“Nina is the epitome of a ‘pay it forward’ coach.’ For three years she trained both the court and the beach teams year-round, practicing one team in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
“And, during this same time, she chaired the AVCA beach volleyball committee, creating a sport and a championship where before there was nothing.
“Some coaches are ambitious enough to work that hard at the beginning of their careers. Nina cared enough about opportunities to do it in her 60s.
“This spring, 1,500 women played on college beach teams. What a legacy.”
— AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer
Sometime this weekend, Nina Grouwinkel Matthies, two weeks shy of her 65th birthday, will walk off the white sands in Gulf Shores, Ala., and no longer be a coach.
The indoor great at UCLA, one of the best pro-beach players of all time, the former Pepperdine women’s indoor coach and the only beach coach Pepperdine has ever had will end a volleyball career that has spanned more than 50 years.
“Absolutely,” Matthies said. “I’ve thought about it all year. All the time, this is my last day of practice on this day. Every day. I’m celebrating.”
“It’s cool. Every place we go it’s the last time I’m gonna be here.”
In this case, it’s Friday’s NCAA Championships, where Pepperdine enters the eight-team field as the No. 2 seed.
“We’re gonna treat it like we do every year,” Matthies said. “It’s not about you at that time. It’s all about them. I will think about me when it’s over.”
She has both fond and tough memories of Gulf Shores, where Pepperdine capped a 17-0 season in 2012 to win the first national collegiate beach volleyball title, then called the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship.
But the next year, the Waves were 20-0 entering the national-title match before sustaining the program’s first loss, 3-2 to Long Beach State and then very-young coach Matt Ulmer, now the head women’s indoor coach at Oregon.
“Nina is the best,” Ulmer said.
“Nina is the biggest reason why college beach volleyball is as successful as it is right now.
“The way that she handles her Pepperdine team, the way she got the sport popular right away with her successful teams and the way she handles herself I think got a lot of coaches on board.
“Her No. 1 goal was to get growth of the sport, and as a young coach, in my first head-coaching job, she could not have been more welcoming to me as someone who was kind of her rival at the time. She wanted me to do good things for the sport and do good things for my student-athletes. She’s a great mentor, a great friend and I’m excited to have watched her career and been a part of it.”
Pepperdine came back to win the AVCA title in 2014, beating Florida State 3-2 in the final.
Then USC took over as the team to beat in 2015 when the Women of Troy won the last AVCA title and took the first two NCAA crowns, including a 3-2 victory over Pepperdine last year, winning 15-13 in the third at No. 3 to clinch it.
That one stung the most, because USC is a fierce rival. What’s more there is no love lost between Matthies and USC coach Anna Collier.
But Matthies’ impact on the sport is hardly lost on Collier, whose USC team enters this week’s tournament as the No. 5 seed.
“Her team obviously cares and loves her and has been playing hard for her. And that puts energy in the team, where they’re saying, ‘We’ve got give her a national championship to get out of here.’ There’s that drive that keeps that piece going. ‘Let’s do it for Nina,’ and that’s a really strong piece of energy that can be used amongst the team. ”
“And I think it’s almost genius that she announced it before the season’s over. Like we’re going to do a ‘Farewell Nina Tour?’ The team is giving her a farewell tour.
“And on Nina’s side, it’s awesome,” Collier said. “She’s contributed tremendously to the sport. She’s been on every committee. She’s been there when hard decisions had to be made in the growth of the sport. She’s put all of her energy into putting Pepperdine into being the No. 1-2-3-4 — whatever they’ve been the past seven years — in the country team. And that’s not easy to do. Trust me.
“For her to go now, it’s perfect. She’s going on her terms, they’ve got a great team and they could bring it home for her. It’s a perfect time because I think she feels like the sport is stable and she was there to help it get on its feet, she built a great foundation and through committees, through the coaches associations and through Pepperdine.
“Why not? She’s got grandchildren, she’s got a great husband. To me it’s a really good time for her and I think she feels very comfortable.”
Matthies, whose UCLA jersey was retired after her team won the 1974 and ’75 AIAW national titles, is also an AVCA Hall of Famer.
“She’s a total legend and instrumental in the growth of this game for women in general and especially for the collegiate game,” said Stein Metzger, the coach of top-ranked and top-seeded UCLA. “So we’ll always be indebted to her.”
