SANDCAST: Dain Blanton, USC’s new head coach, is living his best life

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SANDCAST Dain Blanton 1/15/2020
Dain Blanton

Dain Blanton is smiling. For almost an hour and a half straight, sitting in a room talking about beach volleyball and a life that has revolved around it for almost three decades now, he smiles. At some point in the conversation, it just becomes almost impossible to be in anything but a great mood to be around him, because at 48 years old, Dain Blanton is living his best life, and he’s just really, really happy about it.

“I got a 22-month-old son, my first kid, and that’s keeping me busy,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I got the new head coaching job at USC and that’s about four months old, so that’s been really busy. But I was telling Tri before we began the show, when you’re doing something that you love and it’s fun, you’re fired up to get up and get into work. It’s been awesome. It’s been really great.”

The more you talk to Blanton, the more you wonder if there has ever been anything that hasn’t been great about his life. A Laguna Beach kid, he grew up as a dual-sport athlete, good enough in basketball and volleyball that he garnered scholarships for both. He opted to play volleyball for Pepperdine, and in 1992, he led the Waves to a National Championship. Five years later, he became the first African American to win an AVP event, when he and Canyon Ceman won the Hermosa Beach Grand Slam.

That in itself would be a fine career for anyone. A college education, an historic win, decent prize money. And yet Blanton was only getting started. The next year, in 1998, he and Eric Fonoimoana began a push for the 2000 Olympic Games, in a men’s field that was as wide open as any, competing against some of the biggest names in beach history, including two who top the all-time wins list in Karch Kiraly, who was partnered with Adam Johnson, and Sinjin Smith, who was attempting to qualify for a second straight Games with Carl Henkel.

No matter. Blanton and Fonoimoana, against all odds and most anybody’s predictions at the time, pulled it off. Then they saved their biggest magic trick for last when they stunned one Olympic opponent after the next, shocking Ricardo Santos and Ze Marco de Melo in the gold medal match.

“I remember going down to the Olympics and people were like ‘Take a lot of pictures, have fun’ you know what I mean?” Blanton said. “And you’re like ‘I see what you’re saying.’ And we went down there and we really enjoyed it. And Eric and I said ‘Let’s really immerse ourselves, we’re going to take it all in.’ It was awesome. Sydney was prepared so far in advance. They were so fired up to have it.

“Me and Eric always said ‘Let’s bring home some jewelry, let’s bring home a medal.’ Bronze, silver, gold, we didn’t care. You want to win gold, but if you can focus one point at a time, and one match at a time, and that’s what we were able to do. And it’s cliché, you hear it a lot, but to actually do it, ‘next point, next point,’ but if you watch, Eric stuffs a point and he turns around and tackles me, I’m almost in shock because I’m so locked in to ‘We got another point.’”

By now in Blanton’s life story, which at the Sydney Olympics was just 28 years in its authoring, it would be impossible to doubt anything Blanton would set his mind to do. What had he tried and not accomplished? So in the mid-2000s when he began to see the writing on his metaphorical beach volleyball wall, and he was tired of the travel, and his body wasn’t quite responding like he was used to, and he set out to pursue a broadcasting career, Blanton began like he did everything else: At the bottom of the ladder.

And he relished it. In 2009, he reached out to an executive producer at Fox Sports West named Tom Feuer and requested not a job or a shot or a gig, but just to shadow someone, anyone. It took an entire year for the gold medalist Olympian to get a call back — to shadow high school football.

“I went and I shadowed and they said the next year, we need a high school football sideline reporter. It was a cool thing to do, and a lot of people say how did you get involved in broadcasting and it was interesting to take a step back. People think ‘Oh you’re an Olympic gold medalist, you’re all this’ and you go and broadcast high school football,” Blanton said. “You have to leave the ego on the side, you want to learn a new trait, you’re late to the game, and it was the greatest place because you could totally mess up.”

Here it all begins to make sense, why everything Blanton touches turns, sometimes literally, to gold. Why he was able to win Hermosa Beach, one of the biggest events on the AVP schedule, as the seven seed. Why he and Fonoimoana were able to pull off what Blanton labels, and not incorrectly, as the biggest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history. Heck, just to qualify for Sydney — leaping Kiraly and Johnson for the final spot — in the last tournament of the qualification period, he had to beat Jose Loiola and Emanuel Rego and then, immediately after, Smith and Henkel.

Even then, “Once we got in, people were like, ‘You know, Karch should probably go. He won the gold medal in 96, c’mon, he’s Karch, he won ’84, 88, 96,’” Blanton recalled. “So that put a chip on our shoulder.”

Not that he’s ever really needed a chip on his shoulder. Blanton’s found a way to earn everything he has in his remarkably decorated life. Which is why he had no problem shadowing a reporter for a high school football game, which led to a gig as a sideline reporter for high school football, which turned into a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game, which turned into more Clippers games, which turned into five years of covering every single Clippers game, flying with the team, being the face of Los Angeles Clippers basketball media.

“I remember I got on the [team plane] for the first time, and in the galley in the back there’s sushi, it’s a nice layout, and I’m just killing it,” Blanton said. “I’m thinking ‘Oh wow, this must be the food for the plane!’ So I’m grinding, feeling good, and I get in, no announcements, no anything, no one’s telling you to buckle up. Five minutes into the flight, the flight attendant says ‘What do you want to eat for lunch?’ And I’ve already killed it. But this was just appetizers. But then you land, you go to Four Seasons, the Ritz, you’re living the good life. It was a great experience.”

And for five years, it was. But Blanton always felt the pull back to volleyball. Though the break away from the game was nice, at the back of his mind, it was always there. When he began entering the coaching ranks, he began — where else — at the bottom of the ladder: volunteering at USC, learning under Anna Collier. There, he’d win multiple national titles, coach the most dominant team in all of college sports in Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, and observe Collier and how she ran the program. When Collier retired, and the job opened up, Blanton, among dozens of others, jumped at the chance.

By now you know what happened next: He succeeded. Because this is Dain Blanton we’re talking about here, and succeeding is just what the man does.

“It’s a totally different experience, being the assistant to being the head coach because every little detail, the buck kinda stops with you,” he said. “You can’t be like ‘Oh, what do you want to do?’ You need to be there and constantly be making decisions which is a lot of responsibility and you just want to create an awesome experience for the players, get them a good education and get them a couple of rings on their fingers because you know that’s what it’s all about. I’m having a blast so far for sure.”

So Blanton is going to smile, because there really isn’t any reason for him to be doing anything else, is there?

At 48 years old, Blanton’s still just living his best life.

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