If the NCAA Division I volleyball tournament were about coaches’ Olympic medal counts, the San Diego State staff would hoist the trophy.
The new head coach is Brent Hilliard, who was on the USA team that took bronze in 1992. And assistant Steve Timmons won gold in 1984 and 1988 and was Hilliard’s Olympic teammate in ’92.
Hilliard didn’t have to go far when he took the job. He had been the associate head coach at nearby San Diego for 19 years. And since he lives in Scripps Ranch with his wife Beth, 14-year-old daughter Audrey and 12-year-old son Christopher, his commute actually went from 25 minutes to 15.
“That’s just the greatest thing in the world,” Hilliard joked. “That’s probably the biggest perk of the whole thing right there.”
Hilliard twice stepped in for Jen Petrie at USD when she took maternity leaves in 2011 and 2016, so he has a 54-11 record as a head coach. He takes over a program that finished 15-14 last year under Deitre Collins-Parker. The Aztecs were fifth in the Mountain West.
“It’s literally my dream job,” Hilliard said. “It’s number one on my list of places to coach, so I’m very excited.”
Hilliard, who starred on Long Beach State’s 1991 NCAA championship team, played professionally in Europe from 1995-98. He served as the head coach at Cuyamaca College for two years before joining Petrie at USD.
“The combined success that both Brent and I achieved together at USD is a testament to his elite volleyball mind and his ability to train, strategize and compete,” Petrie said. “I have no doubt that he will have tremendous success at SDSU. Players respect him, look up to him and enjoy playing for him. I wish him nothing but the best.”
At USD, Hilliard was given more responsibility than most assistants.
“It’s been a pretty seamless transition,” Hilliard said. “Jen gave me such a big part and it always felt like my program there. Title-wise, Jen was the head coach and I was the associate head coach, but she always gave me the responsibility that I really enjoyed, and that’s really great. I feel like there’s very little change.”
Accordingly, Hilliard plans to employ the same formulas that worked at USD.
“What happens at San Diego State is kind of the same. I get to do the skill sets that I think I’m good at and I get to delegate the skill sets that I’m not as strong at and I have a lot of good people to help me with that.”
That starts, of course, with Timmons, who led USC to the 1980 men’s championship. They even coach girls club together for Wave.
Timmons is at the top of a very short list of the most decorated players in American volleyball history, known for his red, spiked haircut and ability to crush the back-row attack.
Plenty of coaching opportunities have come Red’s way, but he’s previously chosen to focus on business opportunities. He co-founded the sportswear line Redsand, selling it in 2003, and recently spent 10 years starting a palm-tree venture in Mexico. So why enter the collegiate coaching world now?
“It’s a funny path,” Timmons said, “because after so many years of playing and training, I never wanted to look at myself as one-dimensional.
“So I got into my business after I stopped playing … and in the midst of that Brent Hilliard asked me to join WAVE to coach a team with him. I hadn’t really thought about coaching with him, because I was coaching my son’s soccer team, his baseball team, and whatever other team my kids were playing. But I went back in with Brent.”
Timmons, who lives in Leucadia, California, has three children, Spencer (24) Stoney (19) and Cisco (12).
“I found myself really enjoying coaching, and was really impressed with what Brent was doing, and how he saw the game, how much he coached and how much he really reacted in real game-time situations,” Timmons said. “We saw the game the same way.”
Hilliard and Timmons coached WAVE junior teams for nine years, beginning with the 18s but subsequently switching to the 16s.
“Once he got the job at San Diego State, he asked me to join him, and I was really excited about the opportunity.”
The two have become best of friends.
“It’s one thing to work with someone, and it’s another to become real good friends. I consider Brent one of my best friends now. We played on the 1992 team together, but didn’t spend a lot of time together back then, but now that I’ve gotten to know him, he’s an incredible guy.
“We’ve gone to Mexico and Baja trips together and we used to laugh at us on the junior level because we would room together when we were at tournaments. People would ask us, ‘Don’t you get tired of each other?’ We’ve developed a close relationship, unbelievable respect on the volleyball side, and Brent has a great sense of humor, and he’s not bigger than anybody in the room. He has a great sense of self-awareness about him.”
The respect is mutual.
