'The Queen' leaves a legacy behind at UCSB

'The Queen' leaves a legacy behind at UCSB

Published Jan. 14, 2013 4:51 p.m. ET

Over 45 years ago, volleyball legend Kathy Gregory got a tip from a fellow teammate at LA State College - now Cal State LA - while she was playing volleyball, basketball and tennis before UCLA even had women’s teams.

“Stick to volleyball.” Billie Jean King told her. And that she did — but not before telling King to “stick to tennis.”

Good advice taken by two legends, who have forever shaped the way sports are played by women all over the world.

Now, after 38 years as the only coach of the UC Santa Barbara women’s volleyball team, Gregory has announced her retirement.

“I think people thought I was going to die at this job,” said Gregory.

“Its something I have always been thinking about the last couple of years because it's getting harder and harder," she said. "There are so many responsibilities of coaching and I always said to myself that I would go out at the right time and not have anything be a negative.

“I could have retired last year too. But again, it’s always for a recruit that wants you to stay or a parent that wants you to stay. The job is over-encompassing and I achieved so much, you know you want to have your old energy left. It’s just you know when you know."

Gregory’s edge for competition started at 14 years old when she would
play against legends like Mike Bright, Gene Selznick and Wilt Chamberlain
at Sorrento Beach. Her brother Bill Gregory, who was an accomplished
AAA beach player, set her up in a mixed tournament paired up with a guy
named “Panther.” He screamed and yelled at Kathy when they lost their
first game. A furious Kathy complained to her brother, who told her to suck it up. Though still upset, she set out on a mission.
Not only did her and "Panther," start winning their games, they earned
themselves a spot in the finals. Thanks to "Panther" she was no longer shy on the court.

“That one
tournament changed my whole outgoing personality,” she said.

Gregory, whose accomplishments on the beach have spanned for over 50 years, is one of five Division I coaches with over 800 wins in her career. She is a seven-time Big West Coach of the Year, four-time AVCA West Region Coach of the year, 1993 AVCA National Coach of the year, and an USBVA Hall of Fame member. She guided the Gauchos to 27 NCAA Championships and has seen her teams finish ranked among the nation's top 25 on 27 occasions.

Gregory attributes her success to the ability to make players reach their potential.

Every player she has coached has played their senior year and has graduated.

“I had an amazing four years at UCSB," said Pro beach volleyball player and former UCSB All-American Brooke Niles. "We went to the Elite 8 two times
and the Sweet 16 once in my four years there. Everyday we were pushed to
our limits and I learned so much about myself and my teammates during
that time.

“Some say Kathy is too tough but she really cared about each of us. She was tough, pushed us and is the most competitive person I've
ever met.”

Niles decided to stay on and coach with Gregory after her college career was over.

Beach legend Angela Rock was also an assistant coach for Gregory in 2004.

always found that when I worked with Kathy that her pregame speeches
were so inspirational that I wished I could suit up again and go out and

Niles agreed. 

“My favorite times as a player with Kathy were
her pregame speeches. No matter how tough she was on us at practice, she
has an amazing talent for bringing the team together on game days and
showing is that she believed in us. My favorite speech of all time was
one I heard on my recruiting trip before the Gauchos were going out to
play Long Beach State. Made me commit to Santa Barbara right then.”

“Kathy is Santa Barbara volleyball,” Niles said.

While building on her success at UCSB, Gregory dominated as a fierce competitor on the beach for over 20 years.

“There is nobody else like Kathy, you could hear her from across the beach," said beach legend and Olympic bronze medalist Holly McPeak. "She was one of those people who made you laugh. Great dialogue and smart volleyball player. Maximized what she had and irritated people with her dialogue. Would take people out of their game.”

Gregory was awarded Women's Beach Tournament Player of the Year in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1983 while still the head coach at UCSB. She captured two world championships and joined former Olympic team members Flo Hyman and Jane Ward as just the third woman enshrined into the Volleyball Hall of Fame on Oct. 21, 1989. 

Even in 1996 at the age of 50, she won a tournament to earn her AAA Beach rating, the highest mark a player can attain on the sand. With longtime partner Kathy Hanley, she won the Santa Barbara Bud Light Tournament. Gregory was also named a USVBA All-American for the 16th time at the National Championships in Dallas that year.

At 5-foot-8, her competitive experience was not limited to the beach as she served as captain of the professional co-ed indoor team, the San Diego Breakers, of the International Volleyball Association (IVA). There she was a teammate of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and played on the 1968 U.S. Pan American and World Games squads. In 1997, Gregory became just the 12th woman inducted into the United States Volleyball Association Hall of Fame. In 2003, she was also named to the USVBA's All-Era Team from 1949-1979.

In addition to her contributions to volleyball, Gregory has been recognized for her efforts in the advancement of women's athletics. In 1981, she was given the Salute to Women Award for her devotion to women's growth in sports. Gregory was one of only five coaches nominated for the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.

In all of Gregory’s years, she was most motivated by a player named Judy Bellomo, who transferred to UCSB her junior year from UNLV. Under the training of Gregory, she made first team All-American her senior year. Bellomo went on to play on the U.S. National Team and was a top money earner on the professional beach tour, but died suddenly at the age of 23 due to complications from a surgery from thyroid cancer.

“I coached longer than I should have because of her," said Gregory. "Everyday I had a bad day, I would look at a picture of her and say ‘you know, I can do this again.’”

In all her days of playing, her most memorable moment on the sand was beating beach volleyball legends Patty Dodd and Jackie Silva in 1986 to win the Women’s Club Sportswear World Championship at Pismo Beach at the age of 41.

“Jackie Silva went on to win the next Olympics. To do something like that at 41 was unbelievable.” Gregory said.

Gregory, will be active in getting the sand program up and running at UCSB after it gets cleared, and in addition to private training, she hopes to do some work for NCAA telecasts once again.

In reflecting on her coaching and playing career, Gregory feels no regrets.

“It was never about the wins and the losses. My biggest goal I had in mind when I coached was to teach life skills, to try and prepare these women for what the real world was like. I pushed my girls to have gratitude in their life, appreciate what they have. I think I have prepared a lot of young women with the right values and work ethic and gratitude to go on to the next part of their life.

“If you have your health and gratitude, you’re like a billionaire. I’m very thankful for all I have and all the opportunities I’ve had. I have no regrets.” Gregory said.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t play for the love of the sport.”

Gregory will be sorely missed but will still be active in the volleyball community and plans to work out more, including walking with her dogs, swimming and playing tennis now that she’ll have more free time.

“I’m going to take time and redirect my focus in life. I always believe my job is to give hope. I’ll work on myself, my house, and reconnect with all of the friends that would always ask me to come down but I couldn’t on the weekends.”

“I will be there for all of my friends who are still coaches, that I have been a mentor for. I’ll be a great listener to everyone. I think the biggest thing is I want to use my experience to able to give any advice, opinion and help. When you give back you get more in return. And maybe that’s why I’m so healthy.”

“I’m going to live forever. I’ve got lots of things I want to do. I’ve lived my life one way and that is living in the moment. I will not stop doing that. Everyday is a gift from God.

The only thing left on Gregory’s plate is to write the book so her amazing stories and personality can be shared with more than the people who are lucky enough to know her.

“I will probably now write the book. Motivational, inspirational and entertaining and I think someone would get something out of it. That will take a while though.”

Since Gregory plans to live forever this may be more of a series.