February 3, 2010 • Volleyball

Person to Person: John Dunning

John Dunning has guided Stanford to two NCAA titles in four years

Interview By Cody Cassidy

Coach John Dunning

COACH: How were you introduced to volleyball?

DUNNING: I was a 26-year-old high school math teacher and basketball coach at my alma mater Fremont High in Sunnyvale, CA. I’d never played volleyball before and I’d seen just one game in my life.

When Title IX came along, our school needed a lot of coaches for our girls and women’s teams. I was one of the youngest teachers on staff, and the girls talked me into going out and helping coach volleyball.

The girls I had were great and they got me started. A friend of mine, Roger Edwards, was a volleyball player. He taught me the game and then taught me how to coach it.

COACH: What sports did you play in high school?

DUNNING: I played basketball and golf. I was not a volleyball player at all. But I was pretty good at basketball and I was athletic.

I had a basketball coach named Phil Kelly, who was a very good teacher. I loved playing basketball, but at that time my real passion was golf. I was a low handicap golfer and played every day.

COACH: When did you know you wanted to be a full-time volleyball coach?

DUNNING: It didn’t take very long. I’d been coaching boys’ basketball and I really liked it. But I saw an opportunity in women’s volleyball because coaches were needed.

I could become a varsity coach immediately. I really liked coaching girls because it seemed to fit my personality.

After the first year, I had to make a decision: Either I was going to quit because I didn’t know enough and I wasn’t helping the girls, or I was going to go on and become passionate about it.

So that’s what I did, I continued to coach and I worked really hard at it and got help from a lot of people. I ended up coaching high school for about nine years.

COACH: Whom do you consider your coaching mentor and what influence have they had on you?

DUNNING: I am really lucky, because I had several mentors. Roger Edwards started me, and he turned out to be passionate about coaching.

In my youth, the person who affected me the most was Phil Kelly. Nobody was as skilled and teaching-oriented as he was. When I moved on to coach the University of the Pacific, Terri Liskevych and Brian Albaugh helped mentor me. To this day, Brian Albaugh remains the one I talk to most about coaching.

COACH: Is there an overriding theme or strategy that you emphasize to your players?

DUNNING: The team comes first, without question. That is the truest road to success. Being part of a team teaches you a lot about life, sport, and how to work hard at it.

The next thing that we emphasize is that no matter how much we want to win or need to win, volleyball is something that you are supposed to enjoy.

Whether the team decides to have fun or be competitive, or whatever, our goal is to never stop loving volleyball. With the lofty success goals we have, that’s kind of challenging but very important to our program.

COACH: You coached Fremont High School for nine years before moving up the college level. Was it always your goal to coach at a higher level than high school?

DUNNING: It never really crossed my mind until the last couple of years. While I was coaching high school, enrollments were changing and I got laid off a couple times because of declining enrollment and had to move and teach in another high school.

So I began to think about coaching in college, and my wife encouraged me to make a job out of this time-demanding hobby. A few things had to occur: I got a great job opportunity at the University of the Pacific, and with the encouragement of Teri Lyschevich, the coach there before me, I took the step-up, even though I was a little leery about it. Would I be good enough to make the leap up? But with Teri’s encouragement and my wife pushing me, it ended up being something great for me.

But it was never something I thought about. My whole life I have kind of stepped into things that have worked out great.

I didn’t start college wanting to be a teacher, but that is what I ended up being, and I loved it. I never thought about wanting to be a coach in my life, but when I went back to Fremont to be a math teacher my old basketball coach, Phil Kelly, wanted me to help coach.

Coaching volleyball was never something I planned to do at the college level, but it became a series of steps in my life and has just been great.

COACH: You recently recruited our own two-time Gatorade/Scholastic National Volleyball Player of the Year, Cynthia Barboza, as well as coached other Gatorade winners such as Ogonna Nnamani and Logan Tom. What are your strategies toward recruiting and how have you been able to do it so successfully at Stanford?

DUNNING: It doesn’t have to do with me very much. There are a few things that are important: First is a long-time assistant coach named Denise Corlett who was here before me and knew Stanford well. She knew the admission department well, and I learned how to recruit Stanford because of her.

