It’s hard to imagine beach volleyball in San Diego without California Beach Volleyball Association tournament director George Stepanof, who retired in December at 80.
Stepanof, who not only ran tournaments for more than half a century, created the rulebook and the ratings system that are still used today, and was one of the organizers of the Mexico Classic, at one time believed to be the largest volleyball tournament in the world.
Stepanof wants to spend more time with Arlene, his wife of 60 years, who helped him take registrations at tournaments in the early years.
“Volleyball kind of gets under your skin,” Stepanof said. “You get so interested in it, you want to play it. It’s such a great sport to play on the beach, you don’t usually get hurt on the beach. On that hard surface, you sometimes sprain ankles, and you bang up your knees, but on the sand, it’s great. It’s great exercise, and it keeps you healthy.”
Stepanof began playing in 1955 at a pickup game at the beach. Shortly thereafter, he assisted Bob Mann in his tournaments in San Diego’s Mission Beach, and soon began organizing tournaments at San Diego’s Ocean Beach. He served as chairman of the rules committee since the late 1960s.
In 1973, Jack Elliott started having a small draw tournament for friends, and invited Stepanof. Stepanof and founder Mike Brown grew the tournament into the Mexico Classic, a draw tournament where individuals are assigned partners by the tournament organizers. The tournament grew rapidly, and at its peak was believed to be the biggest tournament in the world at that time with 839 teams.
“It’s impossible to overstate George Stepanof’s importance to the CBVA and the sport of beach volleyball,” CBVA president Chris Brown said. “ He was one of the founding fathers of the CBVA, along with other titans of the game like Charlie Saikley, Gene Popko and Mike Cook.
“Among his litany of contributions to the sport, George literally wrote beach volleyball’s first rule book and was instrumental in creating the CBVA rating system (AAA, AA, etc.) which has been adopted by most other beach volleyball organizations.
“He has run tournaments in San Diego since the 1950s and has never missed a tournament. On a personal note, I feel very lucky to call George a mentor and friend. Our sport has benefited tremendously from his steady hand and he will be sorely missed.”
Stepanof was also the chairman of the CBVA Hall of Fame, and was inducted in 1992 to recognize his lifetime of contributions.
“I love the guy, just a humble guy.” said Kevin Cleary, a former president of the AVP, CBVA tournament director, and member of the CBVA Board of Directors. “I can’t think of too many guys that have been around the volleyball scene as long as George has. He ran one of the very first open events ever, and everyone else that was running tournaments at that time has been gone for a while.
“He is our sounding board whenever we need a historical perspective on any rule or procedural changes. He is an invaluable source to the CBVA. We’re going to miss him.”
Stepanof, also a retired battalion chief for the fire department, retired to make way for Steve Upp, who has been assisting Stepanof for more than 40 years. Stepanof once joked at a CBVA board meeting that Upp “has been helping me for over 40 years, a couple more and he’ll have it down pat.”
Stepanof’s legacy lives on in two additional generations of players: his sons Scott, a AAA-rated player who earned MVP honors when he played in the high school county playoffs; Tom, who was awarded a volleyball scholarship at USIU; and Rick, who competed for Puerto Rico in FIVB competition. His 16-year-old granddaughter Camille was the team captain at Bishop HS, earned her AAA at 16, and is now a member of the Cal Berkeley beach team.
Stepanof said he will likely stay involved with the sport.
“I have grandsons playing now at Point Loma High,” he said. “I’ll probably watch them and Camille. I may still help Steve (Upp) occasionally and make trophies. Will probably still help with the Polar Bear tournament.”