John Dunning hadn’t seen his Stanford women’s volleyball team since the Cardinal celebrated winning the NCAA championship the night of December 17. They hauled the trophy out of the arena in Columbus, Ohio, about 1:30 in the morning and then most of them headed to the airport a few hours later.
School was out, it was the holiday season, and everyone went in different directions.
So there was a lot to catch up on when they gathered in Palo Alto on Monday afternoon for the first team meeting of 2017.
And the coach for the past 16 years at Stanford told his staff and players, “We’re going to add new recruits to our team, there are people who are not going to be with our team, and I’m not going to be with our team, either.”
He had to pause while recounting the moment.
“Then it was really hard. I’m an emotional person but I’d like to be a little more in control than I was, but I didn’t do a good job of that today,” Dunning said Monday with a laugh.
“I really like the people who were sitting in the room with me today. It was really, really hard and now I’ve got to deal with what’s next. We’ll see what happens when I wake up tomorrow.”
Among other things, one of the top programs in the sport will have to find a new coach because Dunning ended his 32-year career by announcing his retirement just three weeks and two days after winning it all with a team that had a magnificent run the second half of the season.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was go in and talk to the team,” Dunning said. “That means I’ve had a blessed life because I haven’t had to tell a lot of people in my life a lot of hard things. That was really hard and had I had to do some calling and had to make sure everyone who needed know first-hand knew and then came home to my wife and she was in tears and it was a hard day, but it’s not confusing.“
Soon after that meeting, Stanford sent out a news release.
“Not a lot of people in any vocation get a chance to go out on top, so it’s special,” said Penn State coach Russ Rose, college’s all-time winningest coach who has had some epic battles with Stanford over the years. “In addition to the fact that he’s a great coach and family man and terrific friend, he had the ability to go out on top.”
Dunning won NCAA titles in 1985 and ’86 as the coach at Pacific and then three at Stanford, in 2001, 2004 and the four-set victory over Texas last month.
The 2011 AVCA hall of fame inductee never missed the postseason in 32 years as a head coach.
Dunning, who turned 66 in November, will retire with a record of 888-185 — 451-83 at Stanford — and leaves the school tied with Penn State for the most NCAA titles overall, seven.
The AVCA national coach of the year said he’d been thinking about retirement a while and recalled his own father, who worked hard, did well, and retired at 59.
“And he lived in retirement for 34 years until he died at 93.”
Dunning and Julie have two daughters, Lisa and Lauren, both of whom played college volleyball, and Lisa and husband Matt have two children.
“My life has been around working hard and having my family be taken care of and creating opportunities for them and after working having the where with all to enjoy it in a different way, where you’re not going to work every day. And my job is not a job you can do half time. My job, if you take it seriously, which I do, is not a job where you can have friends for half the year because you’re just too occupied.
“So I’m looking forward to a time where Julie, who’s been aside a coach for 43 years, since 1973 when I started coaching boys basketball at Fremont High in Sunnyvale, she’s my wonderful partner in life and has been with me that whole time and I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, I’ve never seen Yellowstone, I’ve never seen a lot of things and she hasn’t either. And we’d like to see a lot of things that are different than going to the gym every day, which I absolutely love coaching and I love volleyball.”
Not that he’s getting out of the sport. Dunning, who likes to play golf, is a big part of the Art of Coaching with Rose and another retired coaching legend, Terry Liskevych, who wrote this piece about his friend.
“I love the Art of Coaching and I love working with Russ and Terry and the people included beyond that and I love the idea that there are really experienced old-ish people who are involved in that who are very different who are just wanting to share experience and provide a resource for any coach that is different from when I was growing up.”
Dunning replaced Don Shaw at Stanford, who stayed another five years as the Stanford men’s coach and does some volleyball TV commentary.
“We played against basketball each in junior college,” said Shaw, who’s also 66. “I have the program from the Christmas tournament from Santa Monica College and De Anza College was in that tournament and the team picture is in there and Dunning’s in that picture.
“John is a class act and a great guy. He’s a teacher first and foremost. He was a math teacher who learned how to coach volleyball. Didn’t play volleyball. And I can recall when he was teaching at Fremont High School and Fred Sturm and I coaching both the women and the men at Stanford and we did some exhibitions at De Anza just to generate some interest in volleyball. So I go back to those days with John and he’s just one of the best guys ever. And that’s the first thing that comes out of anyone’s mouth when you ask about John Dunning, what a great guy.
“But he’s figured it out and he’s a great teacher and he did a great job of continuing the success that Fred and I had.”
Pac-12 rival and USC coach Mick Haley, 73, laughed at a guy retiring so young.
“It was always fun to compete against him because his teams were always competitive and always well prepared,” Haley said. “And we will sure miss that. He was a credit to Stanford because he maintained the tradition and we had many good battles.”
The dean of Pac-12 coaches, Dave Rubio of Arizona, was also taken aback by his friend’s announcement and praised the job he did this year, especially with so many freshmen.
“That was an unbelievable run at the end,” Rubio said. “I thought for sure he would finish out the next four years with that group, but if you’re going to go out, now that I think about it, why not go out with that finish he had? But I’m surprised.”
AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer knows the profession is losing a great coach.
“A friend of mine used to say, ‘I can’t define class, but I know it when I see it.’ This would be my description of John Dunning, a man with class who ran a program with class.” DeBoer said. “We all knew it; we could all see it.
