The People of Volleyball’s First Century: 1895-1995

A list from the 1995 centennial collector's edition of Volleyball magazine

Bruce Hazelton
Karch Kiraly as a youngster.

In 1995, the sport of volleyball turned 100, and that September, VBM published a special centennial collector’s edition of the magazine, featuring the top 100 people and events that had shaped the sport up until that point. Since ’95 many things have changed and new players, administrators, and coaches have burst onto the scene, but the people featured in that special edition magazine remain some of the most influential figures in the history of the sport we love. Here are the top ten as featured in that article titled simply “The People.”

1. Karch Kiraly

Rarely does a name become synonymous with a sport, but one comes close with volleyball. Kiraly set the century’s standard for excellence without fanfare or verbal fireworks. From leading his high school team to an undefeated season, through three national championships at UCLA, to two Olympic gold medals—the final reward for sticking with the U.S. program through thick and thin in the ‘80s, choosing not to bail for big bucks in Europe or on the beach.

With an unmatched work ethic and the ability to focus, he made everyone around him better. After establishing himself as the world’s top indoor player, he cemented his status as the best to ever play on the sand. Bets are on that he’ll pass Sinjin Smith’s record of 135 victories, despite missing seven summers of play [which of course he did, in 1999].

True greatness in any sport usually requires an intangible, something beyond setting records and demonstrating physical marvel. Often, it resides in character, and Kiraly has plenty. Perpetually the professional, he has provided class to a sport that has, at times, suffered from a pale, recreational image. More important, he quietly and frequently has given his time to promote the game he genuinely loves.

His remarkable accomplishments are only surpassed by the universal respect he enjoys. Finding a better role model may be the game’s greatest challenge in the second century.

2. Gene Selznick

Volleyball’s problem child, Selznick led the charge of the “West” (players) against the “East” (USVBA establishment). Bursting on the scene in 1951, the multi-talented maverick took little time to establish himself as the best on sand and court. Only his ambition and innovation matched his talent. After he was selected as an All-World player in Paris in 1956, the charismatic Selznick took it upon himself to introduce the world’s most advanced systems of play and international rules to American volleyball. He immediately hit a brick wall put up by the USVBA and its czar, Harry Wilson, resulting in a decade-long feud that ended with his being left off the 1964 Olympic team. The consummate entertainer, he drew crowds on the beach to see and hear him and was admired by most teammates as well as the men and women he later coached. It was Selznick who was responsible for introducing Wilt Chamberlain to the sport with a four-man national tour in the ‘70s. On or off the court, no one figures as the topic of more stories. “Larger than life” is a cliché that doesn’t exaggerate Selznick’s legend.

3. Mary Jo Peppler

A 6-foot-1 southpaw, Peppler excelled as a player, coach, innovator, visionary, and crusader. She could hit or set and was perhaps the greatest physical talent ever in the women’s game, a notion supported by the fact that she won TV’s first Superstars. An Olympian at 19 in 1964, Peppler was the only female player-coach in the professional IVA, and she was also the engine behind the first USA national team program begun in Pasadena, Texas, in 1973.

Before Title IX, she formed collegiate programs from scratch (Sul Ross State, Utah State) to capture national championships. Today she coaches arguably the top women’s beach team in the world—Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan. The Gloria Steinem of the game, Peppler carried the banner in establishing women’s volleyball in this country.

4. Sinjin Smith

Since breaking Ron Von Hagen’s long-standing record of 62 victories, Smith has been the winningest player in the history of beach volleyball and is now settled at 135. But his impact on the game can only be partially tied to his relentless pursuit of victory. By being the first volleyball player to truly court the forces that lead to growth—the media, the sponsors, the fans, and FIVB President Ruben Acosta—Smith and his trademark Sideout visor have stamped an identity on the sport of beach volleyball. If there was an interview to do, he did it, with magazines, newspapers, radio, anyone who would listen. And by playing FIVB tournaments with partner Randy Stoklos as far back as 1987, he laid the groundwork for Acosta to muscle beach volleyball into the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. It has been two years since he won his last tournament, but his name is still remembered across the country by casual and hardcore fans alike.

