STANFORD, Calif. - At first glance, John Dunning resembles a college professor not a volleyball coach. He’s humble, soft-spoken, thoughtful and honest, all admirable qualities. Not surprisingly, he earned degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State in 1973.
But Dunning is also passionate and ultra-competitive. That’s apparent when you consider he has been coaching the sport for 37 years – the last 29 on the collegiate level. Now in his 13th year at Stanford, he recently recorded his 800th career win, low-keying the achievement in true-to-form fashion.
“I had a lot of people contact me,” Dunning said. “I didn’t have a party or anything.”
The highlight, he said, was being introduced at Stanford Stadium between the third and fourth quarter of the Big Game against Cal. Not because of the loud ovation he received from the sellout crowd, but because his wife, Julie, and grandchildren, McKenzie and Cole, accompanied him to the game.
“People were very nice recognizing me for something I’ve done for a long time,” said Dunning. “That’s rewarding. It’s nice to reflect on all the amazing people I’ve worked with. You just have to feel blessed.
“Then there’s the amazing student-athletes, which is why I do it. I love my team. It makes me smile almost every day.”
A four-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year and AVCA Hall of Famer, Dunning has won four national championships and coached in nine NCAA titles matches, the latter tops in the sport. He has guided all 29 college teams – 16 at Pacific – to the NCAA Tournament, and has led the Cardinal to seven conference crowns.
Dunning is also grateful for his years at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, Calif., where he got his coaching start. In nine years, he captured eight league titles, six sectional crowns and one state championship, earning California Coaches Association Prep Coach of the Year in 1980.
“They gave me the opportunity and supported me the whole way,” he said.
On Thursday night, Dunning’s 24-5 team opens postseason play by hosting Hampton (19-10) at 7 p.m. in a first-round match. The winner advances to the second round Friday at Maples Pavilion to face either Alabama or Oklahoma at 7 p.m. The seventh-seeded Cardinal finished second in the Pac-12 with a 17-3 record.
Dunning’s motto: “We aren’t good yet.”
Not that he isn’t pleased by his young team’s progress. Dunning just wants it to reach its full potential.
“I want the team to improve until the last day of the season,” he said. “We have done that. There’s a lot of details we’re better at it.”
Dunning often reminds his players that he isn’t seeking perfection; just wins.
“That’s the key factor,” said Dunning.
So is working hard every day in practice. Although he has mostly started the same seven players all season, he credits the other eight for pushing and supporting them.
“They’ve sacrificed a lot,” he said. “Our practices are really intense. That’s how you get better.”
“They’re very serious about it,” said Dunning. “They came here to win national championships. They’ve driven the group.”
Third-ranked Stanford, gunning for its seventh NCAA title, enters Thursday’s match having won nine-straight and has lost only three sets since absorbing a tough 3-2 loss to USC in late October. Especially impressive was a 3-0 sweep of then third-ranked Washington.
“I don’t know if we’re peaking,” said Dunning. “I know we’re getting better. I like how we’re playing and how much we’re improving.”