Jeff Stork has done just about all there is to do in volleyball.
He has an Olympic gold medal. He’s in the International Volleyball Hall of Fame. And now, the Director of Volleyball Operations at CSUN is retiring from the sport that has been his life for more than four decades.
“Volleyball, when you’re thinking about it so much, it tends to occupy your day a whole lot and I’d like to do those other things as a main focus,” Stork said.
“It’s been 43 years that I’ve been involved in the sport, and I have other interests that I’d like to pursue a bit more. It’s just a good time to get out for me.”
What a resume for the left-handed setter from Topanga Canyon, California. His Pepperdine men’s teams went to the 1983 and ’84 NCAA championship matches, losing both times to UCLA. He went to three Olympics, winning gold in 1988 and bronze in 1992 (more on that later). He played professionally in Italy and Greece, winning the coveted Grand Slam in 1989-90 with Maxicono Parma, winning the World Cup of Club, the Italian Championship the Italian Cup and the Scudetto.
And on the beach, Stork won four championships on the Bud Light 4man tour in six years for Sony Autosound, Sideout Sport and Club Sportswear.
At Cal State Northridge, the 60-year-old Stork had a record of 239-282 record in 18 seasons. The Matadors made it to the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. He also served as the beach coach from 2014-17 when CSUN launched the program. Before that, he served as an assistant to Marv Dunphy at Pepperdine from 1988-2001.
“Maybe it’s a sign of old age, I may not remember all the points won and lost and all of that stuff, but I remember a lot of my teammates from high school to college to the national team to the professional ranks the beach stuff and even into coaching,” Stork said. “It’s the people you go through life with.”
Stork said the combination of COVID-19 and NCAA regulations wore him down.
“It was a little frustrating at CSUN when it was getting into July, and we were talking about when we were getting back,” Stork said, and all he got was “No, no, no.”
“And then it’s getting into September, ‘When are we getting back?’ and then obviously they postponed the season.”
He cited a lack of federal oversight that has led to a practice imbalance among NCAA programs.
“So when teams are already practicing two or three months, and they’re not even allowing us back in the gym,” Stork said, “it seems like it’s two different worlds.”
Stork did not rule out coaching again.
“I thought it was a good time to get out of the NCAA, so I won’t be doing that anymore, but I might continue coaching at some other level, some other place,” he said.
“Obviously COVID is doing some strange things to programs, to associations and things of that nature. The game itself.
“I’ve never been a huge fan of the NCAA with all the rules and not much coaching. With COVID it kind of got things worse, obviously, with all the long dead periods. With some of the rules, the time management plans it seems like the kids have kind of taken over a little bit.
“So that side of it was starting to get a little frustrating for me. Again, that’s not the only thing, that’s just one of the things.”
Stork has considered is assisting a pro program in Italy. Stork speaks fluent Italian, having spent six years competing abroad in Italy, one in Greece.
“I thought a little bit about trying to get back overseas and being an assistant coach for somebody in Germany or Italy but I’ve only talked to one person about it, and that was in passing, as opposed to something serious. That might be fun to do something like that for a couple of years.
“My wife (Sabine) is from Germany, and she has a lot of relatives over there, I’d like to explore that part of Europe. I played in Italy for six years and a lot of my old teammates are now head coaches at a lot of clubs.”
Not that he doesn’t have plenty to do. He like to travel, hike, and cycle, and has a property in Northern California that he’d like to devote more time to.
“It’s on the side of a hill, it’s off the grid. It takes a little bit of time to get the thing done. It’s up in Humboldt county by Eureka. It’s an off-grid place, I have a bunch of family up there. We’ve been going up there since ’72 when I was 12 years old.
“We bought the place in ’90 or ’91, and we’re finally getting around to doing something there.
“Part of that is a timber management plan, we have acreage so we can harvest wood. So that plan needs to be established and managed and that’s kind of a fun thing. Milling wood, getting out in the woods, all that stuff.”
He said he and Sabine, “have been talking about doing a little bit of traveling, outdoorsy stuff like backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail, truck camping, things of that nature. I’d like to visit some of my former players, going down to Brazil, things like that getting back to Europe.
“Bike touring, that would be fun. Going from Canada back down to my home in Topanga. That would be a fun trip that would take two to three months. There’s talk of the PCT, the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking from Campo down near San Diego into Canada through the Sierras and the Cascade Mountains. It takes about five months.
“You can’t do that if you’re coaching volleyball. We’re not getting any younger, are we?”
