Jan. 26, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. -
It can now be revealed that the Stanford men's volleyball program had to fight for acceptance, literally.
That's right. The biggest hit in the program's history was not an overhand smash, but a left hook.
Back in 1969, when volleyball had to share tiny Encina Gym with boxing, balls would often bounce over a curtain separating the court from the ring. When boxers began to harass the players sent to retrieve the balls, player-coach Erik Reinholm put on the gloves to defend the honor of his team.
Pow!! He did indeed.
"After landing a lucky punch, I was invited to go out for the boxing team," Reinholm recalled, "and we were able to co-exist on a more respectful basis for the rest of the year."
It was one of several blows the Stanford men's volleyball program would land as it built itself into national prominence. Today's team owes much to the pioneers who created something out of nothing, simply to play a sport they loved. In love and passion for the game, nothing has changed. But in every other respect, a great deal has.
Competitive men's volleyball on campus dates back to at least 1949 when future NBA Hall of Famer George Yardley led Stanford to the final of the first USVBA Collegiate national tournament. But the program's current incarnation seems to have its roots in the early 1960s. Back then, as it does today, the team was largely a congregation of former high school players from Southern California and Hawaii.
Undergraduate standout John Taylor guided the team in its infancy, but after playing for the United States in the 1964 Olympics, he decided to concentrate on academics and handed the reins to the young Chris McLachlin, who later would gain notoriety as Barack Obama's high school basketball coach.
The team wore old basketball uniforms secured by a kindly professor, Dr. Wesley Ruff, and did its best with limited resources.
"We had a $300-a-year budget," said McLachlin, whose son Spencer is a sophomore outside hitter on this year's team. "We would pool our gas money to get to tournaments. We'd go to Santa Barbara each Easter after winter finals and play, and I remember one at the Alameda Naval Air Station. I think we qualified for nationals one year, but we couldn't afford to go."
When McLachlin graduated, Reinholm, a sophomore, took over in 1969 and created a unique method of recruiting - he'd watch other Stanford teams practice and try to poach athletes who weren't getting much playing time.
The program grew and was granted varsity status in 1970, the same year the NCAA recognized men's volleyball as an official sport. The budget increased to $1,000 and the team was given practice space at the (by comparison) luxurious Stanford Pavilion. However, there was one condition ... the team was required to refinish the floor.
Reinholm and fellow setter Alan Christiansen spent the entire Christmas break on their hands and knees doing just that (therefore, no one can justifiably claim that Stanford can't finish).
The stories don't end there. To save money on transportation to a big tournament, one player hitched a ride on a freight train; the team supplemented its budget by holding an exhibition match against Wilt Chamberlain's Big Dippers; and it thrived with help from good-luck charm Dick Zdarko, a seemingly eternal doctoral student who practiced every day, but was ineligible to compete.
Thus were the early years of Stanford men's volleyball and the tales of the men who made today's success possible.
"All of us take great pride when Stanford wins national championships," Chris McLachlin said. "They're for all the guys who refinished the floors and found a way to get by on 300 bucks."
- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics Media Relations