Remembering "Volleyball Giant" Carl McGown

Remembering "Volleyball Giant" Carl McGown

Carl McGown, who died December 30 at the age of 79, made a big impact on many of the biggest names in volleyball.

Jan 2, 2017 by Jack Hamann
Remembering "Volleyball Giant" Carl McGown
"Volleyball," Dr. Carl McGown liked to say, "is not rocket science. It's much more complicated than that."

With that challenge always in the forefront, McGown--who died at 79 on December 30 in Provo, Utah--spent an illustrious career finding ways to make a complicated game simpler. As thousands of his athletes, fellow coaches, and volleyball campers often heard him preach, "Simple is better than complex."

My wife, Leslie, and I first met Carl in 2002. Over time, his relationship with us evolved from intriguing teacher to reliable journalism source to trusted friend. When he suffered a massive stroke two days after Christmas, we were in touch with some of his closest colleagues, most of them among volleyball's elite. We've since asked them to share their thoughts about Carl's impact on the game he loved.

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"Honestly, Carl is one of the giants of our sport," former longtime USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal said. "He was a rare, special individual, who brought volleyball in new, different, interesting and positive directions."

Beal knew McGown all the way back to their playing days, when both competed in AAU and collegiate club tournaments, and McGown was a 1964 collegiate All-American. "Carl thought of himself as a better player than he actually was," Beal remembered with a chuckle. But, he said, McGown's transition to coaching was humbling. "He told me many times he didn't feel he coached very well early in his career. And it bothered him. He thought he could do a whole lot better."

Carl's system for the best way to teach skills raised the whole level of our sport, both in the U.S. and worldwide. ... The way our game is played these days at most levels can be traced to Carl's influences.

McGown's initial day job was in academia. He earned a 1971 PhD in motor learning and administration from the University of Oregon, joining an unusual fraternity: elite volleyball coaches with doctorates. Beal has a PhD. So did legendary innovator Jim Coleman. So does Pepperdine men's coach Marv Dunphy.

"Carl was my right arm," Dunphy told me, describing McGown's influence as Dunphy's assistant during the USA's gold medal-winning 1988 Olympic quad, considered one of the best teams in volleyball history. "Many people coach by the seat of their pants. But as a scientist, Carl saw things in black and white. He knew every single standard, like the sideout percentage required to win Olympic gold. Our team needed that. He showed us the science, and our mission was to follow that science."

McGown's volleyball science was based on careful observation and analysis. He studied patterns: where balls were served, when and why setters set the right side, how great passers moved their arms. He came to realize that drills were useless unless they replicated actual match conditions. He pioneered new uses of video analysis to break down eye patterns, footwork and arm position, eventually becoming an evangelist for swing blocking, jump-float serving and pancake digging.

"Carl created and developed ways to study the game that were probably revolutionary," Beal said. "He never stopped looking for the best way to do things."

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Most of all, McGown preached the need to measure performance. He often told the story of BYU All-American Hector Lebron, whom he and others initially overlooked because Lebron didn't "look" like a prototypical collegiate setter. But when McGown studied the scores and measurements he kept for every play at every training session and every match, Lebron was the clear, surprising leader. With Lebron dishing sets, BYU won the first of two NCAA titles under McGown.

What Billy "Moneyball" Bean introduced to baseball and Bill Belichick refined for the NFL, McGown developed for volleyball. As USA women's coach Karch Kiraly told me, "Carl brought home that you can't manage what you're not measuring, so you better be measuring stuff. Where are we now? Where will we be a month from now? If we're not measuring, we don't know the answer, we don't know where to invest our time."

Over time, McGown came to believe that no detail was too small, no skill too unimportant. As he liked to say, "there are no little things."

"Carl's system for the best way to teach skills," Dunphy said, "raised the whole level of our sport, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Good news travels fast. The way our game is played these days at most levels can be traced to Carl's influences."

I had a lot more influence on the few volleyball players that I coached than I ever had on all the students that I taught. And so, why not coach? It's just passionate, and it's life influencing, and it's, it's way better than teaching.

