Legendary USA player Jack Henn, who coached SDSU to ’73 men’s title, dies at 79

0
1752
Jack Henn SDSU 3/24/2020-1973 NCAA champions
The 1973 San Diego State national-championship team

Chris Marlowe said simply that he never would have been an Olympian had it not been for Jack Henn coaching him at San Diego State.

Al Scates, his longtime coaching rival but also an occasional on-court teammate, said Henn “was just amazing.” 

Another of Henn’s former SDSU players, Duncan McFarland, who along with some of his teammates visited with Henn till the end, said “he was a unique guy.”

And Doug Beal, the former national-team player, coach, and head of USA Volleyball, called him “one of the most talented setters we’ve ever had.”

Henn died Sunday night in San Diego at 79, leaving behind a tremendous volleyball legacy. 

Not only was he a player on the 1968 USA Olympic team that upset the eventual gold-medalist Soviets during the tournament, but Henn coached San Diego State to the 1973 NCAA men’s national title, a shocking upset of Long Beach State.

Henn, who died from colon cancer, stayed in the sport long after that in many capacities.

He was inducted into the Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame, which listed this biography:

He was raised in Mission Hills and went to San Diego HS as a basketball player before turning to indoor volleyball in the early 1960s. In 1968 he was the starting setter for the USA Olympic team in Mexico City which finished 7th after being an Olympic alternate in 1964. He started the San Diego State men’s VB program in 1966 as a graduate player and won USVBA ‘Small Schools Title’ then. He led the Aztecs to the school’s only NCAA title in 1973 beating Long Beach in finals before biggest crowd in college history after being runner-up in 1972. In 1974 he had the courage to put SCIVBHOF member Laurel Brassey Iversen on the men’s team despite objections by the Athletic Director and was let go as coach after the season. He was brought back in 1995 and coached the women for six more years for his alma mater. He was given the USAV Tom Haine ‘All-Time Great Player’ award in 2011. He is in the San Diego Sports Association Hall of Fame.

That 1973 team won the title not only at home, but also on the old ABC Wide World of Sports television show. The play-by-play announcer that day was the legendary Keith Jackson and the analyst was Scates.

Scates said the year before he thought SDSU had the best team, but the Aztecs ran out of gas and ultimately lost to UCLA in the final despite winning the first two sets. That was UCLA’s third consecutive title, “and that kind of fueled us in ’73,” said SDSU’s Craig Beery.

“Jack never pulled any shenanigans and his boys were so well-trained,” Scates said. “Fundamentally his guys were the best. I mean fundamentally sound. He knew all the techniques. He was a hitter, a setter, he was a good blocker. He was an amazing digger. He always squatted down so low to dig the low balls. Eventually he blew out his knee and that curtailed his career.”

McFarland, who went on to coach SDSU from 1981-83, said Henn could be tough to play for. 

“He was not the easiest guy to be coached by because he didn’t believe a lot in communicating verbally. He wanted you to figure things out yourself for whatever reason. 

“We all had tremendous respect for what a tremendous player he was,” said McFarland, adding that Henn was one of the players he watched as youngster to learn how to be better. He said Henn was often innovative as a coach “almost as an obsession. He always wanted to try to do things differently.”

Beery agreed about their coach, who wasn’t even 10 years older than them.

“He was one of the first coaches of that generation of trying to figure things out from a bigger perspective in terms of having camps and clinics. And you have to remember that all these guys were self-taught,” Beery said.

“None of these guys grew up on a club team. They all taught themselves how to play. Most of them taught themselves on the beach and then moved into the indoor game. And Jack was the kind of coach who was like, ‘Hey, I had to teach myself.’ And no doubt about it, Jack was a master technician. He was a great setter, a great blocker, great passer, great hitter, and a very smart hitter. So he could teach you how to do all that.

“But he wasn’t interested in figuring out how to motivate you to be a better player. That had to come from you. All that was on you, because that was how he was.”

McFarland was headed to UCLA to play for Scates before changing his mind late in the process and heading to SDSU. McFarland played on the national team for five years, including leaving school for his junior year to play on the 1972 team that was coached by Scates. That squad barely missed making the Munich Olympics.

“I mentioned to Scates one time that he wouldn’t believe how much time we spent (at SDSU) passing. And Al talked about how good our team was at passing and ball control, and said, ‘Well of course you are. Your coach was a setter and he always put a premium on good passing.’ Yeah, we would spend so much time at that. We would get sick to death of spending an hour doing nothing but passing. (Henn) just insisted that we become a good passing team. And not so much that he said pass like this or that, he just figured that enough reps would make us figure out how to pass different serves.”

