Volleyball was family for Harlan Cohen, who died last week at 85

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Harlan Cohen 3/28/2020-Marv Dunphy
Marv Dunphy, left, with Harlan Cohen

Legendary volleyball coach Harlan Cohen died last week at 85. But simply calling him a legendary coach doesn’t begin to cover it.

In its announcement of Cohen’s death, USA Volleyball listed a variety of job titles he held throughout his career, including becoming the first full-time head coach for the U.S. women’s national team who coached Team USA in the 1968 Olympics.

There were his stints as an assistant for the USA men (1966, 1972, and 1976) and head coach for the USA women (1966-68) and a career with the Pepperdine men which included time as an assistant when the program first started (1973-74), then head coach (1975-76), then back to assisting (1985, 1992-2003).

A Pepperdine release remembering Cohen listed those and more: Cohen coached at Santa Monica City College (1961-72) and was an assistant to Al Scates with the UCLA men (1986-1991).

And yet neither of those remembrances come close to capturing the many different job titles and positions, official and unofficial, Cohen held in a coaching career that spanned five decades.

“It would be amazing to list every job that (Harlan) ever had in volleyball,” said former Stanford men’s and women’s head coach Don Shaw. “When he got an award a while back from USA Volleyball, they listed a bio, but I read through that and I thought, you know, there is a lot of stuff in here that they didn’t include. He was always around and always involved.”

“He was just always willing to do whatever needed to be done for USA Volleyball, which at the time was USVBA,” said Doug Beal, former national team player and coach and former head of USA Volleyball. “Coach a team on a tour, be the assistant coach, find the gyms, set up the schedule. He just was really committed to making the sport better.”

Harlan Cohen, left, with another volleyball coaching legend, Burt DeGroot

Anecdotally, more positions popped up to add to Cohen’s impressive list: one-time head coach of the UC Santa Barbara men’s team, assistant/helper to Kathy Gregory (head coach of the UCSB women’s team), coach of the USA volleyball team for the Maccabiah Games (basically a Jewish Olympics held quadrennially in Israel), and coach for countless camps and clinics. He even traveled to Australia in the 1990s as a consultant for the Australian national team.

Cohen never married and didn’t have any children, but he found a family in volleyball, particularly at Pepperdine and with the Waves’ longtime coach Marv Dunphy.

Cohen coached Dunphy when the younger man played at Pepperdine, then gave Dunphy his start in coaching by hiring him as an assistant. Years down the road, the roles reversed, with Cohen returning to Malibu to take the assistant position on Dunphy’s staff.

Dunphy described Cohen the coach as “dogmatic,” “a taskmaster,” “old school” and “relentless.” Impressed by the tactics of Japanese coach Hirofumi Daimatsu, who was known for his strenuous practices that would sometimes last all night even after his players had already worked a full day in a factory, Cohen brought some of that mentality and those training methods back to his teams in America.

“He was really hard and somewhat of a perfectionist, but when I talk to the players that played for him when he had these really good international teams in 1966 and ’67, they got better,” Dunphy said. “They all of a sudden could play with Japan.”

A feature in the June 5, 1967, issue of Sports Illustrated detailed Cohen’s adoption of the Japanese style during his time as head coach of the U.S. women’s team.

“Cohen tosses around phrases like ‘pain tolerance’ in practice and, despite the improvement his approach has brought to U.S. volleyball, there has been opposition to the way he has driven the girls,” the article reads. “Little of the criticism, however, has come from the girls themselves. On the contrary, they actually appear to enjoy diving onto the floor and dashing off after loose balls. Many of them are teachers and students with logical excuses to miss practice, but attendance is high at all the workouts, regardless of where they are held.”

Linda Murphy, one of the women on the team at that time, remembers it a little bit differently.

“There was some grumbling,” she said. “But Harlan was the first one, and he was dedicated. He worked hard. He tried to know all the right things to do. I think most of us have bumps and bruises still from learning how to dive and roll like the Japanese. … But he was so dedicated and during his tenure, we started to make a move in the world and get attention from other people.”

By “the first one,” Murphy means the first full-time head coach of the USA women. He coached the team to a gold medal at the Pan Am Games in 1967 and a silver at the World Championships that same year. He also coached the team in the 1968 Olympics.

“It was a difficult job, because he was writing the script,” Murphy said. “It was the first draft.”

“(Harlan) along with a couple of other guys — Jim Coleman, Al Scates, and people like that — started coaching, I think the word I’d want to use would be seriously,” Beal said. “They studied the game, they organized practices. In that era, from the late 50s til about 1970, that was not a terribly common sort of way to operate for coaches.