“For me, that’s probably the biggest perk moving from USD to San Diego State,” Hilliard said. “I’m bringing on someone that I started out being a fan of, and then being a teammate of, and realized that he’s one of the best ever to play the game, if not the best. Then I got to be friends with Steve, and coaching with him at the club level over at Wave for the last eight or nine years.
“We just became very tight, and he’s one of the very few guys out there that sees the game the same way as me. I think anybody that plays against me or coaches against one of my teams knows that it’s more of a different philosophy and more of an old-school style of play. A lot of people are moving on to new fads in the game, and we’ve kind of held true to what took us to where we were as individuals and players, and we stay true to it. It’s been successful.
“So that’s one of the biggest perks, I get to coach with one of my best friends, and someone that I know will always know more than me on any given day. It’s nice to have that in my corner.”
Hilliard also praised Timmons’ interpersonal skills.
“I can’t imagine a better mentor,” Hilliard said. “His style is always to sit back and observe and then really give individual feedback for what is needed. And he does it in a tone that demands respect that basically, I don’t think that any other coach in the country can garner.
“Because of that, he’s really excelled at that. And that’s what we’ve allowed him to do. What’s he’s had to learn is the recruiting portion of the business, where you have to go identify talent. And that’s something that’s coming along super-fast for him. He has to be on the road, and that’s the one adjustment he’s had to make.”
Timmons, a member of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, said returning to a college campus was invigorating but challenging, which included learning the voluminous NCAA regulations, let alone dealing with the ever-changing COVID guidelines and restrictions.
“After taking a few tests and asking Brent a few questions, I’m getting to know that a bit better.” Timmons acknowledged. “We were in the offices about a month, month and a half before they shut down due to COVID and then shut down recruiting. Recruiting by video is difficult enough during these times.”
SDSU hasn’t made the NCAA volleyball tournament since 2012, when it lost to St. Mary’s 3-2 in the first round. Hilliard obviously hopes to turn that around.
“I think having a team that’s not where it wants to be and where it needs to be is the biggest challenge that I have now, and I get that on my terms,” Hilliard said. “Where USD was kind of where we wanted it. It was a good team that won the conference with regularity, and that’s what we want for San Diego State right now. So that’s the only change.”
Hilliard thinks the Aztecs are primed for a strong spring.
“I think the group was headed for an excellent season regardless of the coaching change,” Hilliard said. “I think Deitre would have had a great year. They do have a lot of experience and have some athletes like Victoria O’Sullivan, and a wonderful setter in Cammy Machado, who got all-conference last year.”
O’Sullivan is a 6-foot junior outside hitter from Albany, California, who last season had 352 kills, 3.2/set, second on the team.
“Tori O’Sullivan will probably be the best athlete out there. She can wrap up kills with the best of them. I think she can average four kills a game easily. I think she’s also a shut-down blocker.”
Machado, a 5-9 junior setter from nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea, played in 109 of the Aztecs’ 110 sets last year, recording 10.62 assists/set.
“I think Cammy Machado will be the best pure setter in the conference next year,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard also acknowledged transfer Kennedy Feurborn, a 6-3 freshman setter from Overland Park, Kansas. She signed with Baylor, didn’t go there, and went to a junior college in Kansas last year but did not play.
Heipua Tautua’a, a 6-1 freshman, is a key recruit on the outside.
“We call her Pua for short,” Hilliard said. “She is a kid I recruited while at USD. She’s everything I thought she would be. I offered her at USD, she chose to go to St. Mary’s, and it broke our hearts, but fortunately she opened her recruiting back up, and it was one of the biggest gets I ever could have hoped for as a first-year coach. I think she’ll play a lot as well.”
Timmons also had high praise for Erin Gillcrist, a sophomore from Lakewood, Colorado, who is moving from the right side to the middle.
“I think she’s showing that she’s got the ability to be a great middle for us,” Timmons said.
Moving the season to the spring might have been in SDSU’s best interest, Hilliard admitted.
“More than the stress or the worry or the adjustments from COVID, it’s been silver linings,” Hilliard said. “Honestly, I needed more time with this team. I needed to integrate the newest recruiting class, I needed to get them adjusted to my personality and the personality of the new players.”
And the two friends are ready for the next step.
“It’ll be fun,” Hilliard said. “I feel like when we get started in the spring, there will be no excuses, and I feel good about where we’ll be at.”