Legendary volleyball figure Rolf Engen, a member of UCLA’s first men’s volleyball team and an outstanding USA national-team player, died in Laguna Beach, Calif., this week, five days before his 89th birthday.
Engen, who later became an accomplished coach and was the Commissioner of Volleyball at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, was remembered fondly by the icons of the sport.
“He is clearly one of the all-time greats and every interaction I ever had with him was a pleasure,” said Doug Beal, coach of the USA team that won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics and later became CEO of USA Volleyball. “He was a gentleman, he treated everyone with great care and respect, he was wonderful to be around and wonderful to share stories and experiences with.”
Beal enjoyed the time they spent leading up to and during the ’84 Olympics.
“My memories and experiences are very positive concerning the 1984 Olympics, but a big part of that was how wonderfully and expertly Rolf managed the facility and the competition,” Beal said. “He just seemed to have a solution to every problem, and a great demeanor, he was a wonderful part of that Olympic Games.”
Engen, raised in Santa Ana, Calif., was a life-long athlete, playing basketball in his youth before discovering volleyball.
According to his family, he was recruited by John Wooden to play basketball at UCLA but following an injury, he switched to volleyball. Subsequently he was a member of UCLA’s first men’s volleyball team.
Al Scates, the only men’s coach UCLA ever had, had nothing but praise for Engen.
“At the time that he played, he was the best setter that I ever saw,” Scates said. “I haven’t seen anybody play that was more accurate than he was. He was an amazing setter.
“As far as the United States goes, I never saw anyone better than Rolf in his prime as far as accuracy. They would have plays, him and older guys like Mike O’Hara, on a good pass, would run plays that today we would call a left inside, or a shoot to the pin, a real fast pin, and if the pass was bad, they would run a high set to either myself or Rudy Suwara.
“He started using play sets to the outside in 1963 or 1964, Rolf was one of the first to run quick sets, along with Gene Selznick.”
Scates applauded Engen’s demeanor, too.
“He was such an even-tempered guy on the court. He was so cool, so calm, so collected. He was just thinking about what he was going to do next, on the next play, he would take a look at the blockers, see the weak blockers, he was always utilizing that stuff, but he never talked about it, but he did.”
Engen won two national collegiate titles at UCLA and was twice selected a first-team All-American. After college, he was a nine-time USA Volleyball National Open Champion, 10-time All-American and USA Volleyball’s most valuable player in 1960.
As a member of the USA national team, he won a gold medal at the 1955 and 1959 Pan-Am games and World Games in 1960 and National Open Gold in 1964. He was honored with the USA Volleyball All-Time Great Player Award in 1968, induction into International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 1991 and into the Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Rolf Engen was a giant in the sport of volleyball,” said Kirk Morgan, the Laguna Beach Open tournament director. “He was the driving force in promoting the sport from the youth game all the way to the Olympics. He will be greatly missed and leaves behind a wonderful family and a towering legacy.”
Engen coached the Laguna Beach High School boys team and led them to two state championships. He formed the Laguna Beach Volleyball Club and led the team to three gold medals and two silvers at the Junior Olympics from 1975 to 1979.
Engen was also an avid tennis player, calling it “the sport of a lifetime,” and continued to play through his 88th year.
Engen is survived by his wife, Carol and his children, Hollie Ragland and her husband, Greg; Kip Engen and his wife, Sherry, and Dave Engen and his wife, Shauna.
Dave Engen explained that Rolf Engen adopted him when he was 6 and married Carol.
“My natural father passed away a year prior and Rolf had been divorced. When my father, Rolf, married my mother, Carol, he had two children, Holly and Kip, who were older, and he brought in my family to his/their home,” Dave Engen said.
That included Engen’s late sister Janalea, who had Downs Syndrome and multiple birth defects.
“He took on the added responsibility head-on with nurturing, understanding and impeccable consistency,” Engen said. “Janalea loved Rolf wholeheartedly and Rolf loved Jan unconditionally.
“During Rolf’s coaching era, Janalea would accompany him to many practices and she would attend all the games and matches. She became Laguna Beach’s volleyball mascot. In my opinion, my father’s crowning achievement, was uniting a family.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach or to the charity of your choice.