I know what I’m doing in the area because I coached in college for 16 years before I got to Stanford, but Denise has helped me learn how to coach at Stanford.

Stanford’s volleyball program is built around some great coaches, including Don Shaw and Fred Sturm. Stanford also has great players whom a lot of the kids know and want to follow.

For the kids who are very good in the classroom, Stanford is a supreme model. Stanford is obviously made up of a lot of parts, the least most important of which is me. As long as I do my job well, we have a chance to keep this program going and to recruit well.

COACH: You are one of the only two coaches to win national championships at the high school, club and collegiate levels. Do you have a philosophy that has been successful everywhere, or have you had to change your coaching style to fit the different levels of play?

DUNNING: I’m not sure where the success comes from. I think that a lot of it is luck. I also think anything that has carried me through the good years, the good experiences, and the good teams can be traced back to my love of the game, my love of the kids, and my passion for my job.

If you’re not afraid to work hard, it will help you achieve success. My wife, Julie, has helped keep me on balance so that coaching will never become a matter of life and death. It will simply help me become a better person.

COACH: After coaching for 16 years at the University of the Pacific, what induced you to start all over again at Stanford?

DUNNING: Stanford is a really good place, and so is Pacific. I raised my children in Stockton and I love it there. I loved working at the university. But my wife was raised in the San Jose area, and when we moved to Stockton she left a really big family. When we thought about moving back to the Bay Area to be near her family, it seemed like the right thing to do.

It was hard for us to move from Pacific because of our relationships and my love for the program there, but moving back home for my wife was the real draw. Along with the fact that Stanford is a marvelous place to work.

COACH: In your first year at both Pacific and Stanford, you won National Championships. How have you been able to achieve success so quickly after taking over old regimes?

DUNNING: A lot of luck. Because of all the great players around you I think that the transition years can be the most successful years in programs. The program benefits from the qualities of the person who was there and the qualities of the new coach. So when I added what I knew to the program that Teri Liskevych had built at Pacific, the sum was a good thing.

When I got to Stanford, the same thing occurred. Greatness had been achieved at Stanford for a very long time. When we added the things I could do, it could only make us better.

The problems arise when the person who left wears off and it’s just you in the program (which will happen to me at Stanford next year). All of the players here next year will be those that I recruited.

COACH: What have been the biggest changes in women’s volleyball since you became a coach, and what direction do you think the sport is heading?

DUNNING: There have been two times of change. The first time was because of grassroots growth in the eighties, when the sport started exploding because of Title IX and the early leadership driving the sport. The numbers involved went from a very small number to a period of large growth.

In the 30 years that I have been involved in volleyball, the last five years have witnessed the greatest change because of the new rule changes. We changed from side-out scoring to rally scoring and added a new position, called the Libero, which is a permanent back-row specialist. We also added a rule that led to a dramatic improvement in defense, allowing over-hand digging and passing.

Those three rules have brought about dramatic changes in the game that will be felt for a long time. The changes clearly exemplify good leadership, because they all have affected the game very positively.

COACH: How has the addition of the libero position changed the way you coach the game?

DUNNING: Most of the change lies in how well you recruit. Because of the libero, you don’t have to have as many multi-skilled people on the court.

We now have basically no limitations in our substitutions. We need only two of our six people to stay on the court at one time.

In the past, the most people you could sub out of the game were two, so that had to have four all-around players. We now have more specialization. The teams are bigger and more athletic because the players are able to play the net game, whereas previously they had to play the all-around game. Today you have a libero in the back row for the players who haven’t developed their all-around skills yet.

COACH: How has the exploding popularity of beach volleyball affected volleyball as a whole?

DUNNING: I think it is amazing the way indoor volleyball has been affected. If you’re an indoor player and you go out and play on the beach, you are going to get better rapidly, so it is making the players better.

If you go out and play on the beach, you are going to have a lot of fun playing volleyball, and when you come back indoors you’re going to enjoy volleyball more.

It’s a great combination, because it is almost like two different sports, but the skills are all adding up to the one sport.

The exposure of the Olympics has been great for volleyball. Star players like Misty May and Kerri Walsh have helped bring more attention to the sport and allow even more people to see what a great team sport it is.

Leave a Reply