Coach enters record book as UC-Irvine wins v-ball title
MAY 14, 2013 10:23a ET
As an assistant for the women’s volleyball team at Illinois, he won a national championship in 2011. And, in his first year back at his alma mater and first head-coaching position, Kniffin added another national title to his resume.
UC-Irvine defeated BYU 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 on May 4 to become the first team since UCLA in 1996 to successfully defend an NCAA men's volleyball title.
Kniffin is the only second coach (Ron Wilde at Pepperdine in 1986 was the first) in the 44-year history of NCAA men’s volleyball to win a national championship his first year as a head coach.
Kniffin's road has not always been easy, his work ethic was evident in his playing years as well. The Chico, Calif. native was recruited to Loyola Marymount University and was forced to look elsewhere for college volleyball opportunities when the program was cut in 2000.
He transferred to Los Angeles Pierce College and started on the undefeated state championship team in 2001, earning first-team all-league honors. He then transferred to UC-Irvine in 2002 where he was the starting setter for two seasons and played for John Speraw and part pf UCI’s rise to national prominence as they earned the program’s first No. 1 national ranking in 2003.
Kniffin made his way back to UCI as an assistant coach for five seasons before he headed to Illinois as an assistant where he was for two seasons. This past July, he accepted the head coaching position when John Speraw decided to accept the head coaching position at UCLA.
“I initially went to the women’s game to learn to be a professional. At the time, the assistant coaching position here was not financially sustainable. It was a job, but not a career. To test myself and carry the torch for my fellow alums at my alma mater was an important factor,” Kniffin said.
He inherited a national championship team from 2012. Several players he had coached as assistant three years ago when he was an assistant, including junior outside hitter Connor Hughes and junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken, so he wasn’t a total stranger to the program.
“When I think about the success of this year at UC Irvine, and all the things that have to come together to make that happen … We had the right guys, the right staff, the support from the university and the community,” Kniffin said.
“We have student-athletes on our team that are simply winners with blue-collar mindsets. So, I also think that “fit” is a key ingredient. As an alum, former player, and former coach within this program, I was able to provide continuity and perspective to support what we are as a team, culture, and university.”
The Anteaters started off season with a No. 1 ranking but ran into several roadblocks along the season including BYU who they lost to twice in the regular season and several other losses to USC, Cal Baptist, Pepperdine, UCLA, Long Beach State finishing the regular season 23-7.
“Our team had a lot of growing up to do this year. We have a lot of younger players compared to last year who really had to identify their own personal roles on the team in order for us to be successful," said junior outside hitter Connor Hughes, who was named the tournament’s MVP and made the NCAA All-Tournament team.
“This was a big one,” said junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken, who posted 12 blocks and seven kills in the final.
“To set out with a goal to win the national championship and to plan for it to be against BYU made this win feel so much sweeter. It really sets UC Irvine as an elite team in the country. Especially doing it two years in a row, we were able to accomplish something historic and I have never been more proud of my teammates.”
For Kniffin it was business as usual as it was evident with his cool like demeanor after the win.
“I was ready for the next serve. It actually took days to pull myself out of game mode,” the coach added.
“Winning is a part of the equation here, but it should not define us as a program or culture. I would like to keep competing for championships, but I would like to increase the emphasis on the development of the student-athlete as a confident, self-aware, contributing member of society. It is an honor to be a part of an academic institution and team. In the years to come, my goal is to demonstrate that gratitude by being fully focused on these young men throughout the year as they represent themselves, the team and an outstanding university.”
Kniffin has set the standard pretty high in his first season as head coach.
“Nowhere to go but down. I love it.”