David Kniffin doesn't acknowledge any of the fuss made over his landing one of, if not the plum coaching assignments in collegiate men's volleyball last month. But the latest UC Irvine coach has noticed a corresponding lack of clutter.
"I mean it's a lot cleaner than when [former coach John] Speraw was here," Kniffin said of the office that housed Speraw, his predecessor and mentor the last 10 seasons before Speraw succeeded the legendary Al Scates at UCLA. "And there are a lot less sticky notes."
Outsiders might foresee expectations making things sticky for Kniffin in his first season at the helm of his alma mater, where he first played for, then spent five seasons as an assistant under Speraw before leaving last summer to become a women's assistant at Illinois.
But the 2010 American Volleyball Coaches Assn. National Assistant Coach of the Year believes his familiarity with all things Irvine will help defer any disappointment over losing the man many consider to be the best coach in the sport. All Speraw did at UCI was win three national titles in the last six seasons and turn a once-mediocre program into a perennial power.
"What we do from here forward is unrelated to what John has done," said Kniffin, 31, who settled in just this week at UCI, after fulfilling his commitment to work summer camps at Illinois. "I think we're going to be in the mix to win national championships for years to come. Having a coach move on from a program is no different than having an All-American move on from a program. We all run our course in our time and this is the next step for us."
On the court, a collection of noteworthy returners led by All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie should help make the Anteaters a viable NCAA title contender in 2013.
"We have strong talent in the gym," said Kniffin, who also welcomes back All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, starting setters Chris Austin and Daniel Stork, 6-foot-9 middle blocker Scott Kevorken, libero Michael Brinkley, outside hitter and postseason spark Connor Hughes, as well as talented opposite-in-waiting Zack La Cavera.
"But we did lose [four-time All-American opposite] Carson Clark, who was the NCAA tournament MVP, Dan McDonnell, who was a huge offensive threat as a middle, and some key leadership in Will Montgomery," Kniffin said. "There is going to be a learning curve and there is new leadership. For whatever continuity we do have, there is going to be a shift. But an advantage that we have is, we recognize that and the guys are invested in making that shift."
Both current and former players, many of whom contributed to a website endorsing Kniffin (hirekniffin.com) during the hiring process, have invested their support in their new head man. Kniffin's ability to connect with players, along with that of longtime assistant Mark Presho who has agreed to stay on as Kniffin's primary lieutenant, was a huge part of the program's unique culture under Speraw.
Kniffin said maintaining his bond with players is feasible, even as he shifts to the head of the bench.
"My only iron in the fire right now is to be the very best volleyball team and program that we can be," Kniffin said. "That's an all-encompassing task. That's not just winning championships, but it's about developing these guys as people. We never want to forget the volleyball element, because it's hugely important. But we want to use that as a tool."
Kniffin recognizes that Speraw's arrival at UCLA should energize a program that has won 19 NCAA titles, but just one (2006) since 2000.
"They can have what they have," Kniffin said. "The issue with Irvine volleyball has always been getting the right guys in the gym. If we get the right guys, we can win championships and be the kind of program we want to be, with the kind of people we want in there. If we keep getting Irvine guys, we'll stay successful."
Kniffin said the administrative support that helped bolster UCI during Speraw's tenure, remains in place.
"If anything [the financial resources] have increased," Kniffin said. "That was a great demonstration by the department and it was huge for me, going through the [hiring] process, to know that we were going to be committed on that level to continue to win championships. With all the bells and whistles other programs may have, the great equalizer is that there are only 4 1/2 scholarships in every top program. That's how you can see UCI winning national championships and mid-majors competing against BCS schools. Much of that is because funding now for scholarships is even across the board."
Kniffin plans to name a new assistant coach by mid-August.
"There is a lot to be done and these are long days ahead," Kniffin said. "For me, this is the natural next step."