Rutgers’ CJ Werneke has taken unlikely path from student assistant to Big Ten coach

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Rutgers coach CJ Werneke enjoys a lighter moment this season with assistant Anna Khrystenko/Ben Solomon, Rutgers Athletics

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You know how they don’t give you a blueprint for life? Or, in this case, volleyball?

“I always envisioned myself being a teacher, coaching football in the fall and coaching men’s volleyball in the spring,” CJ Werneke said. “That’s what I was gonna do.”

Indeed, that was the plan when he left Dayton, Ohio, to play football at Samford University in 1991.

But things didn’t work out on the gridiron.

And now, he’s the 11th-year women’s volleyball coach at Rutgers.

Or as he says, “student assistant to Big Ten coach. Pretty cool story.”

Yes it is, especially when you peruse the 2018 Rutgers roster:

There are five Russians. There are two Serbians, a player from Israel — who was added to the roster in September — and a German. And sophomore Kamila Cieslik? She’s from Tennessee, but her parents are from Poland. There are kids from Detroit, Colorado and San Antonio, the latter being senior outside Sahbria McLetchie, who transferred after her sophomore year from VCU and leads the team in kills.

A truly international roster for the big school from New Jersey, located 35 miles or so from Manhattan.

Or, as former Rutgers athletic director Julie Herman told him when she took over a few years into Werneke’s tenure, “You’ve got the world’s greatest city at your back door. Why don’t you sell that to every international kid?”

It’s been a long time coming, building the Rutgers roster into one that can hopefully compete in college volleyball’s toughest league. But the remarkably patient Werneke is optimistic and always plugging away and thinks the 2018 team is the cornerstone of the Scarlet Knights’ future.

“My closest friends in this business knew this was the plan four or five years ago,” Werneke said. They knew it was going to take time and it was going to take the right connections and doing it the right way. And now we’re here.”

Well, not entirely.

Rutgers stands 6-21 overall and 0-14 in the Big Ten, where it has lost in four sets on three occasions and took Ohio State to the limit, losing in five earlier this month, tied at 7-7 in the fifth before losing 15-9.

“I think CJ’s an example of a bright guy who works really hard and doesn’t worry about the things he can’t control and has made a conscious effort to see the best way to get his program to be competitive in a really challenging conference,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said.

“They’re going to beat somebody. They’ve got some good players.”

It doesn’t get any easier, but of course it never does in the B1G. The Scarlet Knights go to No. 4 Illinois on Friday and then to Northwestern on Saturday before finishing the season with four consecutive home matches against Michigan State, Illinois, No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 3 Minnesota.

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CJ Werneke in a Rutgers huddle earlier this season

But the 45-year-old Werneke has spent the better part of his adult life embracing challenges. He’s 82-249 at Rutgers and how he got to this point is something else.

His father was in the military, so he was born in Oklahoma, lived in Guam and Texas, and ultimately ended up in Dayton, Ohio, where he went to high school and played boys volleyball.

The plan was to play football at Samford, but there was a coaching change, he said, and things didn’t work out. There was also a volleyball trip to Honduras and El Salvador with a charity group in the summer of 1992 that included a coach from Notre Dame, Steve Hendricks, who had played men’s volleyball at Ball State.

Hendricks, now in his eighth year at Division II Barry College in Florida, calls him “Coach Jeff,” joking that he might be the only person in volleyball who refers to Werneke by his real first name.

“I think he was 18 and he was high energy. Everything was go-go-go,” Hendricks said. “He taught all the time. He was fired up about volleyball. He was a sponge. He wanted to know everything and he wanted to play and he wanted to know how to get involved. It was a great tour and he was a lot of fun.”

“I really liked the teaching we did,” Werneke recalled. “So I asked Steve, how do I get into college volleyball if you didn’t play?”

Hendricks recommended asking the Samford volleyball coach if he could help out.

“So I show up in September my sophomore year and I go to a practice. And there’s a little lady about 5-5, Malinda Ashcraft was her name, and I’m just watching practice and I don’t see an assistant there.

“So I just watch and she runs these drills and has to stop and coach a little bit and then goes back to run the drill.”

Werneke laughed.

“So I come back the next day and they’re doing their pre-practice routine and she comes over and says, ‘Hey, you were here yesterday. You know somebody on the team?’

