Kevin Hambly, the Illinois coach the past eight seasons, said he wasn’t looking for a job and the only one he would have even considered was Stanford.
Now he’s become the sixth head coach of one of the most prominent jobs in college volleyball, taking over a storied Stanford program that not only won the 2016 NCAA championship, but returns almost its entire roster.
The job opened earlier this month when John Dunning retired after 16 years at the helm. Stanford has won seven NCAA titles — tied for the all-time most with Penn State — including 2001, 2004 and in December under Dunning.
Hambly had a record of 178-86 at Illinois. That included 17-14 last season when the Illini went 10-10 in the Big Ten and failed to get an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2012, the year after Hambly took his team to the 2011 NCAA final match. He was the 2011 Volleyball magazine (now VolleyballMag.com) national coach of the year.
“For me it’s the best job,” said Hambly, 43, who went to Stanford last Thursday and Friday and accepted the job on Saturday. “It fits my culture, it fits the way we operate perfectly. It stood out to me as I was going through the interview that we as were talking about the culture that I operate in and that I want to have the program emulate, they were saying the exact same thing. It was really in concert and the more I was there I could see that it was a good fit for me and I was hoping it would be for them.”
He told his Illinois team Monday morning.
“It’s hard. I’ve known all these kids since they were freshmen in high school,” Hambly said, “The kids I committed to be here for, that’s gutting. I love them. I truly love them like they were my own daughters. It’s going to be hard to see them from afar and if we were to play them that would be really difficult.
“I’ll always feel like an Illini. I feel like I grew up here as a coach and as a man, really. I came in as a 30-year-old and I’ve been here 13 years and feel like I’ve grown up. It’s been a really cool place to grow up in with amazing people.”
Hambly had high praise for new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and is optimistic for the future for his old program.
“It’s a much better job than when I found it and I’m really proud of that,” Hambly said. “I’m really proud of what I did while I was here. What we accomplished and not just wins and losses. You always want to win more — I’d take one more win in 2011 — but how we operated and the class that the program exuded the entire time is what I’m most proud about.
“It should be a job that people are excited to be a part of and they should be excited to to work for Josh.”
Hambly, from Simi Valley, Calif., played at BYU from 1992-95 where he had an All-American career as a middle blocker. His time at BYU overlapped with, among others, another Big Ten coach in Minnesota’s Hugh McCutcheon.
He played professionally in France, coached a men’s club team in Northridge, Calif., before joining the staff at UNLV for four years.
He then served as an assistant at Illinois from 2004 to 2008 — earning his degree at Illinois in 2006 — before being named the head coach in 2009 when Don Hardin retired after 13 years. In 2014 he signed a three-year extension that extended his contract through 2019.
“I am thrilled to welcome Kevin, Mary and their daughters to the Stanford family,” Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said in a news release. “Kevin is not only a great coach and teacher of the game, but he possesses the same values that make Stanford special.
“With a strong core returning from the national championship team, I have no doubt that Kevin will keep our women’s volleyball team among the nation’s elite. I believe he will maintain the integrity and sportsmanship this program is built on while ensuring our student-athletes reach their full potential on the court, in the classroom and beyond The Farm.”
Hambly is a former president of the AVCA and worked extensively with the USA national team in various capacities.
Stanford’s existing staff includes longtime associate head coach Denise Corlett, who has been with the Cardinal for 27 years. Cassidy Lichtman, a former Stanford player, joined the staff last season.
“I need time to talk to people and figure out what it’s all about,” Hambly said. “Right now I’m not sure.”
Interestingly, he leaves behind a staff that includes Jason Mansfield, who joined Hambly last spring at Illinois after 14 years on staff at Stanford.
Stanford, which finished 27-7 last season, 15-5 in the Pac-12 where it tied for second with UCLA behind Washington, won its last 10 matches, six in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal beat Texas in the NCAA title match with a roster led by senior middle Inky Ajanaku, the VolleyballMag.com player of the year, but also four starting freshmen: Outside Kathryn Plummer, middle Audriana Fitzmorris, setter Jenna Gray and libero Morgan Hentz.
“I’m very excited to see what the future holds because we’ve only heard great things about him so far,” said Hentz, who added that the Cardinal team was told of Hambly’s hire Monday morning. “Obviously we’re going to miss John but we’re really excited.”
What’s more, it’s assumed that the 2015 national freshman of the year, Hayley Hodson, will return to the Cardinal in 2017 after sustaining an injury and leaving school early last season.
“It’s a great team to inherit with high expectations and it’s a different thing to manage than they had to manage last year,” Hambly said. “So to navigate that is going to be a fun problem to solve together and see how that works. But certainly the talent is there to do some incredible things the next several years and that’s exciting.
“But honestly, that was exciting but that wasn’t the main reason I wanted to take the program. I would have taken it if it was a down year. It’s an amazing place and Bernard is a really special athletic director, as is Beth (Goode, senior women’s administrator). They’re just special people the minute we were there.
Hambly’s wife, the former Mary Coleman, is from the Chicago area and not only played at Illinois (1995-98) but was also an assistant coach (2004-06). They met in 2001 and went to Illinois together. They have two daughters, Quinn and Maura.
“Once she saw Palo Alto and what it and we looked into the schools and all that, she was pretty excited to get our family out there,” Hambly said.
Whitman had nothing but praise for his outgoing coach.
“Kevin Hambly has done an outstanding job leading our volleyball program to a position of national prominence during his eight years at the helm,” Whitman said in an Illinois news release. “He approached every day with passion, pride, and great integrity. His student-athletes performed as champions on the court, in the classroom, and in their respective lives. We will miss Kevin, Mary, and their daughters in our program and our community, and we wish them the best as they return to Kevin’s native California.
“Here, we look forward to identifying the next dynamic leader who will continue the program on its upward trajectory. We are excited to usher in a new championship era of Illinois Volleyball.”