Long Beach State coach Brian Gimmillaro is truly one of the icons of volleyball.
“Doesn’t being an icon just mean that you’re old?” Gimmillaro asked.
Now in his 32nd season, Gimmillaro’s resume includes three national championships, eight visits to the national semifinals, 13 NCAA regionals, and 27 NCAA tournament appearances.
His overall record of 829-218 ranks 12th in all-time victories and he was a 2008 inductee into the AVCA Hall of Fame. This year the Beach is 15-7 overall and sits on top of the Big West at 9-0. Long Beach plays host to UC Irvine and UC Davis this weekend. The list of his former players is incredibly impressive. Last weekend, two of them — Misty May-Treanor and Danielle Scott Arruda — went into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame. For that matter, former players of Gimmillaro’s have been in the last six Olympics.
In a recent visit, we found that his enthusiasm, passion, and dedication to the sport still come through clearly.
VBM: What drives you to continue to coach after 32 years?
Gimmillaro: I really like the sport, for one. Women’s volleyball, I think men’s is different. I think women’s volleyball is the hardest sport to play. Of any sport I’ve ever seen. There’s so many factors. The women don’t have the one contact power consistently, so the defense and the strategies can become more important. Hopefully, become more important. And then, I really think it’s so difficult because you can’t catch and stop the ball, you have to rotate, and you can’t touch the ball multiple times consecutively. You can’t rebound, dribble, and shoot yourself. Because of that, you can’t put the ball where you want to a lot of times, and you can’t put it in the hands of the person you want to at times. In basketball you generally can, in football you generally can, in baseball, the hitter’s the hitter.
So it’s a very difficult sport because of the rules. The last part is that you can’t catch it, and you don’t have a bat or racket or something to manipulate the ball. I find it a fascinating game because the body becomes the tool to manipulate the situation, and on top of that, it’s a really small court with a lot of people. It’s an incredibly intricate game, and I don’t think we’re even touching the surface of it. I don’t think we’re doing justice to the game overall. I think we have incredibly smart people in it, as players, coaches, and administrators, I think that our statistical analysis and our computerized versions and tactical concepts are exceptional, but I don’t think that it’s intricate enough. And I don’t think we’re using our minds to develop something that’s really eye-catching for people from other sports.
A long time ago, people looked at the sport and said ‘Wow, what is that?’ Now they are impressed with the athletic ability and the jump, but they don’t say, ‘Wow, what’s going on out there?’
They can’t perceive the differences in, how are they doing that? It’s like the first time you’re seeing a great ping-pong player, and you think, ‘Wait a minute, how are they doing that?’ That’s a simplified version of it, but you don’t see the beauty of it as much. You see the true physical ability and you see some really tenacious efforts, but you don’t see the combination of ballet and explosive power, you don’t see that combination, I don’t see it. And I respect the ability of the coaches in volleyball, I just don’t see that happening. But that’s what I like about it.
The infinite number of possibilities, and secondly, not far behind, I really like to get to know the people, the women are really wonderful. They make me feel sometimes that I’m smarter than I am, they humor me, and I really look forward to seeing them every day. And then I have to become their coach (chuckles). And that’s difficult. Because you have to start pushing, and demanding, and supporting all the time. You always support, but at the same time they want to get more out of themselves than other people are getting. So you put yourself in a position that I really don’t enjoy.
VBM: Where is that line between encouraging and demanding with your players?
Gimmillaro: Well, that line is there because you know how much you care about them and how much you respect them and how much you look up to them as women and athletes and people. They’re really bright, and caring and sensitive. They have masterful abilities to get along with each other, and find ways to develop friendships, and they always run to the person that is having the toughest time, and always find ways to support them in a very sophisticated manner and endear themselves to others and get the best out of each other. The women’s volleyball players I’ve worked with are magical in that sense.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best American players ever, and not one has ever acted like a star, or important. All of the greatest players that I’ve ever coached always attach themselves and look up to the player that is participating the least in games. They embrace the players that are so important to the team with such respect and dignity, but they may not be playing. Because of that, you may have a hierarchy of ability but never of importance.
VBM: How has Long Beach played so far?
Gimmillaro: At the beginning, I thought we would be a lot better. We couldn’t play certain players, and other players were cleared medically, but probably shouldn’t have played. They weren’t ready to perform. The beginning was disastrous, it was difficult to put a lineup together, and figure out who’s not ready to play, and who has to play, and it was very difficult for everyone. Especially for these young people that couldn’t perform at the level they wanted to, or couldn’t perform at all.
It’s been difficult, but we are very, very capable. We continue to improve, which we hope is a trademark of ours. We played a very good team last week (Hawai’i) and we were lucky enough to win. I think we’re capable, and I like the win, but most of all I really like the level at which both teams were playing. Unfortunately, at the end of the game, one of, if not our best player, went down. And now I just don’t know what we’re going to do, to be able to maintain, because it’s not just her, both of our middles couldn’t practice, and our ex-libero who’s playing right back, has to cut down, our setter has a pulled ab and couldn’t go. If we can somehow get by this and get healthy I think we have a chance of being a very good team.
VBM: What is the identity, the character of this year’s team like?
Gimmillaro: Oh no, it’s wonderful. It’s hard to coach sometimes, because it’s much more fun to be around them when they’re off the court because they’re funny, they’re caring, and they’re evolved. As I get older, for the last three years, the kids get more comfortable. I tell them, ‘Don’t be too comfortable, I have to have some clout around here.’ They’ll give me a hard time, and they’ll tease me, but it’s so fun to be around them away from the court, because they’re great. I love to have them over to my house. Thanksgiving they’re over, the kids are out, and we spend the day together. I just really like them, I’m lucky to be around them, they’re all going to be successful and are to a great degree already.
VBM: If you were the Czar of volleyball for a day, what three things would you make happen?
Gimmillaro: Well, the first thing is, I would like the sport to take its rightful position. I think women’s volleyball has got incredible athletes, and citizens, and students, and is a beautiful game with incredible people playing it. I think that it’s never received its due from the public. I don’t think it has its rightful position in the sporting world. Not even close. It is the best women’s game by far, and done right, the athletes are getting, and deserve the same respect as men. That’s an easy one.
Second, I would make it so no player ever got injured. It’s really, really hard on me. I’ve never shared this with anybody, but I almost left the game at one point because it was difficult to watch young women that were working so hard, and so engaged, not be able to play because they were hurt. It was so hard on me, and I really took it personally. I just wish players wouldn’t get hurt.
Finally, were I Czar, I would make myself 20 years younger (laughs), for many reasons.