OK, who let BYU crash the beach party? Where do the Cougars get off being a college volleyball power?
Volleyball powerhouses are supposed to be from California; they're not supposed to be from the Rocky Mountains, a thousand miles from the beach. They're supposed to have Californians on the roster, not guys from Colorado, Australia and Germany. They're supposed to have names like Pepperdine, UCLA, Long Beach State, Hawaii. BYU? Don't they play football?The Cougars don't even have tradition on their side. They were a club sport just eight years ago, just one notch above intramurals. Only five years ago, they were so inept that they couldn't sign a single recruit, though not for lack of trying.
And yet here they are ranked No. 3 in the nation and once again vying for a national championship. "That's our goal," says Coach Carl McGown and why not? The Cougars have become one of volleyball's elite. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation for six weeks last season, and they were ranked No. 1 in this year's preseason polls.
"I expect we'll be ranked No. 1 at some point next year, too," says McGown.
The Cougars, 11-3 this season, are trying to crack the beach boy club. In 16 years of NCAA competition, only once has a non-California school won the national championship (Penn State). For their part, the Cougars have finished sixth or better in the final polls four of the past five years. Four years ago they finished second in the national polls and fell one win short of advancing to the Final Four. Last season they were 20-6 and ranked No. 4.
"We've slowly progressed until now we've become a perennial power," says All-American Ryan Millar.
That should make recruiting easy for McGown, but he claims otherwise. The country's best volleyball players are in California, home of the beach volleyball scene, and just try getting them to leave. The Cougars don't have a single non-Mormon Californian on their roster. Maybe they just don't know that Provo does have sand.
"There's a good sand scene here at some of the apartments," says Millar. "There are some pretty good players."
McGown recently courted a couple of California recruits and sent them a magazine article boasting of the Cougars' No. 1 preseason ranking. It made no difference. In the end, the players told him, thanks, but no, they didn't want to leave California. Even Utah recruits tell McGown they will attend a California school.
"It's always going to be a challenge," he says.
McGown finds other sources for volleyball talent. This year's roster includes players from Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, as well as Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma. The Cougars are led by the wonderfully named Shane van Beest, a 6-foot-9 middle blocker from Australia; a 6-8 middle blocker from California; and Oswald Antonetti, an outside hitter from Puerto Rico
"A lot of people tell me we might have the best athletes on campus, and we might," says McGown.
The Cougars are loaded with big, athletic leapers who would be the envy of any basketball coach. McGown boasts that 6-foot-6 redshirt Matt Olsen can touch 12 feet off a running, two-footed jump, and most of his players can reach 11 1/2 feet. The shortest player on the team, the 6-foot Antonetti, can touch 11-2.
Such athleticism has helped win a loyal following at BYU. For years the Cougars have ranked among the top two schools in attendance. Last year they were second only to Hawaii, averaging 3,500 per match (they were the only two schools to average more than 1,000 per match). Last year's home game against UCLA drew a crowd of 5,864. "We couldn't have put one more person in the place," says McGown. Now there is talk in the BYU administration of trying to make volleyball a revenue sport.
"It could be done," says McGown.
McGown, trim and fit at 60, has been the architect of the Cougars' steady rise to prominence in volleyball. He came to the job reluctantly. He had been a physical education professor for 18 years when the Cougars went looking for a coach, and he already had the best of two worlds. A former All-American volleyball player, he taught physical education during the school year, then spent his summers as an assistant coach with the USA volleyball team (he coached four Olympics teams, from 1984 to 1996). He also played in age-group competitions and won 11 national championships in four different decades.
When the Cougars decided to convert their club team into an NCAA varsity sport in 1990 and began searching for a coach, McGown did not apply.
"I was 50," he explains. "I had a career."
For BYU, it was like having LaVell Edwards teaching history classes instead of coaching football. The Cougars eventually asked him to be their coach, and after some consideration McGown accepted.
"It's harder than teaching," he says, "because coaching consumes you. I leave the house at 6:45 and get home at 6:30 or 7."
McGown might have been a collegiate coach right from the start if he had had the opportunity. Growing up in Long Beach two blocks from the beach, he was an avid beach player and an All-American at the club level. It wasn't until 1971 - the year that McGown graduated with a Ph.D. - that the NCAA made volleyball a varsity sport.
"By then I was already committed to an academic career," he says.
The Cougars were content for years to compete at the club level in volleyball, but all along McGown thought they could field a good team good enough to compete in the NCAA. "There were a lot of good LDS players playing at other schools," he says. "And at the time there also was a large church volleyball program."
BYU's club team won three national championships, but it was still the minor leagues. McGown actually told two BYU players that they were too good to play at the club level and encouraged them to transfer to Pepperdine, where they won an NCAA championship.
Now McGown is trying to convince players to play for BYU, and that has never been easy. After his second season, when the Cougars were 2-26, he failed to sign a single recruit. It wasn't until his third season that "we were able to attract good athletes because we were finally getting good enough."
After eight years at the NCAA level, the Cougars now hope they're getting good enough to challenge the beach boys for a national title.
AVCA Coaches Top 10
Rank (first place votes) Total points 1998 record Last wk
1. Pepperdine (15) 239 13-1 2
2. UCLA (1) 219 18-2 1
3. BYU 213 11-3 3
4. Hawaii 186 15-4 4
5. Ohio St. 173 17-1 5
6. Stanford 168 12-4 6
7. Ind.-Purdue, Ft. Wayne 138 11-2 8
8. Long Beach St. 131 12-6 7
9. Loyola 96 18-4 9
10. Loyola Marymount 76 6-4 10