We’re all impacted by the coronavirus.
But new USC coach Brad Keller is feeling it in more ways than most volleyball people.
For starters, he got the job and then the world was shut down. So much for organizing his new team and hitting the recruiting trails.
And that’s just part of it.
“It’s been anything but a boring three or four weeks for me,” Keller said. “Obviously there was the excitement of getting this job and trying to hitting the ground working and then it was halted to a full stop because of real life.”
In his case, real life is especially real.
Keller lives with his brother, Jarod, who an emergency medical doctor. They live in Playa Vista, right near Loyola Marymount University (where Brad played), and not far from the ocean.
Jarod, who was a libero at Stanford from 2005-09, works nights.
“Just having the realization of what the real world is like and how bad this is and the tug of war between the two, having this thing (volleyball) and trying to figure out what’s next and then real life hitting you, it’s actually mentally exhausting between the two,” Keller said.
Obviously he is quarantined because of exposure to his brother, and he’s doing all he can to support him. Jarod Keller went to medical school at Georgetown, did a residency at USC, and works in Burbank.
“He’s amazing and a real hero and he inspires me ever day,” Keller said. “I’m trying to help him out. Cook the meals, clean the condo, and make it so he can come and go because his life is pretty extensive right now, you might say.”
Keller has a most interesting resume when you think of the incredible rivalry between the two Los Angeles schools. While he’s had plenty of other jobs, too, Keller is a former men’s assistant coach at USC (2007-10), was a men’s assistant at UCLA, and most recently spent the past year as a women’s assistant at UCLA. We wrote about him last August, joking that he had to go about 20 feet to take his last job.
Two jobs each at the two schools that love to tell you how much they dislike each other, which made Keller laugh.
“It’s definitely unqiue. I hadn’t thought it like that, but now I’ve actually worked at all four programs in the two rivalry schools,” Keller said. “My current office (at USC) looks out towards my old office and on the walls of that old office are all the players we recruited and coached, like Tony Ciarelli, Murphy Troy, the McKibbins, they’re all on the wall and it’s super surreal. A reminder every day of a once upon a time.”
Obviously Keller has an affinity for both schools.
“I’ll tell you what, I think they’re exactly the same,” Keller said. “Well, not exactly, but they’re so similar.
“I really think that Stanford, UCLA and USC are all kind of the same templates. They have their own individual themes that they hang their hats on and they’re all a little bit different, but as far as checking off all the boxes of a Power-5 school with a big football program, big sports, high academics, great locations, great alumni base, networking. If you go through and check off all the boxes, those three schools check them off.”
And, he added, surely to ruffle the feathers of some UCLA and USC purists and hard-core fans, “And especially in L.A., it almost feels like pick a color.”
Both schools, of course, recruit many of the same athletes in all sports and volleyball is no exception. So Keller, who was at UCLA on the men’s side from 2013, spent last season at UCLA as Mike Sealy’s assistant in the women’s program. Of course, the Bruins played USC twice and he got a lap around the Pac-12.
UCLA had a big turnaround in 2019, going 19-12, 13-7 in the Pac-12, and won both meetings against the Trojans.
USC finished 18-14, 11-9 in the league. USC beat Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, lost to top-seeded Baylor in the second round, and then on January 14 head coach Brent Crouch stunned the NCAA volleyball world by taking the job as the coach at Auburn of the Southeastern Conference.
It took USC five weeks to hire Keller, making the announcement on February 20, a week into what has turned into a shortened recruiting season. For that matter, Keller was out at a girls club tournament wearing his blue and gold the week before.
“I was a Bruin up until the very end,” he said. “It was a late process. I can’t remember when I first got contacted — it was the Super Bowl or after — and there were rumors flying around before then, but no one really contacted me. And I didn’t go seeking that job. I told Mike I wasn’t going to seek any jobs and I was going to stick it out with him but if someone called me I was going to entertain the phone call. He was great about that.”
We joked that the question from that previous story wasn’t going to be all that different for this one. When he moved down the hall to the UCLA women, Keller had previously had one year as a women’s assistant at UConn and had run a girls club, but that was quite a change. Now he’s become a head coach for the first time.
He pointed out that “I ran a volleyball club (Bay to Bay in San Jose), ran that organization and was the lead recruiting coordinator and then being in charge of the youth national team two years ago and I got head-coaching experience there.
“And then John Speraw (the UCLA and USA men’s Olympic coach) gave me a unique opportunity to be in charge and really run a lot of everything while he was gone with USA Volleyball, which was probably anywhere from four to six, seven, eight months a year depending on what year it was. He basically gave me like carte blanche, telling me to just do it and let him know. Everything from recruiting to scheduling to alumni connections. Anything that had to do with the volleyball program I got to do. Speraw trusted me with it which was amazing. It was an unbelievable opportunity he gave me.”
It’s been a busy winter for the Speraw tree. Another of his former assistants, Rob Neilson, got the job as the head women’s coach at Utah State, and one of his former players, Trent Kersten, is the new women’s head coach at San Jose State.
Last year at UCLA Sealy leaned on Keller quite a bit. The year before the Bruins missed out on the NCAA Tournament.
“Mike gave me a lot of opportunity, too,” Keller said. “So being in a leadership role or making decisions or anything alone those lines is somewhat comfortable for me.”
What’s not comfortable, of course, is taking over a program and then not being able to coach it.
USC lost its best player, All-American outside Khalia Lanier, and two other key players, middle Jasmine Gross and right-side Emily Baptista.
But the cupboard is hardly bare. While there’s not a lot depth, there is talent. Start with senior setter Raquel Lazaro and a couple of strong outsides in senior Brooke Botkin and sophomore Emilia Weske. Botkin, who has battled injuries, is as good as anyone when she’s on.
Others in the mix include senior Candice Denny, who sat out last year after transferring from Arizona, junior Brooklyn Schirmer and sophomore Kalen Owes.
USC has two incoming freshmen, libero Sam Hastings from Frisco, Texas, who plays for Dallas Skyline; and Malaya Jones of San Juan Hills, California, a 6-footer who plays for A4.
Also, just this week USC announced that senior setter Sarah Nelson transferred after graduating from Duke, so there are 12 players on the roster.
USC has commitments from three players on the recent VolleyballMag.com 25 Underclassmen to Watch List, 6-foot middle Tyrah Ariail from TAV, 6-foot setter Elle Glock from VB Nebraska, and 6-2 middle/right side Katelyn Smith of Tstreet.
While Crouch left for Auburn and took assistant Alex Dunphy with him, JJ Van Neil stayed on as Keller’s associate head coach, and Haley Brightwell remains the director of operations. Keller wants to add a staffer, but USC has a hiring freeze for the time being.
“I’m in the process of hiring a woman assistant, but have to wait,” Keller said.
In the meantime, wait is the key word for us all, but especially for someone whose brother is on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.
“It would be nice to have volleyball, but as we know this is so much bigger than volleyball,” Keller said. “It’s a very real deal and people need to take this seriously.
“Obviously I have a different perspective because of my brother. I get to hear a lot of things that are not put on social media or TV or what’s out there.
“I basically have quarantined myself for the duration of this.”