Matt Fuerbringer doesn’t give it all away. Not at once. When he’s coaching the Long Beach State women’s volleyball team with his wife, Joy, he doesn’t overload them with the vault of knowledge he’s accumulated since his days as an All-American at Stanford and through his magnificent career on the beach.
He’ll simply drop bread crumbs, little nuggets of golden wisdom, hoping that maybe just one thing will stick, one will resonate.
“I’ve learned from coaching that you can tell people really good stuff but you’re only ready to learn it at some points in your career,” Fuerbringer said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I might have told myself some stuff at 24, but I might not have listened. Maybe people were telling me that, I don’t know, but I heard it when this person said it.
“I can give you a coloring book with lines of how to be successful, but you gotta color it in and make it your own. As a coach now, I’m trying to find ways I can share things with players so they understand, and it resonates with them enough that they want to color it in, they want to do the work. That’s the challenge. As you get older, you know the answers, but me telling you the answer won’t help if you’re not willing to do the work. That’s my job as a coach is to give them enough so that they know we know what we’re talking about, because they forget quickly that they do know what you’re talking about.”
Sometimes his girls will ask him if he was a decent player once. He’ll smile and say “yeah, I played a little bit.”
When you mention Fuerbringer’s name on the beach, it evokes almost the same reaction from virtually everyone, not unlike Mike Lambert. Everyone loves him, will rain down the compliments, will likely say something to the effect of him — and Lambert, and sometimes Larry Witt — being one of the most underrated players on the beach ever. Fuerbringer belongs in one of those unenviable classifications of best players never to have gone to an Olympics on the beach, up there with Lambert, Randy Stoklos, and Adam Johnson.
He cared in the moment. Oh, did he care. He wanted the Olympics, and damn near had it in 2012. He and Nick Lucena were there, right there, seesawing with Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal, and Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers.
At the Rome Grand Slam, the final qualifying event of the quad, he and Lucena and Gibb and Rosenthal were both in the quarterfinals, on separate sides of the bracket. If Gibb and Rosenthal were to beat Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Ruslans Sorokins, it was over; Gibb and Rosenthal would be Olympians, Fuerbringer and Lucena would not.
Fuerbringer’s never seen Gibb and Rosenthal’s match against the Latvians, but an Italian friend gave him a rough idea of what happened, how the Latvians lost a big third set lead, the ref blew a call, a red card was awarded, the wheels fell off. Fuerbringer and Lucena won their quarterfinal match, but the Olympic dream was over, even if they would finish the year ranked No. 5 in the world, victims of the country quota that limits countries to two teams per Olympics.
“Literally all the teams were just getting on the road, packing their bags and they were going to London, and we were going home,” Fuerbringer said. “It was this really, really weird feeling, like those guys we play with, and most of them we don’t lose to, and they’re packing their bags to go to London and we’re packing to go home? What the f***? Why’s this? It was just like ‘Oh yeah we’re going to go to the next tour stop.’ And I was like ‘Oh.’ Brutal.”
In that moment, of course, it stung. Now 47, more than a decade out of his Olympic push, time has taken the edge off. It’s a bummer, sure, but Fuerbringer doesn’t regret a thing, doesn’t look back upon a marvelous career with any hint of a jaded memory.
“Would I have loved to have played in the Olympics?” Fuerbringer asked, rhetorically. And then he shrugged. “It’s way better to have gone for it.”
Now it’s his job to impart that type of wisdom onto Long Beach, and his kids at his club, Rock Star, and his own children, Charlie and Mateo. It’s his job to provide those little nuggets they might be ready for, and might not be. It’s his job to ask his kids how practice went, and if they shrug it off, he’ll sit them down and tell them that if that’s their response, they didn’t have a good practice.
“If you went home, and you tell a story about something you did at practice because you were so locked in, and you’re on that, when I say have fun, I’m not saying laugh,” Fuerbringer said. “I’m not telling you to smile after you get blocked. What I’m telling you is respect that guy that blocked you, and be so focused and so locked in that you go back at it, and you’re not beating yourself up. Focus would be more fun to me than laughing. Respect that focus. Respect all that work that it takes to be great, and enjoy that.”