Having been all over the world for a career in volleyball, Tyler Hildebrand finally found that sweet spot.
All one needs is to live, love and laugh and raise kids in Lincoln, where they grow corn and national volleyball championships for the University of Nebraska.
Then came the day Hildebrand wasn’t exactly waiting for, yet he had to face his wife Kristin and say “Let’s go to the beach.”
Actually, it would be The Beach.
This past fall, the 37-year-old Hildebrand was the associate head coach at Nebraska, where the Huskers were making a charge at another NCAA championship. Then came the news that Joy Fuerbringer and husband Matt had been let go as the pilots of the Long Beach State program.
Although saddened that his close friends and legends in the world of volleyball development were being pushed aside, Hildebrand could sense that his alma mater could be an option for his future. The big “if” was could they uproot from the Big Red?
“We love it there. To be honest, I’d rather live in Lincoln than Southern California,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a lot cheaper, people are nicer, there’s no traffic.
“It was really hard for me to consider this with Nebraska. We had a good gig going there.”
Still, the lure to return to Long Beach was too much to resist. Hildebrand was a four-year starter at setter for the 49ers, he earned his college degree in psychology and became an assistant for the men’s program for eight years.
Subsequently, he coached indoors and on the beach with men’s and women’s teams and was USA Volleyball’s director of coaching for the beach players, meaning he helped develop a Who’s Who of players who played in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 and Tokyo 2020/21 Olympics.
Suddenly, he woke up one morning and was being tasked with shouldering a program that produced legends Tara Cross-Battle, Danielle Scott and Misty May-Treanor. And he was stepping onto the sidelines once paced by Brian Gimmillaro, who won three national championships, advanced to the final four eight times, and is an inductee to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Welcome back to Walter Pyramid, pal.
“For me, it’s like this is my home, this is my school and that gym — four years as a player, eight years as a coach,” Hildebrand said. “Are we ever going to be top three, perennial national championship contenders? That’s going to be a challenge for every mid-major.
“I think if anyone could do it, maybe we could. Can we get back to getting 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 (fans per match)? Can we win the Big West every year? Can we get to the tournament and make some deep runs, can we get to some final fours? All of that’s great, but can we get the community of Long Beach to be excited again?
“People aren’t going to come to the games just because we want them to or because I came back or whatever. We need to win, we need to get people involved, we need to get our alumni involved with our community.”
Tucked into the southwest corner of Los Angeles County, Long Beach is the second-largest city in the county and maintains its own community identity. The university is a major anchor for a city that has produced all-timers like Billie Jean King and Tony Gwynn. And don’t forget Snoop Dogg.
Hildebrand didn’t get off and running in his new job until late January. Only two days after arriving, he met with his new team and had one important task before the young women hit the floor.
“At the end I took them on the legacy walk where we went through our offices because there’s all that national-championship stuff and the pictures on the wall with the Olympic stuff,” Hildebrand said. “I wanted that to be the first day. ‘OK, you guys understand who came before you, what a special thing it is to put that jersey on.’ I know, I saw firsthand and I felt it. You’re really lucky you have this.
“We’re going to put a massive emphasis on (the alums) being mentors. They’re going to be a huge part of our program.”
Hildebrand is also tasked with running a program in the new college scene, with COVID interruptions, transfer portals and recruiting, although in the latter case, he’s right smack in the middle of volleyball development that Southern California shines.
But playing and coaching around the world for years — he even laughs at the term “vagabond” — has to prepare for him for what he’s about to face.
“I guess I’ve done quite a bit, a lot of different jobs. The first thing is I’ve had a lot of great mentors and I’ve coached with or played for all the best coaches in America.
“This isn’t bragging so don’t write it that way but I do think something that’s objectively true is that I have experience that no one else has,” Hildebrand said. “Men’s and women’s, beach and indoors and at different levels. It gives you a pretty broad scope.
“I’ve coached Kerri (Walsh Jennings), April (Ross) and Alix (Klineman). I feel like I gave a pretty broad foundation. Fortunately I have a lot of experience to draw on or mentors to ask.”
He’s hired a staff. Nick MacRae, who has been with the Long Beach men’s program for nine years, will serve as associate head coach for both teams. Hildebrand added former USA national-teamer Cursty Le Roux, a former pro player who last year was with Athletes Unlimited and then was an assistant at UNLV. And Olympian Kim Hill, whose pro career was capped with winning a gold medal in Tokyo, will be a volunteer coach.
They take over a team that finished 16-15 last season, 10-10 in the Big West. When the announcement was made in late October that the Fuerbringers were out Long Beach was 9-12, 3-7. Sabrina Hernandez finished the season as the interim head coach. The best player from that team, Kashauna Williams, a junior outside hitter who led the Big West in kills per set, has since transferred to Penn State.
“I think what COVID has taught us is that you have to be ready for anything,” Hildebrand said. “I have some mixed feelings about the portal, I think everybody does still or did. I honestly think it’s great.
“It’s your job to build a good culture have people who want to be there, not just the starting seven, but everybody. You’re never going to make everybody happy and when you have 17, 18, 19 girls and three or four of them aren’t happy. Don’t you want them to be happy? Don’t you want them to go somewhere where they’re happy?
“Hopefully they’re not vindictively upset or anything, but that’s your job not to create that environment. Maybe it’s just playing time, maybe they don’t gel with the coaching or they don’t like the school. Maybe it’s not the coach’s fault, but if it’s to the point where you’re not doing a good enough job to create a good environment then I always look at it like you’ve got to do a better job.”
It’s all his now, something he probably never thought of after graduating from Red Mountain High in Mesa, Arizona, then moving west and boarding with the May family during his freshman year.
Hildebrand was a three-time All-American setter and coached men at Long Beach after his pro career ended. He went to Nebraska as an assistant coach to coach women for the first time in 2017, but the next year left to become the director of the USA Volleyball beach national team. He returned to Nebraska in 2020.
One might think being back at Long Beach would be a dream job, but Hildebrand puts a little twist on that perspective.
“Yeah, I didn’t really think about it too much,” he said. “Somebody asked me a couple days ago, ‘Did you ever think about it or dream about it?’ The truth is I look at it a little bit when Brian had it rolling in the early 2000s when I got there. It’s kind of cool to have a full Pyramid, then we got it going with the men.”
So now it’s time to form some new memories on The Beach.
“It’s a dream job in the sense that the alumni from Long Beach know what that feels like,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a little different than a football Power 5 where you have the football game memories. We don’t have those kind of memories but we bleed Black and Gold.”
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It’s nice to have dreams when starting a new job but reality will eventually set in. Long Beach is an aging campus with aging athletic facilities for the most part. It will be hard to entice elite players to play there.