UC Irvine coach David Kniffin has a vision for what college men’s volleyball can be in the future.
Kniffin said in a recent interview with Off the Block that UC Irvine and every other MPSF team have an even bigger opportunity now to help accelerate the growth of college men’s volleyball.
Check out this interview with Kniffin as the national championship coach discusses the possible growth for college men’s volleyball, how the controversial NCAA Tournament at-large bid selection earlier this year changed the MPSF and the Anteaters non-conference schedule for the upcoming season.
Off the Block: Lots has been going with the MPSF this off-season, but before we get to that, what has this off-season been like for you and UC Irvine?
David Kniffin: Being a core system school our guys finished their finals just a couple weeks ago. We finished our finals that first week in June. For me, I’m in contact with the guys through finals week. This has been the first whole week of break, and everyone has gone their own ways. We have a couple of guys in the national team gym right now that are training. We have a few guys that are pursuing tournaments on the beach and are continuing their training out on the sand. And then we have some guys that are just taking some down time right now. So for me as far as the team they are doing their own thing, but we are going right into our heaviest recruiting season.
OTB: Along with recruiting, this is the time of year when schedules are getting formed. What are you looking at in trying to put together your 2015 schedule?
DK: There are a couple of things I’m looking at. The competitive objective for us has to be to win the national championship. So we want to put ourselves in the best position to do that. There are a couple of pieces to that equation. One is I want our guys in prime physical and mental condition at the end of the year. It’s a blend of what we want to do with our schedule leading up to those final three rounds of playoffs in the MPSF Tournament and potentially three rounds in the NCAA Tournament. We’re looking at six playoff matches now that we need to be primed for. Also, looking at how many non-conference matches is enough and how is strength of schedule calculated so if we falter in the MPSF Tournament we can give ourselves a fighting chance at those two at-large bids. That’s what I’m looking at. Our schedule will be announced towards the end of August or early September. We will have at least four or five non-conference matches that will include MIVA and EIVA teams.
OTB: With the at-large bid controversy that happened this year, how has that changed the way you look at forming a schedule?
DK: We have an opportunity. We have the opportunity to truly grow the game and not just talk about it. That’s what exciting for me. It’s so far beyond for me how do we procure one of the other at-large spots or increase the size of the safety net if we stumble in our conference tournament. I think the issues that we are talking about transcend those about just being competitive and putting ourselves in position to win championships. We are on the road to truly legitimizing men’s volleyball, and I love the idea that we can move from a six-team format to potentially an eight-team format. I think that, while I don’t know the political details of it and that there is a lot of shifting going on in the NCAA, the fact that we are experiencing growth in men’s volleyball in this climate is exciting. As I’m looking at scheduling, I’m trying to think big picture. How do we create an environment for reciprocity and travel? How do we get administrators and schools that sponsor men’s volleyball right now to sponsor it at an even higher level or even attract some schools that don’t sponsor men’s volleyball to sponsor it because of the potential for exposure and the quality of student-athletes we get in men’s volleyball. If I had to sum it up, the thing that shifted is my excitement for what is happening, instead of having an impact on how I schedule.
OTB: Talking about the conference, the meeting minutes that were released from the MPSF coaches meeting may not have accurately reflected the overall tone in that meeting. Can you talk about the feeling within the conference about how they want to schedule non-conference and how they feel they can go about getting both at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament?