“I want to be more happy for him than I am sad for us, but I’m struggling to get there. John was one of those coaches that you listened to, even when he was upset with you, because his point or complaint was never about him, it was always about others and what was good for the sport.
“Success has ruined a lot of coaches and even worse ruined a lot of relationships between coaches. John Dunning handled immense success as well as anyone; if he ever felt paranoid or arrogant or just like a major, big shot, he never let us see it. He took his role seriously but managed to take himself lightly.”
Dunning had three Stanford Olympians in Logan Tom (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012), Ogonna Nnamani (2004, 2008) and Foluke Akinradewo (2012, 2016), and many others who played on USA national teams.
“I joined Stanford with only three years of playing the sport under my belt,” Akinradewo wrote by email from Switzerland. “I was tall, athletic and highly unskilled. John coached me with an immense amount of determination, patience and care which I believe are a few of the many qualities he possesses that has allowed him to lead a successful and storied career. His presence on the sidelines will be greatly missed.”
Nnamani — now Silva — played on Stanford’s 2001 and 2004 title teams.
“I am so fortunate to have had John Dunning as my coach,” said Nnamani now an M.D. candidate at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “His kindness, patience and approach to the game made a lasting impact on my life.
“He always has been there for us and his leadership during my formative years played a huge part in making me the person I am today. He’s had a great career and deserves to go out on top as one of the sport’s greatest.”
This year’s VolleyballMag.com national player of the year, Stanford’s Inky Ajanaku, had high praise for her former coach, whom she credited for not only helping her become a better player, but getting her through missing the 2015 season with a knee injury and coming back strong in 2016.
“As a coach for me, with all the pressure and the history that Stanford has with its athletic greatness, he kept the players‘ development as a person at the forefront of all of his goals,” Ajanaku said.
“For him to be able to do that in such a challenging job with the pressure to win and pressure to achieve that excellence and the athletic side of what he was graded on, it didn’t matter to him. He wanted to develop great players and great people and that’s not your average big-time college coach. I know a lot of people who will look back at what he did for them — and it might not have been on the court — and realize a lot of things that John taught them were more valuable off the court.
“That he could keep that the focus the calling of his career for so many years is remarkable in a world that wants you to focus on the things that are going to give you accomplishment and accolades. You might not hear a lot about those little things, but I think that was the biggest success of his career.”
Madi Bugg was a four-year (2012-15) starter at setter for Dunning.
“College is hard. Stanford is a wonderful place, but it is HARD. My senior season was ugly. There’s no denying that, especially after going to the final four the year before,” Bugg emailed Tuesday from Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where she plays for Viteos NUC.
“I will never forget a meeting I had with John in the lobby of our hotel after we lost to North Carolina (my hometown trip). I was frustrated and I was trying so hard to shut everyone out because I knew was going to lose it big time if I showed how upset I was. I missed having my best friend on the court with me and life was hard in that moment.
“And John held me back after everyone left to shower and just asked me what was up. And I tried SO HARD to not let him in. But, as per usual, twenty minutes into the meeting I ended up crying and pouring my heart out. And the thing I’ll always remember is that he cried with me. My pain was his pain. He cared that we lost, but the tears were for me. He cared. He always cared. That is his superpower. It’s his legacy. Not the numbers, but the people that he cared for and how much we love him for it.”
And beach superstar Kerri Walsh Jennings, who play at Stanford just before Dunning arrived, said Dunning was a key part of her love for the sport.
“When I was 10, I went to his setters camp at Pacific and from then on it was over for me,” said Walsh Jennings, who played for Shaw at Stanford and was part of the 1996 and 1997 NCAA title teams. “I was a lifer in the sport.
“John made the game extremely fun and was genuinely enthusiastic about the athletes in his camps and in their individual progress. He made a huge impact on me and I will be forever grateful. I am proud of John and all he has accomplished in our great sport. His teams always were contenders and that doesn’t just happen. Consistency is a sign of greatness in sports and coach Dunning has been nothing but consistent throughout his coaching career. I’m so happy he is retiring at the very top of his game. What a special place to finish and what a special career.”
Dunning said he went to Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, who in turned told him to think about for a couple of days, just as Dunning said he has always done with recruits after they commit. Dunning was certain.
Muir, of course, now needs to hire a new coach and the Stanford news release said he will conduct a national search. Dunning leaves behind a veteran and talented staff, including one of the most well-liked and respected coaches in the sport in associate head coach Denise Corlett, and assistant coach Cassidy Lichtman, a former Stanford player. He also leaves behind a team that won the title with four freshmen, so the new coach won’t inherit a bare cupboard.
“He deserves it,” Ajanaku said. “Coaches never get time off. He deserves some time to go golfing and hang out and hang out with Julie and spend time with his kids and his grandkids and I’m really thankful he stayed this past year, because everybody knows we couldn’t have done it without him.”
Dunning knows the 2016 season was special and not a bad one on which to go out, but said that didn’t influence his decision.
“This decision was hard and didn’t have to do with anything. I love the team I had this year, I loved our staff, it was as good or better than any staff I’ve ever coached with in terms of how worked together. So what a joy. I’m a lucky guy,” Dunning said.
“I’ve had three jobs, starting after the 7-Elevens and the jobs in college. A high school teacher for a period of time, was the coach at two different schools and all three jobs have been amazing.”