Chris McGown can’t help but have a little flashback every time he enters his BYU coaching office.
As a teenager McGown would run into the same office every week to visit his father, Carl McGown the BYU men’s volleyball head coach. Almost 25 years later it is now the son working out that office — and just like his father working to coach BYU to a NCAA championship.
The Cougars in June hired McGown, an assistant coach with the BYU women’s volleyball team, to become the new head coach of the BYU men’s volleyball team.
BYU finished the 2011 regular season No. 2 in the national rankings under interim head coach Rob Neilson. However, the Cougars were upset in the first round of the MPSF Tournament and failed to make the four-team NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season.
Off the Block conducted an interview with McGown last week to discuss his new position, having the same job that his father once had and if BYU is the favorite to win the 2012 NCAA championship.
Off the Block: What has the first month on the job been like for you?
Chris McGown: It’s been like you can image. There is a lot of things you don’t realize you need to do as a volleyball coach and a lot of it administrative. Thank goodness that Rob Neilson decided to stick with the program and stayed on as an assistant coach, and he has been a massive help. He is as bright of a guy as you can come across. You talk to him and he is intelligent and well spoken. He had everything dialed in and in a good place. I was able to lean heavily on him and the coaching staff. Sometimes when you bring in someone new and get rid of the entire coaching staff it gets to be a mess trying to figure out everything like recruiting. I’ve had help from him. Most of it is me getting to know the guys better. I knew the guys before, but I had worked with the women’s team. I knew them a little bit but there is a whole other level needed as a head coach, and it’s about building those relationships. Being a volleyball coach is about those relationships with administrators, alumni, the players, club coaches and recruits. It’s important with this job to build those relationships and not let all the administrative stuff take over your time.
OTB: How difficult was it for you to keep Neilson on your staff?
CM: You can imagine. The one thing with BYU is they were open with the guys. BYU was honest with everyone on staff last year, and told them, “it’s been a situation that has been thrust upon you and at the end of it we are going to open it up to applications. Your work doesn’t guarantee you a spot but it could give you a leg up.” Rob wanted to be a head coach and he was disappointed to apply for the job and not get it. And I’ve been in those shoes before. I’ve applied for jobs that I really wanted and when you don’t get the job it is like a punch in the guts and it really wounds your pride. To his credit it wasn’t easy but he told me at some point a wounded ego and a bruised pride aren’t a sound base for making decisions. He loves these guys. He loves BYU and loves this staff, and I’m glad he’s in. It took a little time, and him and I had to figure some stuff out. He is such a good guy and a quality guy that he was able put all that stuff behind him in a hurry.
OTB: What are you hoping to bring to BYU men’s volleyball?
CM: One of things that we’ve done really well in recent years is we have put good players on the floor. They did a wonderful job recruiting and putting in a pipe line of players. So it has been lacking to bring talent to bare [a championship]. The two things we want to do different is create more of a team culture. We want to be more team oriented and not be just a collection of individuals. We need to learn how to behave as a team and work in a way that puts the needs of the program ahead of the needs of the individual. I’m hoping to do things to create this culture and place an early emphasis on those kind of thoughts and process for sure. You don’t learn those things in one day and get great at them immediately. … I think the other thing that we are going to change that I could see from when I saw some of their practices is that BYU did well in game-like training. They play a lot of volleyball at practice, but the fundamental mastery is not at the level it needed to be. … We are going to spend some time going a little slower and still do game-like drills, but we want the focus to be that of fundamental skill mastery and we want to do it perfect.
OTB: Prior to this position you worked with Gold Medal Squared volleyball camps and was an assistant coach with the BYU women’s volleyball team. How different is it going to be coaching a men’s team?
CM: The biggest difference with coaching the girls is they will almost instantly trust you. If you say go do this, they will say alright. It takes longer getting to that point with guys for them to trust you with any match or individual changes you want them to make. … You have to establish that trust with guys and they have to know that you know what you are talking about and doing what you say will make their game better. That trust doesn’t come as easily with guys. … Trust for me is the biggest thing. We are training similarly as the women’s team, doing the same drills and it’s the same process. The game is different, and you have to do things faster and a little differently. However, we are training very similarly and developing that trust factor.
OTB: You have three All-Americans — Taylor Sander, Robb Stowell and Futi Tavana — returning for the 2012 season. Is the expectation to win a national championship?
CM: It’s an intersting thought. The guys when I talk to them, it makes them nervous to talk about that. We have that for a goal. We expect to be in that position year in and year out to compete for a title. I asked them, “do you think it’s a bad place to be?” When I played in the ’90s UCLA was winning championships all the time. Every year all those guys assumed they would win and would be in a position to win a title. They carried themselves differently from everyone else and expected to win. They knew they were great and everyone was gunning from them, but at the end of the day they knew they were going to be in the national championship. That’s not a bad position to be in. We have a good collection of players, and I don’t want to shy away from that expectation. I want to get them to be like those UCLA teams and embrace it. Of course we are good and expect to be in it, and I’d be disappointed if we weren’t. I want to change the nature of the team to have that expectation, and for the players coming back I have high hopes of them wanting to wear that label.
OTB: Have there been any players who have positively surprised you since you took the job?
CM: I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but one of the things about BYU is the special nature of the university. As much as we do on the court as a team and as volleyball players, one of the things we want to do more of is serve the community. Whether it’s at a hospital or a retirement home, we want to help out a little bit. It is good for the guys, and it is good to do this as a team and do other things as a team on other places besides the court. In individual interviews with the guys that was a big deal for them, and they were excited about that and talking about the team. It’s exciting and important for your life [to serve]. It really resinated with them and that was important. I think with a lot of college athletes you think of them as egoists, and I think a lot of [our players] have an orientation of helping others and being a role model as an athlete.
OTB: Your father was the first BYU men’s volleyball coach in program history. What is it like to have the same job that your father once had?
CM: It’s surreal. It’s surreal when you are sitting in his exact old office and working at his old desk. I remember coming in as a kid when I was 13-14 years old after going to play basketball, and I’m now at his old desk and looking out the same window I used to look out of. It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It’s crazy. In the short history of BYU it’s been a really good program, and when I was a player it wasn’t a good program, and I got to see it grow. For sure being the new coach that comes with a lot of humiliation, and it is a legacy of not only my dad but of all the other coaches. It’s a great program, and how has it been: it’s humbling. It’s surreal. People ask did you ever see this happening, and I say of course not. My dad has a favorite thing to say these days: man has plans and God laughs. In these circumstance it doesn’t feel real yet.