In 1989, McGown was a full-time professor who spent inordinate spare hours studying the sport he still loved. Years later, in 2006, he told me about his decision to leave the classroom when BYU made its men's volleyball team an NCAA sport.

"[Being in the classroom] didn't really make me passionate," McGown said. "And so I coached for a little while. I taught for a long while. And all the time I was coaching, it was the most wonderful thing I'd done in my career. It was something you could be passionate about. It took you to the heights and it took you to the depths. And for me, it's just a lot better way to live. And I had a lot more influence on the few volleyball players that I coached than I ever had on all the students that I taught. And so, why not coach? It's just passionate, and it's life influencing, and it's way better than teaching."

The word "passionate" often comes up in conversations about Carl. I spoke with two men who were teammates on McGown's early BYU teams: Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon and Illinois coach Kevin Hambly.

"Carl loved the game and he loved teaching," Hambly said. "It's just contagious when you're in that gym and you're around him. I loved every day of practice."

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"He was obviously very, very passionate about volleyball," McCutcheon said. "There was nothing more important to him--outside of family--than volleyball."

But, McCutcheon said, "As a volleyball coach, I think he certainly could be polarizing. Because he truly believed whatever he was telling you at that moment was the absolute right way to do things. And he would not compromise. Now, it turns out, the things he believed were the absolute right way to do things might change across the years. But, at that moment in time, it was very much his way or the highway. I think that's OK, because he absolutely believed in what he was teaching. And once you understood that, then you didn't really care so much how you got the information. You just wanted the information."

Kiraly agreed. "Some people could have thought of him as passionate. Other words that people could think of--crotchety, incredibly demanding. He knew more clearly what he wanted people to be doing than anybody on the planet, even to the point that made some people pull their hair out. He was so specific in what he wanted to do that he was kind of like the mad scientist or the crazy professor. Those are all part of the great passion he had to play this game better."

There was probably no better teacher on the planet in the sport of volleyball.

"No matter how you cut it, there was a right way in his mind to do things," Dunphy said. "And he didn't back off. Whenever we varied too far from the science, there was hell to pay. But it was good hell."

Like Dunphy before them, both McCutcheon and Kiraly each became U.S. national team head coaches, and each turned to McGown for help and advice.

"His ability to scout and analyze the game and look for patterns was really unparalleled," McCutcheon said. "He was a wonderful technician, he saw the game incredibly well."

"There was probably no better teacher on the planet in the sport of volleyball," Kiraly said.

Even so, Kiraly said, too many women's and girls' coaches in America haven't appreciated McGown's influence. "It's stunning," Kiraly said, "that you can walk into so many volleyball gyms in each of our 50 states, and find myriad instances where the principles he promulgated are routinely ignored and violated. Instead, so many people teach and coach the way they were taught and coached. We all can do better. Carl did his best to spread the word, but far too few people have learned."

I last spoke with Carl McGown in late October, when he called out of the blue to talk about things other than volleyball: grandkids, skiing, the beauty of the Wasatch Range. Over the years, he had often reached out, with a sixth sense that I needed to talk.

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"He always had time for people," Beal said. "Whenever I asked, he always said, 'sure.'"

"He lived by principles. He lived with discipline," Hambly said. "I don't know what I'd be doing if it weren't for Carl."

"The way he taught, the way he coached, resonated with a lot of people," McCutcheon said. "It made a lot of sense, and it connected with people in a real and authentic way."

"So much of what I've done is based on what I learned from him," Dunphy said. "And I'll be forever grateful. I would never be where I am without him."

He lived by principles. He lived with discipline. I don't know what I'd be doing if it weren't for Carl.

The final story belongs to Carl. He loved to tell about the time he invited his neighbor to a BYU match. When the Cougars upset No. 1 Stanford in a five-set thriller, hundreds in the sold-out arena stormed the court.

"My neighbor turned to me and said, 'That was the best sporting event I've ever seen.' And guess what my neighbor did for a living?

"He was a rocket scientist."

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