“Nina has been such a role model to me in what she’s done, being a professional player, coaching college indoor and having so many winning seasons. When I was a player we played against her and she always prepared her teams really well.
“She just loves coaching and is so invested in it and is one of the best competitors I’ve ever met. The sport of beach volleyball loses a great person, but I’m excited for her that she gets to enjoy her life with her family and leave the legacy she left at Pepperdine. She’s unbelievable.
— Florida State coach Brooke Niles
Matthies’ parents were from Iowa farming families. The Grouwinkels lived on Manhattan Beach, at 16th and the Strand, not the tony area it is today, when Nina was born on May 23, 1953.
“It was nothing like it is now,” Matthies said. “My parents rented a big, old barn. They didn’t have any money. No one lived on the beach. It was too far to go for work.”
She thinks that’s when she started playing volleyball, hitting with her parents. Eventually they bought a house further inland but still in Manhattan Beach, and Nina went to Mira Costa High School. There was no school volleyball opportunity for girls.
“I just played sports and volleyball was what was available to us.
“I’ve said now I probably would have played soccer. I mean, I loved to run. Look at how I was built, sturdy and fast and strong legs. Probably would have been a soccer kid.”
But she played club volleyball and then as a sophomore starting playing with the USA national team. That was around the time she started dating her future husband, Dan Matthies. They’ve been married 40 years.
Nina was one of five Grouwinkel kids. Her parents were athletic and so were her siblings.
Nina said her first club coach was Bill Neville, and then she played for former South Korean Olympic coach Moo Park, who coached at Pepperdine.
“That was when I really got my comeuppance, with a Korean coach,” Nina recalled.
Matthies went to UCLA, where she was a team captain. After her playing career ended, she was an assistant to Andy Banachowski for six years before taking over as the women’s indoors coach at Pepperdine in 1983. She was 29.
Somewhere in there, the 5-foot-6, high-leaping outside hitter started playing more beach volleyball.
“There were no transitions. You just did,” Matthies said.
She and Dan started their family, as well. Morgan, whom she calls Mo and will be 36 this summer, played water polo at Pepperdine and now lives in Cartagena, Colombia. He and his wife, another Pepperdine graduate, Meghan Smith, have two children. And younger son Marty, 33, played water polo at Cal, was head coach of the women’s water polo team at CSUN and is now the assistant women’s water polo coach at Arizona State. He got married in June.
“Being a mom, a woman in coaching and being able to be successful, there are not many people in that peer group, which is my peer group, and to see somebody who did before I had all the things that I had, it had to be super hard,” said Florida State’s Niles, whose team is seeded fourth in this week’s tournament.
“She was able to do it gracefully and she’s respected by a lot of people and I just love her.”
That’s not lost on Matthies.
“I think I’ve affected a lot of people just being a female role model. There’s just not that many of us. And there weren’t that many indoor women coaches who played and continued on as coaches, that were married and had kids and continued coaching. It’s gnarly, it’s tough, but you can do it.”
“My first real experience with her was in 1986 when Brazil invited four of us to go down there and play in international exhibitions in Sao Paolo and Rio, USA vs. Brazil. It was two-on-two men, two-on-two women and then four-on-four mixed. This was the precursor to the world tour and the Olympic Games. It was such a success. It was me, Pat Powers, Nina Matthies and Linda Robertson. That whole trip and the experience of playing Brazil, the first time the USA played Brazil, it was so crazy successful. It was incredible.”
— Former UCLA and pro-beach great Sinjin Smith
Matthies had a few different partners as a beach pro, but played the most with Elaine Roque and Linda Robertson Hanley, who later took fourth in the first beach Olympics in 1996 with Barbara Fontana.
“Nina was a really successful player,” said her Pepperdine assistant of 10 years, Marcio Sicoli, who will replace her as head coach.
“Her name is on the Manhattan Beach Pier (for winning in 1972 with Kathy Gregory, 1974 with Rose Duncan, 1975 with Miki McFadden, and in 1980, ’81 and ’84 with Hanley), she created the first women’s professional league on the beach and has coached on the college level for 30-plus years.
“I think it’s going to be really hard in our time to find someone who influenced the game like her. I’m humbled to be a part of it.”