DK: When the conference coaches get together, there are two discussions at play. There is a conversation that happens among all Division I coaches and all coaches within our profession of men’s volleyball. That conversation I think is appropriate to be more global. So, how do we grow the game? How do you legitimize men’s volleyball? How do we create hype around our sport? How do we increase from six teams to eight teams in the NCAA field? Those are all the global conversations. When we get into the conference conversation, it is strictly conference coaches. It’s the responsibility of the conference coaches to figure out how do we protect our conference. How do we put the most number of teams from our conference in the field so that tournament champion is from our conference and the trophy returns to our conference. While we want to have those global issues in mind, it’s the responsibility of our conference commissioner and our individual coaches to think about it in that context when we are in a conference meeting. I think that the overall feel, and I’m speaking from only my perspective, is that with the MPSF coaches we have gone from a historical position of feeling very comfortable that we will have 50 percent of the NCAA Tournament field to now going to six teams that are now entered in the mix. Whether we are calling those play-in matches NCAA matches or not, it’s no longer a very strong likelihood coming out of conference tournament that we will just assume MPSF teams will have 50 percent of the field. It’s definitely a conversation point. It’s a consideration point of how we schedule and how do we put ourselves as MPSF coaches in a position to win. This is the same reason teams align in conferences. It’s the reason you have schools that are in revenue conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. They rally around each other and create scenarios when the quality of the individual programs within the conference rises the likelihood of that notoriety coming back to the conference increases.
OTB: We had an interview with selection committee chairman Ron Shayka. He said the committee was going to make a commitment to be more transparent in the upcoming season and make all the team data they receive from the NCAA available to the public. How do you feel about coaches and fans being able to see the numbers in advance of Selection Sunday so you know what the NCAA committee is looking at?
DK: I love the effort and awareness of the selection committee right now. We made a drastic shift moving the NCAA field to six and I don’t envy the position of a committee in that. Looking at the criteria I think there was so much talk about it. It was clear that it wasn’t clear enough. We are all going to have our different perspectives. There was enough gray area within the criteria that it wasn’t just black and white as we would have liked it to be. This idea of transparency is intriguing, and I’m glad that they are making steps towards that.
OTB: When the at-large bid announcement came out, there was so much banter between West Coast and non-West Coast fans. However, for you as coaches it’s a small community, was there that level of banter back and forth or was there a feeling of togetherness and moving forward together to grow the game?
DK: The thing that put me at peace as much as possible was actually [Lewis coach] Dan Friend comment that he’s not on the committee, he did his best to put his team in a position to get to the NCAA Tournament and he will do his best with the opportunity he’s given. I think that is the best we can do as coaches. We schedule the best we can. We play the best we can. Each of us have the opportunity to win our conference tournament. So we all have our swings to get there. When a selection committee makes their selection, whether it’s 100 percent transparent or 100 percent agreeable, I think as competitors I love when it favors us and in the past it has for UC Irvine. We’ve had great success as the at-large team. I think we also have to be realistic that we control the things that we can control. We do the best of the things that we.
OTB: Moving away from the NCAA Tournament, what are some of the things that excites you the most that you are seeing in terms of growth of the game?
DK: It’s not just the growth piece. That part is exciting. It’s the idea that we’re able to raise the level of exposure for some of these universities through volleyball. When you look at a team like Loyola of Chicago, it’s such a special story. That administration made a commitment approximately four years earlier to fund that program at a high level. That’s a mid-major institution. That’s a non-revenue generating, non-football school. Yet, the administration made a decision to go with volleyball and put an emphasis and priority on it. That financial commitment paid off for them. It paid off through a lot of hard work, a great staff and a good recruiting class. With any championship, the stars have to align, but they put themselves in a good position to have that success and notoriety. I think that’s a good and nice model for other universities that maybe aren’t the Pac-12 or Big Ten schools. It’s an opportunity to say hey with a significant commitment, which is still just a drop in the bucket compared to other sports, you can have success in it.
OTB: We’ve heard some rumblings that with the growth of the game maybe it’s time for the MPSF to split up and form two conferences. As a coach in the MPSF, what’s your reaction when you hear fans making those comments?
DK: I think it’s a really exciting possibility. The reality is there is no room to grow the game at the Division I level on the West Coast. There are 12 teams in the MPSF right now. It would be very difficult for an administration right now to have confidence in adding a team into the field of 12 knowing that there is only one automatic qualifier from now 13 teams. That’s not a great potential for return on investment. So the idea that a conference could split is exciting. I think the only way that you are going to see a conference split on the West Coast is if there is a guarantee for an automatic bid on each side of that split. That’s when coaches on the West Coast will get excited about it. Until then, it’s a nice thought, but until we know that when we split and that one from each of those will get an automatic bid, I think it’s just a nice thought.