David Kniffin took the reigns at UCI last summer and his first head coaching position brought with it some serious pressure. Not only was he replacing the school’s most successful coach and possibly the most wanted coach in the nation, but he found himself at the helm of a now established top tier program which entered the 2013 season as the defending national champs and started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. But none of those facts seem to shake him.
“I am not nervous about it. I'd say I embrace it,” said Kniffin. “I kind of revel in the fact that I have the hardest job in America right now. I get to be the guy that follows the golden boy. We were joking around with some of our administrators that there really is no successful year for UC Irvine this year because either we did what we were supposed to do or we did not achieve what the last coach could have. So I'm entertained by it."
His first order of business was to assess the team he has in the gym this year. Not as the defending national champions, but as a new group of guys that needed a chance to establish its own identity. To do that, Kniffin believes it is important to get to know each of his players as people and not just as volleyball players, something his players have taken note of in his first months on the job.
“It’s about the whole experience, about being a man and maturing,” said junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno. “I would say that Kniff is even more of a player’s coach than even Speraw was. His whole philosophy is each team is unique and there are no missing pieces to that team, it is just how do these pieces all fit together. It’s definitely a different experience than I have ever had as far as being coached by a coach that is so fully involved and so close to what is going on within the players' lives. It is almost on a friendship basis and the communication is so open and there's just a lot of trust throughout it all.”
Two months into the 2013 season, both coach and players believe that they are closing in on what the team's identity this year and Kniffin is starting to get a very good grasp on who his players are on and off the court. It helps that he lives on campus and is thus very accessible to them.
Along with that guidance, Kniffin feels it is important to keep UCI at the top of the rankings and the team’s main objective is to win another national title this year. So far, he has managed just fine in that capacity. The Anteaters have been ranked No. 1 for six out of the first eight weeks of the season. Their record includes two wins over former coach Speraw’s Bruins. For their part, both coach and players say that playing against the Bruins is just like any other match.
“It is not a huge deal for anyone on the team,” said Dejno. “Beating UCLA is such a minor goal in the realm of our bigger goal of winning a national championship. It’s just another tally on the win sheet. That’s all it has been and that’s all it will be. It has nothing to do with any personal vendettas. When you’re playing, it’s all business and then after, you’re all friends again.”
When Kniffin first faced Speraw, he was expecting an emotional response that never came. “The only weird thing about it was the indifference that I felt,” he said. “I really was expecting to have some swell of emotion at some point and it just never occurred. All I saw was numbers and tendencies and the coaching staff of the other side of the net. It was very much a ‘somebody that I used to know’ feeling.”
Right now, all the Anteaters are worried about is developing as a team and being at their best when the playoffs come around. Though the Anteaters lost key players last year, their talent pool remains deep and they have come through in big matches so far this season. Kniffin believes that they win not because they are the most talented, but because they know how to come together as a team.
“I think we're in the mix based on talent. But the question is, are we really more talented than a BYU? Probably not. Are we more talented than a Stanford or Pepperdine? I don't know that we are,” said Kniffin. “So that's exciting for me to think about winning it when maybe we're not the best on paper. It comes down to how the guys play together.
We get to try to do the impossible, to go for a second straight national championship. And despite winning three in the past six years we've never won back-to-back. So certainly that's our competitive objective. And how sweet would that be to win it with a changing coaching staff and to demonstrate that it is programs that win titles?"