5. A. Provost “Pop” Idell

The century’s most creative mind, Idell was a Ben Franklin figure whose ideas reached every conceivable facet of the sport during its first 50 years. His Germantown Y team from Philadelphia won the first USVBA Nationals in 1928. His innovations included: All-American selections in 1927; the modern volleyball in 1928; women’s doubles and sixes; gym lighting and floor marking refinements; the first volleyball film. He also wrote the widely read “Volleys,” the Bible of the early sport and where Idell once wrote that the sport’s most enduring was that “it cures the blues.”

6. Steve Timmons

In the ‘80s, when volleyball was just beginning to ride the wave of popularity created by Olympic success, no one was a bigger symbol of the sport than Timmons. Recognizing his unique, red flattop, particularly once it began appearing on the clothes produced by his company, Redsand, people would come up to him on the street and say, “Hey, you’re that volleyball guy.”

Karch Kiraly says if he was starting a team, Timmons would be his first pick. In 1984, Timmons was the MVP at the Los Angeles Olympics, and in 1992, he became the first American player to compete in three Olympics, winning a bronze to add to his two golds. It was Timmons who initiated the head-shaving protests in ’92 that created a buzz around the world, demonstrating that whether he’s shaping his hair differently from the masses or crushing the ball with unprecedented success out of the back row, he had a knack for grabbing attention.

7. George Fisher

A high-ranking YMCA official who later moved to the Boy Scouts of America, Fisher was an early force in the sport. Already editor of the Official Volley Ball Rules Handbook, he was elected the first president of the USVBA when it was formed in 1928. Holding that office for 25 years, Fisher oversaw the creeping growth of the game westward. In keeping volleyball under the direct influence of the YMCA, it remained amateur and recreational. Unfortunately, that helped perpetuate its national image as a “sissy sport.”

8. Harry Wilson

The game’s first czar, Wilson was an ardent player, coach, and administrator in Illinois during the 1930s. Moving to Hollywood in 1939, he established the International Volleyball Review, the sport’s news source. At the same time, he patiently built a team of all-stars at the Hollywood YMCA that won 12 national titles and cemented California’s dominance. Although a far better recruiter than coach, his pull with the USVBA was unrivaled, and his appointment as the 1964 men’s Olympic team coach was automatic. His cutting of archival Gene Selznick from the team, as well as his insistence on playing with the outdated American system and rules, made for a disastrous Tokyo Olympics for the U.S. But his impact as an organizer played a big part in pushing the game to a higher level.

9. Doug Beal

A controversial coach from the Midwest who led the 1984 men’s team to the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics, Beal took over coaching duties of the USA team in 1976 after his playing career ended. He went on to help establish the first men’s training center in Dayton, Ohio, and later recognized the importance of moving the center to Southern California, the home of most of the top players. Once there, he encountered problems with brash California stars such as Tim Hovland, Sinjin Smith, Randy Stoklos, and Mike Dodd, all of whom left before the Los Angeles Olympics. But he still took American volleyball to its greatest height behind a team of young players, including Karch Kiraly, Pat Powers, Craig Buck, Dusty Dvorak, and Steve Timmons. A boycott by the Soviets and Cubans helped the Americans, but Beal’s two-passer system provided the U.S. with an edge and changed the world of volleyball.

10. Chris Marlowe, Paul Sunderland

Both members of the 1984 Olympic gold medal team, Marlowe and Sunderland went on to talk the game onto the national sports map. The glib performers rarely missed a beat, colorfully explaining the fast indoor game during the 1988 and 1992 Olympics and for many seasons on the beach, often to an audience with little understanding of the game. In doing so, they’ve brought a level of broadcast professionalism to volleyball that was previously seen only in sports of greater stature.

Originally published in September 1995

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