Now fulfilling his new dual role as the head coach of both the men's national team and UCLA's men's program, it’s incumbent upon John Speraw to move seamlessly from one volleyball world to another. Luckily for UCLA and USA Volleyball, you could argue that no one does it better.
Consider that in May 2012 Speraw led UC Irvine to its third NCAA men’s title in six years. And then:
What’s more, he actually has his sights on not one, but two Olympiads.
We caught up in the shade outside Pauley Pavilion, the building adjacent to Speraw’s office – his office, that is, when he’s in Westwood.
VBM: You said that taking over the national team happened in a hurry and it kind of blindsided you.
Speraw: It did.
So the whole story was that we had talked about the dual role pretty extensively about a year ago when I was trying to figure out what I was doing with my career. Was I going to stay at Irvine? Or was I going to come to UCLA? Or was I going to coach the national team? Or was I going to do some combination of the two?
And at that point I took some time to thoroughly evaluate if the dual role was feasible, whether we could be successful doing it – both with the collegiate team and the national team – and whether or not I’d burn myself out. And I had come to the decision that it could be done and after spending this year at UCLA and fully coming to understand the resources and support staff they have here for the coaches, I believed that it was totally possible.
But at that point I had already made my decision. I was here and I wasn’t going to coach the national team. But I got a call from Hugh McCutcheon [2008 USA men’s coach, 2012 USA women’s coach], who was familiar with what was going on with the search and he asked me what my thoughts were. I told him I didn’t have any thoughts, that I hadn’t thought about it one minute since I made my decision to come to UCLA. He told me Doug [Beal, USA Volleyball CEO] would probably be interested in taking another look at it. I talked to Doug shortly thereafter and he indicated that he was interested in re-evaluating the dual role.
Of course I had to talk to UCLA and Dan Guerrero [UCLA’s athletic director] was unbelievable about the whole concept.
VBM: You said USA Volleyball was hesitant about the idea.
Speraw: They were. Once everybody felt a little bit more open about the concept and was willing to explore it, in the end it came together pretty quickly.
VBM: One of the arguments for you taking the Olympic job while you stayed at Irvine was because it was because it’s close to the training center [in Anaheim]. And here you’re in Los Angeles. Did geography enter into it?
Speraw: No. Even when that argument was being made, and it was something Doug talked about, to me it wasn’t about location. It’s not like L.A. is that far away. To me it was about support. It was about administrative support at the university you were at and USA Volleyball, what they were willing to do. I think once I got here my assumption was correct, that things here at UCLA from a work/life perspective are really incredible. And not what I was used to. At this point, especially now that I’ve gotten into the job, it’s completely doable.
VBM: Well, considering L.A. traffic, do you have a really nice car with satellite radio?
Speraw: Yeah, I do, actually, and what’s going to happen is I’m going to have make that drive once or twice a week during offseason, but most of the workload as I can see coming down the road next year during the academic year is going to be about connecting with the players and evaluating what they’re doing overseas. And that’s Skype from my office here, that’s watching video and streaming here. I think we’ll have good support in Orange County and we’ll be fine. It’s not about that drive. The schedules are juxtaposed and I’ve done all my exit interviews with my players here and packed up and moved to Orange County for the summer.
I’ll come up on the weekends, but it’s not like I’ll be in this commute on a daily basis. That’s not how it has to be.
VBM: Is it safe to say that the men’s team last summer in London was a disappointment [losing to Italy in the quarterfinals 3-0]?
Speraw: No, I don’t think so. I think it was a remarkable success. I think the first three matches of the Olympics we played the best volleyball of the quad. I think we were in the toughest pool and we won that pool. The only thing that happened was Clay [Stanley] got hurt and up until the point he got hurt he was the best player at the Olympic Games. If he had stayed healthy, I think we would have medaled. We played a great tournament and didn’t have everybody healthy and Italy served the heck out of the ball. And even still, we had our chances in game one. If we had won the first set it could have been a different volleyball match. I think going into the Olympics we were wondering how we were going to get out of that pool and we ended up winning it, beating Brazil, having a real nice match against Russia [Brazil beat Russia in the gold-medal match], and taking care of Serbia. We had a nice tournament, but we didn’t take care of business in the quarterfinals.
VBM: There was this perception that nobody wanted this job and it’s not a good job right now.
Speraw: I think everyone’s hesitancy is not because it’s not a great job; it’s just that it’s a short-term job. And I think collegiate coaches, who are the best talent pool for selecting the head coach of the national team, are unwilling to leave a collegiate job that could be a lifetime job. I think that was the case here. My decision to take the UCLA job was that I’d been in the UC retirement system so long it was foolish for me to leave it. You have a lot of coaches who are making those kinds of decisions, and that’s why I think this dual role could be potentially really beneficial to USA Volleyball in the long run.
If we can figure out how to make this work in the long run, it opens up the ability for the CEO of USA Volleyball to pursue a much greater talent pool in the future, particularly for the men’s team.
VBM: That would be good.
Speraw: I’m still curious to see how this is going to work out for me. There is an unknown. Four years from now am I going to be burned out? Or is this going to really work well in terms of my ability to still have a life and be successful? In that respect it’s a bit of an experiment. I think we all know that we’re going to have to learn how this is going to work a little bit on the fly. But if it works, I’m in. I’ve loved my experience with USA Volleyball, I’m loving being back at UCLA, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate their support.
I’d be in for eight [years] if this works. With this quad and the turnover and, well, we’re going through a generational shift. I don’t know exactly how extensive it’s going to be, because I know some of the key players from 2012 want to make it to 2016, but there’s no question there’s going to be some influence of younger players if we’re going to achieve our goals at the end. Since we’re in this generational shift I’d like to see it played out till 2020 myself, but we’ll have to see how things go.
VBM: Are there any rock solid guys from 2012 who will be anchors in 2016? Not asking you to announce your roster now, but players who we know will be a part of it barring something unusual.
Speraw: I think Matt Anderson is already one of the great players in the world and will continue to be. He has plenty of upside and growth in his game. I think he’ll be a fixture for us over the next four years. Other than that, I think it’s pretty wide open. We’re taking a look at new guys at setter and new guys at opposite and other new guys at outside hitter positions, new liberos. I think our middle-blocker position is our most experienced and deepest position at this point and most of the guys who have been in the mix the last four years are interested in sticking around for another four, and I think they can make it. In that respect we’re going to be just fine.
VBM: And, finally, your favorite restaurant in Westwood?
Speraw: I go to Panini Café all the time. It is the best food for the cheapest price in Westwood. And I probably won’t even get a free meal out of that, but that’s the truth.