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Q & A With UCI Head Coach David Kniffin


Q & A With UCI Head Coach David Kniffin
Glenn Feingerts

How is the dynamic of the team, how are they adjusting?

They're still developing their own personalities and identities, which I think just speaks to what college sports is about. Last year we had a pretty strong senior class that was very clear on what their identity was. We had a very motivated coach who made it very clear what his goal was for the year. I feel that the national championship at UC Irvine is always two years in the making, in some cases longer. That first national championship we won in 2007 was really a function of leaving five freshmen on the court and letting them develop for four years in the MPSF. It is not very often that you get to do that and when you do, they get to be pretty good. I thought we were always working hard in 2008, but that 2008 team, even though we had a great class and second team, it took them a while to establish what it was they wanted and develop that drive. And then in 2009 we were able to achieve it again. And I would say the same thing in 2011, there was a lot of soul-searching. Then in 2012, the pieces came together. So we're trying to do a two-year lesson in one year this year. The guys are still identity-seeking but they're getting there.

What is the goal for this season?

Our competitive objective is to win the national championship. There is no hesitation there. They're all with us on that, that's very clear. Beyond that, we want to do it our way. We're still deciding what that is. We want to win in our style. We want to be the team that plays the best volleyball and doesn't just handle our opponents. The dialogue on the team last year was that we really out-talented everybody last year. We were so loaded. This year, certainly we're talented again. I feel like that's where we were in 2007 and 2009. We were not the most talented team. We were the team that had to figure it out. And even though we went into the 2009 national championship seeded number one, I still felt like from a talent standpoint USC was ahead of us. And from a physicality standpoint I felt that Penn State was ahead of us. So that's exciting for me to think about winning it when maybe we're not the best on paper.

Is there pressure to be No. 1?

No, not really. The pressure will be to be No. 1 on May 4th. That's really it. I appreciate the standings and what the AVCA does and the Coaches Polls. I vote every week too. I think it's neat, but of course we all know as competitors that it really comes down to where we are when the playoffs hit and how we perform in those moments. So until then we want to position ourselves as well as we can for playoffs.

What is your coaching philosophy?

I think my goal is to be gentle in what I do but firm in how I do it. And I think a lot of this is figuring out how each individual can be their personal best. I don't think that the team succeeds unless each individual is taking care of what they need to be taking care of for them. It's very much 'put your mask on before you can help others.' There's a lot of talk in sports about being selfless and being there for the team. I don't disagree with that. I just also think that until we figure out what motivates and what inspires each individual player that we can't see the forest for the trees.

What has been the toughest transition for you going from assistant to head coach?

As the head coach I'm required to have my hands on everything. Everything ends with me. Whatever it is, it's me. So although I don't know that I had the necessary management skills coming in, that's certainly something I'm trying to develop in terms of managing a staff. But as far as an understanding of what the job is, I feel like I have that. But I would say the biggest challenge is the management. Certainly hiring is a challenge and understanding what the right fit is about. Because when we recruit to an institution I think that's less complicated than hiring to an institution.

Who is your setter?

At the moment it seems to be Daniel Stork. I think Chris Austin has demonstrated that he can be on the court and win a national championship but we have to remember that just because he won it last year doesn't mean he'll win it this year. The pieces that he had around him were different last year and the culture of the team is a little bit different than last year. So it's always fascinating for me to look at this and just remember that each year it is a different puzzle. There is so much change. For me that's what college is. It's a time of transition and change both from the humanistic aspect and obviously from an educational standpoint and in the athletic environment as well. It is all about change and so we have to look at it every day and say OK, this formula worked last year, it doesn't necessarily work this year. So at the moment Daniel's putting up a better ball and I think running a little better offense but there's no question I have confidence in Chris.

What was wrong with Kevin Tillie early?

He played World League this summer and went right into European Championships with his team. The guy just played a lot of volleyball and he was just banged up. We were trying to limit jumps wherever we could. We obviously didn't play him in the Elephant Bar tournament at all just because we were trying to rest him up. We need him to be good at the end of the year, we don't need him nursing his wounds all year. Pepperdine seemed like the time for him to come out and I think he did a nice job. I think maybe he's not as dynamic as he was last year just because he's got a little bit of wear and tear going but he's a pretty good volleyball player, he'll be fine.

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