit and touch the ball with him in between matches. And, also just the fact that early on, I was a kid, but already standing toe-to-toe with grown men across the net and that was really exhilarating and empowering. It's hard to grow up to be a good man and a good husband and a good father and at least at some level, my dad gave me a great gift to be able to grow up in the volleyball context and know that I was on a good path.
Q: What is your best volleyball moment?
A: I don't know if I can identify just one. I am lucky to have tens, hundreds of them. Our team laughs at me and I call myself a volley dork, because I just love this game. And I'm also a goose-bump dork. I have moments almost every day in here. An athlete will do something. A light bulb will light. Someone will say something and something will click in, and both my arms and both my legs will explode in goose bumps. I've already had two [Wednesday], in a couple of meetings with athletes and they either laugh at me or laugh with me. But those are powerful and I love moments like that and I get them every day.
We get some highs like that and we get some lows and some pain that comes along with it. This thing is a really tough thing to do. If it were easy, everybody would have a gold medal, but they don't. And that's the beauty of it; there are such challenges and so many painful things that come along with this job, but also some incredible highs and moments that 'Yes this thing is moving in the right direction or [that player] is moving in the right direction, or gets this new thing.'
Q: Can the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour remain viable, and/or has the golden age of beach volleyball passed.
A: I'm not sure I'm close enough to the beach game to give a good answer on that, as I've been immersed in indoor volleyball the last five years. I do know that it's a challenge for anybody in volleyball to find a viable business model. It's a challenge on the beach and it's a challenge indoors. I know that we are the only top country in the world without our own professional indoor volleyball league. It hinders our ability to perform well.
Brazil has its own pro league and most of their players play in it and most of their top national team coaches coach all the teams, so there is this great integration and unification of philosophy. They are taught the same things and coached by the same people all year-round. We only get our athletes from May until Mid-October and they disappear and can go all over the world and we don't have any control over the kind of coaching they get. That's part of the challenge we face in trying to make history.
Q: Are you comfortable with the widely held belief that you are the best volleyball player that ever was?
A: It's nice of somebody to say and it goes in one ear and out the other. I also know, and I'm aware of it lots of days, that the norm is that people who have had a lot of success as athletes, don't have lots of success as coaches. There are plenty of people out there you can point to who were great as players and not great as coaches. Lots of great players just [perform at a high level]. They just kind of grow into the game and it's all intuitive and natural and then they are baffled when it's not as easy for everybody else as it was for them. They make assumptions about how easy things are and I try not to do that. So, I'm fighting the tide. I'm trying to be the best coach that I can be. Our No. 1 job for our athletes is to be a learner and I need to be that too. I'm learning as I go. And I need to be a model for them and of getting better for them. I tell them all the time that nobody in this program has been good enough, ever. Volleyball has been in the Olympics for 50 years and for 50 years, the USA women have not won a gold medal. So, everybody who has been a part of it, hasn't been good enough yet. I was a part of the last four years. I was the assistant coach. I wasn't good enough. I didn't figure out how to help us win that gold, when we were right there. I need to be better and so I can't ask everyone else to be better if I'm not taking that same approach to it."
Q: What would you want to add to your legacy?
A: Well, I guess I tell people regularly that volleyball has been in the Olympics for 50 years and USA women have never won. They have won three silvers, the last two, plus 1984. Volleyball has been in the world championship program for 62 years and the women have won a couple silvers there. Volleyball has been in the World Cup for over 40 years and the women have one silver there, from three years ago.
I know, someday, USA women are going to win an Olympics, and a World Cup and a world championship, which are the big three in our sport. I don't know if that's going to happen 100 years from now, or two years from now. But my job, and my staff, and this program's job is to try to make it happen sooner than later. But if I want to have a big impact, I would love to make one of those happen, to make history.