But he has been totally immersed in volleyball for a long time. Sabine, who had a tremendous career as a high school coach and has been an assistant coach at Ventura College, won a NCAA Division II title as a player in 1983 at CSUN. And their kids have all been part of the sport. Matthew, now 30, played for his dad at CSUN (2010-13). Danny, 26, played at UC Irvine, and 26-year-old Nicoletta played at Caly Poly Pomona and beach at CSUN.
“We’re a volleyball family,” said Stork, who doesn’t play any more himself because of a nerve issue in his leg. “We take work home with us.
“But Matthew, being the first out, he did a lot of club stuff. I was coaching him when we won the 17s Open, and he played at CSUN, and it was a whole lot of fun watching him play.
“Danny went to Irvine and won two national champions there, one under (John) Speraw and one under (David) Kniffin. Nico went to Cal Poly Pomona and played for Rosie Wegrich and that was a whole lot of fun watching her play.
“Matthew played overseas for two years, I think it was in the B league in Germany, but we were never able to get out there with beach in the spring, so unfortunately we were unable to watch him play.
“That was a special thing, it’s a special shared experience with Sabine and I, that we played overseas in Europe, so we were able to chit-chat about what the experience is like, what the experience is like, things of that nature.
“Watching your kids grow up is fun, and the fact that they play the sport that my wife and I play, that was neat, too.”
Jeff, however, had the most illustrious career. Dunphy encouraged him to be a setter at Pepperdine. During the 1984 season, Stork led the Waves in hitting percentage (.363), digs (104) and service aces (17).
“When he came to Pepperdine, “Dunphy said, “the cupboard was a little bit bare, I had just returned from getting my doctorate. He wanted to hit, he has a good left arm. I told him, ‘You have a great touch. I think you should set, and only set.’
“And I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to have some nice options down the road if you’re a setter.’ Well, we bumped heads a little bit, and all of a sudden here he has this lifelong career as a setter.”
Later, when he joined his staff, Dunphy said, “As a coach, he was great to work with. People know when you’re authentic, and he was a straight shooter. And players love that. They admired him for what he had done, but also how he was with them.
“What a good guy. And he was pretty neat for me. I would say that the best thing about coaching is that you get to choose the people you go through life with, we got to share a big part of our volleyball life, and that’s pretty cool.”
The 1988 gold medal was the penultimate accomplishment for Stork with a team that had mostly been together for three years.
“It wasn’t necessarily a seasoned Olympic group, but most had been there for the entire quadrennial. The ’84 group, they knew how to win for sure, and the group that came in after that, people like me, (Doug) Partie, (Bob) Ctvrtlik, Scott Fortune, Eric Sato, that combination was a tough gym to train in because it was very intense.”
They won gold at the 1985 World Cup, the 1986 FIVB World Championships and the 1987 Pan American games.
“We had learned how to win, and the expectation was extremely high because we had won most of the tournaments along the way,” Stork said. “ .. and then we won the Pan American games, which at the time was a fairly significant tournament, which was actually stronger than the L.A. Olympics, with Cuba, Brazil and Canada.”
In 1988, the USA came into Seoul as the gold-medal favorite, Stork recalled.
“I think the team had a very good focus and a strong mental attitude. We kept things normal we didn’t get all hyped up.
“I think all of our matches were at 9:30 in the morning, so we were getting up at 5 a.m. to make sure that our brains were awake. We were on a different schedule than a lot of other people. We got to bed early we got up early. It was very businesslike.”
But Stork, the starting USA setter, almost didn’t get to play when a back injury held him out of the first two matches. He said he tweaked it in a pre-Olympic tour in Japan.
“I had back spasms the first or second match there. I was hitting and I think I landed backwards. I jumped and swung going backwards on my right foot. I think that leaning and my posture made my back spasm. So I was down and out not practicing, only doing therapy and medical treatment for about two to three weeks going into the Olympics.
“I wasn’t actually cleared until about the third match and then I was cleared to play against Argentina. Ricci (Luyties) did a wonderful job. Without him I don’t think we would have done as well in those early rounds. He did a great job.”
The gold-medal match came down to the anticipated rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, their first Olympic confrontation since 1976 due to 1980 and 1984 boycotts. The USA won 13-15, 15-10, 15-4, 15-8.
“The part I remember is that we didn’t play that well in set one. We weren’t playing that well and we turned things around and played the way we were capable of playing.
“The part I remember most is that we were going away with it in the fourth set. I remember thinking in the last seven points, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’ It was a crescendo of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be the best in the world.’ Those last seven points, to me, they were very vivid to me, we were celebrating each point knowing that we were going to be gold medalists.”
A potent Eric Sato jump serve forced a Raimonds Vilde overpass that Scott Fortune put away to give the USA the gold.