Through her 20-plus-year beach career Matthies had 44 wins, 31 in open tournaments where the pay was minimal but she had sponsors, she said. “We got bathing suits and that kind of crap and dinners, but not big money.”
That came in the mid- to late-1980s when her earnings got bigger and sponsors ponied up. Matthies said there were a couple years where her earnings, including sponsors, topped $100,000.
“She was a well-oiled machine and energized,” Hanley said.
Matthies won nine AVP titles and four on the WPVA, and she won the 1990 World Championship with Roque. Matthies retired in 1993 at 40.
She co-founded the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association. Volleyball magazine named her one of the “Most Influential People in the First 100 Years of Volleyball.” In 2004, she was named to the 75th Anniversary All-Era Team by USA Volleyball.
And the whole time she was the coach at Pepperdine, while also “being a mom and a wife and taking care of kids.“
Playing with her was special, said Hanley, who also lives in Malibu.
“it was as good as it gets. She was my first coach, really my first partner, a true mentor. There’s no way I would have been as successful or as played as long as I did with opportunities in college and the Olympics if it weren’t for Nina. I truly believe that,” Hanley said.
Matthies was — and is — as competitive as they come.
“One of the most competitive players I know but it was such a good, healthy competitive spirit,” Hanley said. “That’s what she embodied. It wasn’t something that ever got nasty. Sometimes that word can get negative but it never was with her. It was just honest give-it-all-you’ve-got every time she went on the court.”
Hanley joked about how they were partners, then Matthies had kids so they took a break, got back together, but then Hanley got a job, and they got together again.
“During the years when we won quite a few tournaments, there were times that it was obvious that we were stepping on the court and were figuratively five or six points ahead just because people were so intimidated by Nina.
“They would serve out, they would hit out, they knew it had to be so perfect and just her competitive style, talent and strength would get us points. That’s really nice when you’ve got a partner who can get you easy points.”
“During my (indoor) career, I know people didn’t like playing Pepperdine. They would say we should beat them, but we were never going to lay down and die. If you weren’t paying attention you were going to get beaten. Our teams played hard and that’s all you can ask from your kids.”
— Nina Matthies
Brittany Howard was an indoor All-American at Stanford. She transferred as a graduate student to Pepperdine to play a year on the beach, both a new venture for her at the time and a big gamble for Matthies.
“First and foremost, I love Nina,” Howard said. “And to this day going to play for Pepperdine was the best decision I’ve ever made and I’m just so happy Nina took a chance on me.
“Everyone knows my transition to beach was not super smooth. I would check in with her periodically and ask how I was doing and what I could improve on.”
Matthies always assured her.
“She was always so positive with me. She told me, ‘We’re gonna have a lot of fun. We’re a great team, we’re gonna work really hard.’ ”
Pepperdine senior Corinne Quiggle, Howard’s partner last year, agreed.
“Nina’s an amazing person,” Quiggle said. “She really focuses not only the player but the person you are. She cares about every aspect of our lives and it’s unbelievable to have someone who’s a legend to care about each of us.”
Matthies coached the Pepperdine indoor team for 31 years, becoming the third coach in the program’s history after Patty Bright and Gary Sato.
There was no shortage of success and many great players, most notably Nicole Sanderson and future Olympians Linda Chisholm (who went on to a strong pro beach career) and Kim Hill, who also played beach at Pepperdine.
Matthies ended her tenure with the indoor team as the West Coast Conference’s all-time winningest coach with an overall record of 590-343 (.632). After competing as an NCAA Division I independent for the first 10 years, the Waves joined the WCC when the league began sponsoring women’s volleyball in 1985.
The Waves went 6-25 her first season. The next year, in 1984, Pepperdine was 24-15 and went to the NCAA Tournament.
For that matter, Pepperdine went to the NCAA Tournament 20 times under Matthies and got to two regional finals, in 2002 and 2011, when the team lost to USC in five.
She moved exclusively to beach in 2013, where she has a record of 136-21 going into this week’s play.
When the idea of starting a beach program came up, she realized her school could get a head start. She said the president and athletic director at the time were in full support.
“When things were really serious about getting it going I thought this is really cool …If it happened we could be really good. Marcio was here, we were here, we have everything, we have a beach, we could be really good from the start and not start at the bottom.”