None of that was lost on Scates, who told this story Tuesday about Henn:

“I was giving a coaches clinic somewhere in Southern California, I forget where, but I had a packed room of coaches and there was one guy in the back row and he was reading a newspaper,” Scates recalled. “The whole time. And I spoke for an hour.

“Took questions and then when it was all over, this guy drops the paper and it’s Jack Henn.”

Scates started laughing.

“And he hadn’t even been coaching. He just came there to give me a hard time.”

Jack Henn coaching at San Diego State

According to the story about Henn’s death in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “the ’73 team — Chris Marlowe, All-American Duncan McFarland, All-American Randy Stevenson, Wayne Gracey, Craig Beery, Mike Cote, Milo Bekins, Randy Guyer, Dave Venuti and Herb Harms — was often forced to practice outside or run the stairs in the Aztec Bowl because everything from PE classes, to intramurals were scheduled in Peterson Gym.”

Marlowe, Bekins, Gracey, and Stevenson all went to Pacific Palisades High School. Beery became Henn’s assistant in 1974. 

Provided by Craig Beery

Even Sports Illustrated had a story about the 1973 title team.

And this how it read in a special-edition issue of the SDSU student paper for what is still the school’s only national team title: 

San Diego State University — the 1973 NCAA Volleyball Champions! ! ! !

It was shortly before 11 p.m. on May 26, 1973, when “Henn’s Hustlers” captured the first national team title in university competition for themselves, their school, and their fans.

The Aztecs tore up and shamed the alleged top team in the nation, CSU Long Beach, 11-15, 15-13, 15-8, 15-6 before the largest crowd to view a volleyball game in this country.

The 8,412 broke an eight-year mark of 6,100 at UCLA when an American team took on a Japanese squad.

The game was won on a combination of three factors: the fans, the Aztecs, Coach Jack Henn’s strategy.

Marlowe starred on that 1973 squad and ultimately was on the ’84 team coached by Beal that won the USA’s first men’s volleyball gold medal.

“I think about how much I owe him for my career,” said Marlowe, now the voice of the Denver Nuggets. “I was a good player when I got to San Diego State, but Jack was a pioneer in terms of techniques and fast offense and serving and was just ahead of the curve.

“When I got there he had already played in the ’68 Olympics and brought back some techniques from the international teams. He and Danny Patterson were the first two American players who introduced diving (for balls) into the game. That was in ’69.”

That sounds incredible in today’s volleyball world.

“Yes, diving for a loose ball. Those were the two guys who started it,” Marlowe said. “And as my career went on at San Diego State I switched from an outside hitter to a middle blocker and then became a setter because he and I figured out I wasn’t going to be tall enough to be a middle in international competition.

“So I became a setter, we won a national championship at San Diego State, I made my way onto the national team and then the Olympic team and ended up getting the gold medal in ’84. I credit a lot of my development and a lot of what I learned from Jack. He was ahead of his time. And he was certainly one of the most interesting people I’ve had in my life.”

Scates agreed.

“Jack was a great teammate,” Scates said. “We got to play together in ’66 at the world championships and he was just a great setter. He could put the ball wherever you wanted it, as fast as you wanted it, he knew how everybody wanted it and just set ‘em up perfect.”

Beal, an Olympian who then coached the 1984 team to the gold medal and later was CEO of USA Volleyball, concurred.

“Quite a unique guy. He was a marvelous player in an era when you played the whole game,” Beal said. “Far before specialization of any kind, so he could do pretty much everything on the court. Just a smart, talented player.”

Beal — “he was ending when I was kind of starting” — said they both played together some and against each other. Beal said he got to know him better when the USA national team moved to a training center in San Diego.

“He had a relatively short career because his knees were just terrible,” Beal said. “ … He was a quirky guy. He spent a couple of years in India. Then he had a nice coaching run at San Diego State.” 

That ultimately ended, because the year after winning the title Henn asked SDSU star setter Laurel Brassey to come over from the women’s team to the men’s. That just added to his adversarial relationship he had with the SDSU athletic department.

Brassey made the move, becoming the first woman to play on an NCAA men’s team. Brassey’s move to the men’s side created quite a controversy, although she played for the 1980 and ’88 USA Olympic teams and coached at New Mexico for 17 years.

Jack Henn in 1973

Henn’s tenure ended in 1974, but he came back to coach the team again from 1985 until the program was discontinued after the 2000 season.

“He was a calming presence,” Beery said. “He never got upset, never got fired up, and wouldn’t visibly be mad. He was just very focused on what we needed to do.”

Henn was originally from Evansville, Indiana, before moving to California. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Henn is survived by sister Jill West of San Diego, sister Jenifer Parker of Pasadena, daughter Jayne Henn of San Diego, son Jake Henn of San Diego and their mother, Wendy Swoboda of Pahoa, Hawaii.

No immediate services are planned. A gathering will be scheduled when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here