“When the flag goes up and your anthem is played, that’s an emotional feeling. What I remember most is thinking, ‘This is over,’ with a huge sigh of relief. That the tension, the pressure and the competition within our gym was over. It was a little bit of a relief.”
Stork said practices leading up the Olympics were always intense and that you had to give your best every day.
“If you didn’t, and there was some sense that you weren’t giving it your all, there were usually three guys getting after you, and it was very intense. In some ways, Karch (Kiraly) was the leader of the charge, but there were a bunch of guys that could get on you.
Take, for example, a dodgeball story from one of those practices.
“Marv would always let us play dodgeball with the volleyballs, so we had 20 guys, 10 on a side, hitting ‘Below the waist, below the waist.’
“One day, Karch had gone to some AVP tournament over the weekend, and he came back with a blister on his lip. He was bending down to pick up a ball, and Ctvrtlik flings a ball low, but it hits him right in the face. And his lip blew up.
“He starts chasing Ctvrtlik, wanting to kill him. That type of stuff was happening, not on a daily basis but it was happening a lot. There was a lot of arguing and getting close to fighting, because of the competitiveness of the guys and the willingness of Marv to let it go to make sure he stokes the fire.
“People would pressure themselves to be great. For an elite group that wanted to win gold medals, it was a great place to be.”
Dunphy also grew up in Topanga Canyon. Stork thinks that Dunphy, then a lifeguard, once kicked him out of a neighborhood pool as a kid, though Dunphy doesn’t recall the moment.
“Marv Dunphy is my mentor. I played for him for eight years, coached with him for four, so he’s certainly the most impactful on my volleyball career.”
Dunphy actually went to a USVBA national tournament in Arlington, Texas, to recruit Stork, not knowing at the time he was from the same neighborhood.
Dunphy recalled how much Stork would sweat.
“He was big and strong, and he would sweat like crazy. We were playing in Sancti Esperitus, Cuba, 1986, in an open arena, it was hotter than heck,” Dunphy said.
“He would change uniform, change socks, change knee pads, and it wasn’t helping. It was like when you were a kid and got water in your boots, and that was Jeff, he would step, and water would come out of his shoes onto the floor.
“Before the ref blew the whistle, he would stand outside the court and drip, drip, drip. Then when the referee blew the whistle he would come in to set.
“And then it’s a good thing he had big hands, because the ball would be wet, and then he would set quick, and if he set the quick hitter, it would spray. It would be like the boxers with the perspiration, and it would go right into his eyes. It was hotter than blazes.”
Then came the 1992 Games, and the USA men were involved in one of the most controversial Olympic moments in history.
While playing Japan, the USA’s Bob Samuelson was shown two yellow cards, rather than a yellow and a red card. The USA won the match on the court, but had the victory subsequently reversed. The USA went on to win the bronze medal, but the Americans all shaved their heads, simulating Samuelson’s bald look to protest the decision.
“Barcelona ’92 was most notably known for the Volleybalds and the protest match against Japan. Really the only match we lost on the court was to Brazil in the semifinals and they went on to win it,” Stork said.
“We shaved our heads because they took the match away from us after the fact. It’s extremely significant that they reversed the results on the court. There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there on why they overturned it. You have to look at the personalities that are in it. Ruben Acosta being the president, I think that had something to do with it. Being that it was Japan, I think that had something to do with it, but I don’t think anybody’s ever seen a match being overturned after the fact in the Olympics. Ever.”
Stork was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 2012 going in with Peter Blange, Mike Dodd, Mauricio Lima, Georgy Mondzolevski and Lyudmila Buldakova.
“You don’t think about the accumulation of successes as much while the whole thing is happening. When at the end of your career there are a bunch of people that think your career was worthy of induction, that’s kind of special. That’s a lot of fun,” Stork said. His acceptance speech is shown below.
Since Stork retired, a number of his old friends and associates have wished him well.
“I’ve had a bunch of conversations in the last couple of weeks, Marv, Chris McGown, Doug (Beal), (Jim) McLaughlin, John Cook.
“It’s just fun talking about old times, I guess you’ve got to retire to talk to these guys. It’s been a fun two weeks, talking to guys that you did a special thing with once.”
What’s more, “There’s a lot of college guys that I keep up with, and anyone that’s still in volleyball, I keep up with them, Ricci Luyties, Karch, Ruth Lawanson, Jaynie McHugh Gibson, Paula Weishoff and Lauren Iverson Brassey.
“There’s a group on the WhatsUp app the team that won in ’91 in Italy, we still have a chat room that we’re going back and forth with.”
As he said, “It’s the people. I’ll always remember the people.”