“I don’t even answer her question. I say, ‘Do you have an assistant? Is he or she recruiting or something?’ So I explained I was going to play football and things didn’t work out but I like the school and want to stay and I want to stay in athletics.”

He didn’t lie to Ashcraft, now the associate athletics director for student success at Campbell University.

“I don’t know anything about coaching,” he told her, “but I watched your practice yesterday and I know I can run the drills you ran. It would free you up to coach.”

Ashcraft told him to watch the rest of practice and come back the next day and be ready to work.

“I show up and she has like four players there who came early and she says, ‘Do exactly what I do and what I say.’ So for a half hour ran whatever drill she wanted me to run.”

The left-handed Werneke tossed and hit a lot of balls that day.

“I didn’t say a word to the team. Didn’t say good job, nothing.

“At the end of that practice she says, ‘I’ve been doing this for seven years by myself. You’re a godsend. If you want to help, we can do this.’ ”

Basically, Ashcraft had to vet Werneke and get him cleared to help out.

“Within 48 hours, I’m the student assistant,” he said with a laugh, pointing out that there was no pay with the position.

“He was just what I needed right when I needed it,” Ashcraft recalled. “He was such a blessing to us. He was just a natural at it in so many ways. He was so athletic, so it didn’t take him long to learn any and everything. Of course, he already had some volleyball experience.

“He came in, and bless his heart, you’ve just got to love what it took for him to be where he is now.”

So as he worked on his degree in social-science education, Werneke became a coach.

When he graduated, Samford hired him full time.

Ashcraft couldn’t help but laugh at how Werneke fit in and all that he did, especially for her.

“If we lost a match, it almost never failed that he would come to my office the next morning with whatever latte or coffee drink I was consuming at the time. And he’d come in and we’d talk through it and he’d make sure I was OK and let me verbally throw up about some stuff and then we’d get to work on what was going to happen next.

“And he was good in the gym. I loved him dearly.”

Werneke ended up as a graduate student at Montevallo, a job brokered by Judy Green. Green was at Montevallo, interviewed him, but in the meantime got hired at as the head coach at Alabama. She made sure Werneke was hired at Montevallo, a small school south of Birmingham.

From there he went to East Tennessee and while on staff there, his sister, Jennifer, ended up in New York. While visiting her, he interviewed with former Rutgers coach Ann Leonard-House.

He never asked how much it paid. When she offered him the job, it came with $12,000 and no benefits. Quite a pay cut from ETSU, which also gave him benefits.

His old mentor, Hendricks, was still at Notre Dame, which was in the Big East with Rutgers.

He had told Werneke, “If you stay (at ETSU) you’re going to become a regional coach.”

Werneke said he wanted to see what it was like at the next level. His father, he said, thought he was crazy. And it was simply too far to live in New York with his sister.

He stayed three years and Rutgers — with only eight scholarships — did well. He’s quick to point out that the Scarlet Knights were 23-7 in 2000 with an RPI of 23 but didn’t get a bid. And in 2001 they finished 17-6 — they lost quite a few games when they couldn’t travel after the 9-11 attacks — and had an RPI of 32 and were denied again.

“That would never happen today,” he said.

At the same, Werneke, while single, was going broke.

“I literally had to pay to work there,” he said, shaking his head and adding that he had maxed out three credit cards.

He interviewed for assistant jobs at the University of San Diego and Minnesota. Notre Dame had an opening and if he got it, he was going to live with Hendricks.

And the head-coaching job opened up at Fairfield, a Division I school in southeastern Connecticut that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

The job paid $35,000.

“I knew nothing about Connecticut or Fairfield.”

But he knew good volleyball and was successful from the get-go with the Stags, who won the conference title his first and third seasons.

And then Leonard-House retired from Rutgers, which called Werneke.

But he was less than impressed. Rutgers still was only offering eight scholarships, there was only one full-time assistant — who he had to keep — and, as he said, “the timing wasn’t right.”

So all he did was win three more MAAC titles the next three years at Fairfield, which had 10 scholarships and gave him a five-year deal.

Three years later, Rutgers called again.

During that time, he met his wife, the former Jen Smith, who was the softball coach at Fairfield. They now have three children, daughters Rylie and Parker, and son Noah.

This time, Rutgers said it was serious, that they’d have 10 scholarships with a three-year plan to get to 12.

“I knew we could win in the Big East,” Werneke said.