“Harlan was serious and studied the sport and had a philosophy and prepared practices and structured drills and was serious about teaching technique and tactics. He studied what was going on outside the United States and tried to blend that with his own ideas. He influenced a lot of players and he influenced the sport quite dramatically and very broadly.”

After his time with the women’s national team, Cohen brought his uncompromising coaching style to the college game. As the head coach at Pepperdine, Cohen’s teams won the 1975 USVBA championship and finished runner-up in the 1976 NCAA Championship. Pepperdine won the national title in 1985 and 1992 with Cohen as an assistant. He later won two more national championships at UCLA in 1987 and 1989.

Back when Dunphy played for Cohen at Pepperdine, there were no NCAA regulations of how many days a week or how many hours a day a team could practice. Sometimes they’d start practice at 7 pm and keep going until they mastered whatever they were working on.

“He was like a dog on a meat truck,” Dunphy said. “If he wanted to get something in, man, we would do it and we’d do it and we’d do it until we got close to getting it down.”

No doubt, Cohen pushed his players out of their comfort zone. He would devise some criteria for getting out of drill and his teams would grind and grind and grind until they could finally hit that criteria.

“When you’re playing for something big like an NCAA or the Olympic Games, it’s not going to be perfect, it’s going to get ugly, but you have to learn how to navigate that,” Dunphy said. “I got uncomfortable, but I learned that hey, people will toughen up when they have to and it wasn’t like, nobody was going to die, but people will toughen up when they have to.”

Despite his tough exterior, Cohen earned plenty of respect and a fair bit of love from the volleyball community.

“He cared,” Dunphy said. “You can get away with a lot if the people know that you care. And he did. He cared greatly about the whole person and that came through.”

“I didn’t know anybody who had anything negative to say about (Cohen),” Shaw said, “except for maybe players who were pissed off at how hard he worked them or whatever the case may have been. I think that a lot of people just appreciate what they learned from him.”

“He should be remembered for the dedication that he had and how much he really cared about all of us,” Murphy echoed. “We didn’t think so at the time, but you can’t put that much time and energy into something without caring a great deal.”

Throughout his coaching career, Cohen favored and emphasized setters, the position he had played.

“His practice time was like this: train the setters, train a little bit of passing, train the setters, teach a little bit of defense, train the setters,” Dunphy said. “It was pretty much oriented around the setters, because that’s what he was great at.”

That preference for setting especially shone during the years Cohen regularly coached at Dunphy’s camps. Camp officially started at 9 a.m., but the setters would come in to work with Cohen for two hours before. Then, when everyone else went to lunch, the setters stayed to sneak in another half hour’s worth of reps. In the afternoon, Cohen was never too tired for another end-of-day session with the setters.

“(The setters) almost had three and a half or four hours more than all the other kids,” Dunphy said. “It got to be a great tradition.”

Cohen would teach the game to any willing student. Girl, boy, young, old — if someone showed interest in the game, Cohen was there to instruct.

According to his Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame bio, Cohen earned first-team All-America honors as a player in 1965, the year his Westside Jewish Community center team won the United States Volleyball Association national championship. He competed in at least one, and possibly more, Pan American Games competition with the U.S. men’s national team — rosters from that time period are rather difficult to track down.

He also played in three different Maccabiah Games (1961, 1965, 1969), even serving as a player-coach that last year. He returned again in 1977 as a coach.

Standing only about 5-foot-8, Cohen was remembered in the USA Volleyball release as a feisty setter. His Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame bio says in his playing days, Cohen was known for his defense.

“He wore elbow pads because he would just dive all over the place,” Dunphy said, “but it wasn’t this smooth, Japanese belly slide that you see, it was just him going after the ball. He did that on the beach and indoor. As a player, a coach, and a person, he was really feisty and, right or wrong, fiercely independent.”

For the last decades of his life, Cohen struggled with ataxia, a degenerative disease of the neurological system that leads to a lack of muscle control and coordination and difficulty speaking and swallowing. But even when the disease forced him to use a walker, Cohen kept coaching.

“For 10 years he worked my camp with the walker,” Dunphy said, “He would go right up to the net and then somebody would take the walker away because he didn’t want to be coaching from that walker. But he could barely move and when an errant ball would come or he’d get hit by something, he would just smile and say, ‘You can’t hurt steel.’

“I think we all value when somebody is tough and having to overcome things, and for sure (Harlan) did most of his adult life.”

On Monday, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and California’s statewide lockdown, a very small group gathered at a cemetery to memorialize Cohen. Dunphy was there, along with Cohen’s caregiver, and a rabbi, who led a short ceremony.

“I loved every minute with the rabbi and obviously saying goodbye to Harlan,” Dunphy said. “It was special.”

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