Shortly after the meeting in which UCI’s most successful head coach ever announced he would be leaving for UCLA, David Kniffin’s phone began to ring. Kniffin, the assistant coach of the women’s team at the University of Illinois, had served as UCI’s assistant coach for five years under Speraw and had a hand in recruiting all of the players then on the team. When the news broke, he was the first one some of the older players wanted to talk to. Not just to report the news, but to tell him they wanted him to be their next head coach.
Speraw’s departure was not a big surprise to anyone who had been keeping an eye on the high volume of offers that were rolling in for him, who had put UCI volleyball on the map by winning three national titles in just six years while also assistant coaching the USA men’s national team to a gold medal in Beijing. Speraw had become volleyball's new rising star in coaching and was at the top of the list of candidates to head the U.S. men's national team as well as at his alma mater UCLA after the retirement of legendary coach Al Scates. Still, the UCI players were holding out hope that he would stick around.
“I think that a lot of the players went to Irvine because of Speraw. That was their main reason for coming here," said junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno. “When he left it felt like kind of a betrayal. A lot of the guys were very upset. I think the question of where the program would head after him being gone was the most pressing concern right after it all happened. He really built this program in the ten years that he was here pretty much from nothing all the way to a top tier, championship-competing team and it was just kind of unclear. So I think that’s why most of the guys were upset, just out of fear of what would become of Irvine.”
Clearly several of the older players and alums wanted Irvine to become Kniffin’s team. But the decision was not an easy one for Kniffin, who was enjoying his time in Illinois coaching under Kevin Hambly.
“I had what I consider in women's volleyball one of the top ten assistant coaching jobs on one of the top ten staffs at one of the top ten volleyball institutions in America. So it doesn't get a whole lot sweeter than that,” Kniffin said. “In a few years at Illinois as an assistant coach with relative success, I'm probably a candidate for mid-major jobs out there. I could perhaps get a chance to coach on the women's side, move around a little bit, see some new places. Or I can go back to what I know with the team that I was very involved with in the place I went to school. So both were very attractive for different reasons.”
Kniffin accepted the job as the Anteaters head coach in July of 2012 and made yet another move, but one he considered a move back home. The nomadic life of Division I coaching is nothing new for him. His wandering days started much earlier. Kniffin was a setter when he played college ball, beginning his career at Loyola Marymount. But LMU dropped the men's volleyball program after his freshman year and Kniffin spent his sophomore year at Pierce Junior College in Los Angeles. He transferred to UCI for his junior and senior seasons.
Kniffin played for Speraw his senior season, which was Speraw’s first head coaching position, and stayed on after graduation to serve as the team’s assistant coach under Speraw. Kniffin said that from the beginning, he could tell that Speraw was something special.
“He was very driven when he walked in the door from day one. He had his vision in place. Obviously he is an intelligent guy and knows the game and has been around it. But his conviction, that is what really let everyone know that he was lightning in a bottle,” said Kniffin. “People want to follow someone as charismatic as him. So to watch someone lead with that kind of passion was certainly a lesson in itself.”
Kniffin was on the sidelines for two of UCI’s three national titles in 2007 and 2009. But after five years, he felt like it was time to move on. So here he was listening to his phone ring and hearing his former players encourage him to return after just one season at Illinois.
The current players weren’t the only ones who were in Kniffin’s corner. An alum actually created a website entitled hirekniffin.com where he encouraged others to post letters of support for Kniffin’s consideration. Entry after entry on the website illustrate Kniffin’s character, his caring for his players and the impact he’d had as an assistant coach.
“They wouldn't say it just to say it, which was neat for me,” Kniffin said. “I felt like whatever happened with the interview process, whether I got the job or not, it was very validating to feel I had made an impact as an assistant coach. I don't think it influenced me getting the job at all but it was sure neat to hear that."
Senior Associate Athletic Director Darrin Nelson says he purposely did not view the website so he could remain impartial to the final candidates which included Karch Kiraly, Jeff Nygaard and Mark Presho. But before he made the hire he did enlist the help of current upperclassmen Chris Austin, Ian Castellana and Dejno who sat in on interviews with each of the candidates and gave their input about the qualities they wanted to see in their next head coach. Kniffin stood out to them because of his knowledge of the culture and the system at UCI as well as his coaching philosophy.
“Everyone agreed that we wanted a player’s coach and someone that could really relate and not run the program like a dictatorship,” said Dejno. “We wanted a coach that would be adaptable and that would be sensitive to our needs as well. Most of guys know Kniff because he recruited them. We knew it wouldn’t be a total drastic change and even the changes that would be made would most likely be in favor of what we wanted.”
When asked what it was like to beat out beach and indoor legend Karch Kiraly for the job, Kniffin let out a quiet laugh. “I don't think anyone has ever beaten Karch Kiraly in anything,” he said. “I think he is in the right place for him and I am in the right place for me. When we talk about applying for jobs we are not really talking about beating somebody else, we're talking about finding fit. It's not like we're racing to 25. If we're in a race to 25, I'd take Karch."