When people ask me who my favorite coach of all time is, the answer is easy. Greg Giovanazzi. The answer comes as a surprise to some because they may not be familiar with the name. It’s a surprise to others because the coach we called Gio was never one of my head coaches.
I was only fortunate enough to spend a few weeks and months here and there with Gio when he was one of the assistants to the national team in the early to mid 90’s.
After he left the national team to be the head coach at Michigan, Gio would occasionally pop in and out of our training facility in San Diego, blessing us with his presence and his insight during certain training blocks. Every once in a while he would take the time to travel to a tournament with us.
All of my favorite moments on the national team came when Gio was in town. All of them. If you knew Gio, you know why that was. If you didn’t, let me try to explain.
Gio was special. He was one of those “once in a lifetime” people that you feel lucky to have met even briefly. That is not an exaggeration. Gio touched so many lives in such a positive way, it is tough to put into words what he meant to those of us who were fortunate enough to know him.
Gio was hilarious. He was so much fun to be around and he brought such a joy everywhere he went. It was in his eyes. It was all over him. And it was contagious.
Gio knew his stuff. He was a national champ as a player at UCLA where he played outside hitter. Later as an assistant to the Bruins for both the men’s and women’s teams he had a hand in a total of six NCAA championships as either a player or a coach. He was an integral member of the coaching staff at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when the women’s team won the bronze.
Gio knew winning. But that wasn’t the best thing about him. It was the intangibles that he brought to a team that made him so incredible at what he did. My sister Elaina said that when Gio arrived to help coach the national team in 1990, the team was in the dumps. They were between coaching staffs and they had just been humiliated by Canada in a nationally televised match. Morale was as low as it had ever been.
Then Gio stepped into the gym and everything changed. He had a way of inspiring people that no one had ever seen. It’s hard to put a finger on what made him such a great motivator. But if I had to guess I would say it was because he believed in each and every one of us so much that it was hard for us not to believe in ourselves. He could turn the mood around in a gym in record time.
Elaina said she remembers looking over at the bench, seeing Gio sitting there and thinking ‘THAT guy believes we can do this.’ Before she knew it, they had beaten powerhouse Cuba in the World Championships and taken the bronze medal. Elaina says that without him, they would never could have done that, nor brought home the Olympic bronze just two years later. He had that much of an impact.
I trained with that 1992 squad in the lead up to Barcelona, but I don’t think I really understood what an incredible talent he was at that time. It wasn’t until after I returned to the team in 1994 and got to work with him a bit more that I realized what we had in him.
Gio had a way of communicating with an uncanny clarity. I remember being a rookie who was up to her eyeballs in video tape, scouting reports, tendencies and nervous energy. Gio could utter a single sentence and make all that go away.
All of a sudden everything seemed so simple. Of course I was going to block that hitter’s lights out, of course we were going to win this match, of course we had what it took to beat anybody. He connected with each of us, knew all of his players individually and he brought out the best in us. Gio had every player so focused and ready to go when the whistle blew that we often played far beyond what we thought we were capable of. He elevated our team to a level of play we didn't know was possible.
Had he not been plagued with debilitating migraine headaches, he might have been one of the most successful coaches ever to walk the planet. But the migraines came, one after another. The pain forced him to step down from several coaching positions over the last decade or so of his life.He saw tons of doctors and tried every treatment under the sun. Nothing worked. He soldiered on though, all the while keeping his warm disposition through the constant pain.
Greg Giovanazzi died suddenly Monday night at the age of 54. He leaves behind his wife Deb, his daughter Casey and a legion of volleyball players who believe he hung the moon.
Rest in peace, Gio. There will never be another like you.
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