He took over a program that had been struggling. Rutgers was 5-20 in 2006 and 3-23 in 2007. And in his first year, 2008, the Scarlet Knights finished 2-22.

“The players in the program worked really hard,” Werneke said, commenting how much he appreciated that team’s enthusiasm and work ethic. “They just weren’t talented enough.”

And then a year later, the new athletic director, Tim Pernetti, pulled the rug out from under Werneke and the volleyball program. No additional scholarships, none of the promised physical-plant improvements, and he wanted Werneke to recruit only regionally and play a regional schedule.

“His vision was different,” Werneke said matter of factly. “He wanted to be a regionally strong program.”

It was too bad, because the program was on an uptick. In 2009, Rutgers went 10-19, 3-11 in the Big East, and 11-17 in 2010, 3-11 in the Big East. In 2011, the record was 10-21, again 3-11. The football team was making national waves and, well, then came the big announcement.

Rutgers was moving to the Big Ten, but not before spending a season in the American Athletic Conference.

“You can be really, really good and not move up at all,” Werneke said of the Big Ten.

Rutgers competed in volleyball in the Big East for the last time in 2012, finishing 18-12 overall, 4-11.

“It was OK,” Werneke said.” I’ve got a good life. I’m not chasing anything. I’m driven, but I’m not chasing anything. Like we tell our kids, chase goals and dreams, not popularity or fame or fortune.

“I’m about to be a coach in the Big Ten? All right, let’s go see what this is about. And so I just rolled up my sleeves.”

That year in the AAC, 2013, was tough, 5-27, 1-17.

But then came the Big Ten: 7-26 in 2014, 0-20 in the B1G.

In 2015, Rutgers won a Big Ten match for the only time. The highlight of a 4-28 season, 1-19 in the league, was a five-set win against Maryland. There were four-set losses to Maryland and Purdue, too, but mostly sweeps.

“I wanted that opportunity,” Werneke said. “I told our players at Fairfield all the time, if you want to be the best you’ve got to play the best.

“And at Fairfield our schedule was tough. We knew were going to win the conference. We had a lot of Hawai’ians, so we took our team to Hawai’i and played Stanford, Northwestern, Hawai’i, we went to San Diego and played San Diego, Dayton, Loyola Marymount.

“We didn’t shy away. We didn’t win a lot of those matches, but made us tough and let us know this is what it’s like. And pretty soon the Big East, when I was at Fairfield, stopped playing us because we beat Seton Hall, we beat Villanova, we beat Georgetown. This is just another challenge.”

Herman, the former volleyball coach at Tennessee, took over as athletic director in 2013. She encouraged Werneke expand his recruiting base again, including pursuing international players.

In his previous stint at Rutgers, Werneke recruited one foreigner, German Sandra Nunner, but he left for Fairfield and never coached her.

He took a realistic approach. Recruiting was tough because of the losing.

“American kids don’t like that. They want to go to something nice and shiny,” he said.

“After trying to find our niche, is it California, is it Hawai’i, selling the coast, because a lot of the kids on the West Coast like to be bi-coastal, and there’s really limited volleyball in our region that can play at this level, I just took Julie’s advice: Go international.”

Mostly he traveled with assistant coach Phuong Luong, who has a long and varied volleyball coaching resume after being a player at Ferris State in Michigan. He’s been with Werneke since they joined the Big Ten.

Luong had in roads in Serbia. Assistant coach Anna Khrystenko, who came in 2017 from the Florida State staff is from the Ukraine. She had a long pro career and played for her country’s national team.

Werneke had connections in Germany, the Netherlands and Israel.

The plan was to build a base.

”We went to go to tournaments to get understanding. Not to go pluck a player, because I think too many Americans go over there and show up all brash and in their recruiting gear and they try to get in with someone and see a player and say I like her and I want her now. That’s not it operates.

“Me and (Luong), the first year we didn’t go to look at a kid. Just went to tournaments … we just met people and talked … For a solid year and went over there to try to meet people.”

And then he started offering players, which is how the Rutgers volleyball roster ended up looking like the United Nations and why Rose says, “I’ve always respected CJ’s efforts and his pursuits and his persistence.”

And to think it all started at Samford, where he was supposed to play football.

“Not everybody does what he did anymore,” Ashcraft said. “People want to get there fast now and get there ahead of themselves and he was diligent, took the time to learn his craft, and I think that and his persistence is why he’s been so successful.”

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