The beach — Zuma — is just north of the school, a public beach with lots of space and plenty of wind. Indeed, Pepperdine was ready to go.
“We created a new format and created a new sport,” Matthies said of the college game, where five pairs play and the first to win three matches wins the dual.
“It’s awesome. And I think it’s going to go around the world. I foresee the USA playing Brazil in 1 through 5. It would be such a cool thing internationally. It’s not just one team. I know federations around the world are having a lot of problems putting all their money into two people. Do this and you could have a team with 10, 12 or 16 people and you’re developing younger players and older players. It’s a pretty cool format. I think it’s something that could really go.”
Matthies vision came true and the Pepperdine beach program was good from the get-go.
“Our job here is to put us in a position to win the national championship and we’ve done that every year,” Matthies said. “We’re the only team — with Hawai’i — who’s been to every national championship but Hawai’i hasn’t been in finals.”
She likes her team’s chances going into Gulf Shores.
“A great group of kids.”
And maybe USC’s Collier is right, they’re ready for a fond farewell.
“No one can inspire her players the way Nina does,” Howard said. “She’s just incredible.”
“There was this time in Hawai’i two years ago and we started playing and Nina hops in — she hadn’t had her knee surgery yet — and she was kind of skipping to every ball as she was playing with us with our coaches. And absolutely demolishes all of us. She goes back and aces us down the line and we’re like, ‘Nina’s still got it.’ She was hobbling to the ball and she’s making like perfect sets to every person. It was insane to see. It was a whole bunch of fun.”
— Pepperdine senior Corinne Quiggle
Stories like that don’t surprise Southeastern Louisiana University women’s coach Jim Smoot, who played at Pepperdine in 1972 and ’73.
“One year it was our alumni match and Marv (Dunphy) divided it up, but the problem was there were guys who were like 22 playing against us really old people,” Smoot said, laughing at the memory.
“So fortunately Nina played for us and she was our best hitter. Indoor. On the men’s net.”
Matthies had her right shoulder surgically repaired two years ago and got a new left knee six months ago.
She can’t run right now and that bugs her, but she started Pilates after the shoulder surgery and enjoys that. She rides a bike, but hasn’t played volleyball in 15 years, she figures.
“If I lived in the South Bay I probably would have continued playing because there are people my age still playing,” she said.
But she lives outside Malibu in Decker Canyon, about 16 miles from campus, and right near Dunphy, who retired last year.
Once retired, the Matthies don’t figure to be home much. There’s a planned Hawai’i trip coming up and a visit to Mo and his family in Colombia with a chance to explore South America.
“Well,” she said with a laugh, “65 years old. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.
“Dan, my husband, has been retired for 10 years so we’ve been pondering when and all that kind of stuff. Seems like the right time. The team’s in a real good place and everything’s really good here and you want to go out when things are good. I want to go out on my own terms and do what I wanted. So I was like, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”
And trust that there are no regrets.
I don’t have regrets about pretty much anything,” she said with a laugh.
“She can be so competitive, but that gal’s got such a big, warm heart,” Hanley said. “She can be a teddy bear and people don’t know that.”
At least not for another week.
“I was a bear. I’m way nicer now. You learn a lot. You start coaching at 29 and you have expectations and it takes a while to understand that people learn on their own time and that not everyone has your competitive drive. In fact, very few people do. That’s a learning experience as a coach.”
Matthies laughed but got serious quickly.
“As a coach you have a job to do and that’s to win and graduate students.”
At Pepperdine, of course, she’s done both. Maybe the Waves will win this week, maybe not.
“It’s good. I’ll shut the door and walk out of the gym. I have my entire life. I have a lot of reflections about what I’m gonna do, but I just think there’s a time in life when you’ve just got to go on,” Matthies said.
“You’ve got to move on and I think it’s time to move on. I don’t know to what, exactly, but there are things I want to do.
“I was sad. She is so great and I was just sad more for the girls. I was really close to everyone on the team and just knowing that they wouldn’t be able to finish out with her as their head coach is a bummer. But she’s a legend and she’s left her legacy and she deserves to be with her grandkids in Colombia and do the things she wants to do with her life. She dedicated so much to Pepperdine and the sport itself and I’m so happy for her, but I’m going to miss going to practice and matches in the future and her not being there.”
— Brittany Howard