SANDCAST: Anna Collier, the coaching legend who finally gets a summer off

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Anna Collier
USC beach volleyball coach Anna Collier, who retired after eight years, shown here with her most accomplished players, Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Anna Collier is sitting on Tri Bourne’s couch, and she is – if you can believe it – relaxed. She hasn’t been to the beach in months, aside from when she rides her bike down the strand. She’s getting facials, going to the spa. Reconnecting with old friends. Getting fit.

“Just call me Soccer Mom Anna Collier,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

For anyone who knows, or has known, Collier, this is a near-impossible thing to imagine. For the past four decades, Collier hasn’t had time for facials. Trips to the spa. Biking with no direction.

Relax?

How can you relax when your day job, for just shy of 40 years, included acting as the Athletic Director, compliance office and volleyball coach at Santa Monica College? But most coaches take the summers off, right? Not Collier. That was for FIVB, for AVP, for juniors. Non-stop the coaching cycle went, around and around and around.

Until, on June 6, it came to a halt. Collier announced her retirement from USC, where she had built not only a beach program, the first of its kind, but had played an integral role in building beach volleyball as a sport at the collegiate level.

“It was time,” she said of her retirement.

There is never any one reason for such a monumental decision in one’s life. But as those reasons accumulate over the course of 40-plus years, sometimes it takes one gentle nudge, from a former protégé, to tip you over the edge. That came, in part, from Misty May-Treanor, whom Collier had once coached.

“When,” May-Treanor wondered, “are you going to have won enough?”

On Collier’s fingers, figuratively, were seven National Championship rings at USC. On her resume were 206 wins and only 38 losses at SC. To her name is virtually every coaching record one can imagine: 62 consecutive wins, an NCAA record; two-time Coach of the Year; first head coach to reach 100 wins, and 150, and 200. Enough victories over rival UCLA for the rest of the university to be happy.

The more Collier thought about it, the easier it became for her to admit, both to herself and to the public, that maybe she had won enough. Maybe it was time.

And for the first time in as long as she could remember, she slept like a rock. No longer was her mind whirring over recruiting – who to call, when to call them, who to look for – or how she could tinker with this lineup or that partnership.

Her biggest decision, suddenly, was: “Do I take my bike this way, or that way?”

And she loves it.

“I haven’t had a summer off in a long time,” she said. “This is literally the first summer I’ve had off in four decades.”

What she leaves behind is a legacy and coaching epoch that will be labeled as iconic. She, alongside similarly Hall of Fame caliber coaches such as Nina Matthies at Pepperdine, helped usher in an entirely new era of beach volleyball, growing the college game into the fastest growing sport in NCAA history.

And it all began with crashing a golf cart.

In 2013, Sara Hughes was one of the best indoor players in the country. A four-year starter at Mater Dei, an athletic powerhouse in Santa Ana, Hughes was named team MVP in three consecutive seasons, the Female Athlete of the Year. All-American. All-League. All-Everything.

And Anna Collier had a shot at bringing her to USC.

Hughes had grown up playing sand in Huntington Beach. When she was touring schools, she made a firm rule that it needed to have a beach program, which less than 20 in the country did when she was making her decision.

USC had launched its program in 2012, with only one scholarship athlete, Geena Urango. Collier had no idea if she could even offer any others, but this was Sara Hughes. She’d find a way, even if it meant offering her a scholarship she didn’t necessarily have, which she did. There was only one problem: Her recruiting trip was a complete disaster.

Collier loaded up Hughes and her father, Rory, in then-indoor coach Mick Haley’s golf cart, and off they went, driving around campus, which Collier was hardly any more familiar with than Hughes was. She was still working at Santa Monica College at the time, and hadn’t had much availability to learn USC’s campus outside of anything volleyball related.

So they toured, and Collier “just made stuff up,” about the buildings, making a mental footnote to actually learn a thing or two. But she can’t make up the next part, about Collier coming to a structure of arches on campus – and crashing the golf cart directly into them.

“She walks out the door and I look to my assistant and I’m like ‘We’ll never see her again. That’s it. We’re done,’” Collier said. She’s able to laugh about it now, because, as you know by this point, Hughes became a Trojan, launching one of the most dominant four years in all of college sports.

And it wasn’t just Hughes. With five more scholarships than had been originally budgeted, a rapid increase thanks to “an anonymous tip,” Collier said, laughing a surreptitious laugh, about USC’s Title IX scholarship situation, she locked in Kelly Claes, Allie Wheeler, Nicolette Martin.

Born was the indomitable power that would become USC beach volleyball.

Now that power is in the hands of Dain Blanton, who coached under Collier for four seasons as the volunteer assistant. Collier knows USC is in good hands. Blanton’s the right man for the job.

As for her?

She’s already had requests to coach at the professional level. Her answer every time: I’m not doing anything. Not this summer, at least. She’s enjoying the Summer of Anna Collier. She likes being Soccer Mom Anna Collier, where she gets to wake up and wonder: Do I go left on the strand, or right?

For the first time in more than 40 years, it really doesn’t matter.

“This,” she said, “is sweet.”

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