Striving for Greatness with David Kniffin
Playing in the finals of the MPSF Tournament with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, a UCI volleyball player fumbles a routine pass in the middle of a rally.
It’s an uncharacteristic mistake, and an error the Anteaters can ill afford.
UCI head coach David Kniffin approaches the player with a smile, cracking a light-hearted joke and setting his mind at ease.
WIth Kniffin looking on from the sidelines, the ‘Eaters went on to defeat Pepperdine to clinch the program’s sixth appearance in the NCAA Tourney.
A graduate of UCI in 2002 with a bachelor’s in philosophy, Kniffin is one of the nation’s most composed coaches, rarely losing his temper in the heat of a game.
Living by the mantra of taking one point at a time, Kniffin’s is usually seen stoicly looking on from the sideliness, regardless if his team just lost or won a point.
The previous point is already out of the team’s control, the only point that matters is the one right now.
In just his third year as UCI’s head coach, Kniffin’s point by point mantra has guided the Anteaters to a 28-4 record, the most wins in the nation, and the verge of a sixth program championship as the number two seed going into the NCAA Tournament next week.
“You won’t see me as a coach get into highs or lows,” said Kniffin, “I don’t want 24-24 to matter more than 0-0.
Such was evident back in 2013, where Kniffin merely cracked a smile and embraced assistant Mark Presho after becoming just the second person to win a NCAA Volleyball Title during his first year as head coach.
“We truly were playing one point at a time, that I think I was actually probably still thinking about ‘Okay, we got that point, what are we going to do on the next point?’,” smiled Kniffin, “And I see everybody rush the court and celebrate and I just kinda look around and go ‘Oh, that’s it. Good, great, okay. Moving on.”
As a child, Kniffin’s exposure to volleyball came out during his seventh grade English class, where he was assigned to write a report on volleyball.
Needing to interview an expert in the field, he headed across the street to Chico State College where he interviewed the volleyball program’s head coach, who invited him to join his summertime clinic.
Kniffin readily accepted and ended up being the only boy in a clinic of approximately 200 girls.
“At the time I don’t think I realized how unique and kind of cool that was,” said Kniffin. “But that was my exposure to volleyball.”
Soon after, Kniffin partook in a local recreational volleyball league, where his love for the game flourished.
As a native of Chico, where volleyball enjoyed little popularity, Kniffin drove as far as four hours down to Sacramento and Fresno in order to compete and train with club teams on a weekly basis throughout high school.
After high school, Kniffin played for Loyola Marymount but the program folded after his freshman season. Kniffin transferred to Pierce College in Los Angeles, where he started on the undefeated state championship team. He was picked up UCI his junior and senior years, where he guided the 2002 and 2003 teams to the program’s first No. 1 ranking and first MPSF post-season victory.
Having played under two head coaches at UCI, Kniffin often jokes that he played under five head coaches in four years of college, but credits this period with helping mold his coaching style.
“We tend to emulate the person we trained under,” said Kniffin. “Since I trained under such a diverse pool, or such a diverse group, I didn’t ever really emulate one person.”
After college, Kniffin traveled overseas to Spain where he played professionally for CAI Voleibol Teruel for two seasons, and captured a state title. It was while playing for the championship that Kniffin learned to truly be a team player.
Initially frustrated at not started in the title match, Kniffin shortly realized the needs of the team were greater than his own after being subbed in.
“I remember it was actually the moment that I said, ‘I don’t care what you do, let’s just figure out a way to win,’ that I started to play better and feel like we’re doing the right stuff,” said Kniffin.
For Kniffin, that moment continues to influence his decisions and approach to the game throughout his life.
“I try to take self out of the equation and figure it through,” said Kniffin. “(That) if we’re going to be part of an organization, then how can we lead the organization to move forward?’”
After two years in Spain, Kniffin was offered an assistant coaching opportunity at UCI in 2007 under John Speraw, which he accepted despite not knowing how much he would be paid.
During his five seasons with the program, the ‘Eaters posted a 96-52 record and won two NCAA national titles–in 2007 and 2009.
In 2011, Kniffin left to be the assistant coach for women’s volleyball at the University of Illinois under Kevin Hamley, whom he designated as a mentor.
“(Hamley) took it way beyond winning and losing; it was neat that we had won championships at UC Irvine, but it almost felt like that’s all we were becoming about,” said Kniffin. “When I got to Illinois, I saw how much bigger it was.”
Kniffin enjoyed his time coaching in Illinois, as Hamley looked out for his players and coaching staff both on and off the court.
With Kniffin’s family back in California, Hamley allowed Kniffin to miss Friday practices to fly back to California to spend time with his wife and daughter each week.
“He saw that in the bigger scheme of things, it was more important that I spent that time with my (family),” said Kniffin. “That was pretty special.”
As an assistant, Kniffin helped the Illini to a 32-5 record and runner-up national finish.
“The thing that was exciting about working with Dave was that he was always asking questions of how could we better,” said Hamley. “It’s rare to find someone that’s willing to have those conversations anytime, and all the time.
Perhaps a component of their success was their bond as kindred spirits.
“It was easy for me to work the Dave, because the both of us realize it’s all about the athletes,” said Hamley. “That’s why we’re in it, it’s about the girls or the guys, and don’t lose perspective on that. He challenged me in good ways, and I think I challenged him in good ways.”
No sooner did his first season with Illinois end then UCI head coach John Speraw announced he’d be leaving for UCLA.
Enticed by the opportunity and with the blessing of Hamley, Kniffin applied for and was named UCI’s new men’s head coach in 2012.
Having played a part in recruiting all the players on the team while under Speraw, Kniffin was expected to pick up where Speraw left off.
Though Kniffin did not bring about drastic changes, he did introduce the program to the bigger picture beyond the sport of volleyball.
“Where I pick up from now being in the head coach position is seeing what it’s like to have competitive success, and now I believe it’s my job as steward of this program to build upon competitive success and complete the picture because there’s more to it than that,” said Kniffin.
Being that the first experience for many on a college campus is at a sporting event, Kniffin notes that his student-athletes are essentially ambassadors for UCI for some
“If we’re going to be on some level the face of the university, at least for some people, than we have to really up the level of commitment to how we interact and educate ourselves on what the mission of the university is,” said Kniffin. “Otherwise all we’re doing is winning and losing, and I don’t think that alone actually serves any purpose.”
To Kniffin, by winning the team is more readily able to showcase the success of the university, in lieu of the university’s brightest who may not receive the publicity they deserve.
“Winning is important not for the sake of winning, it’s for the sake of demonstrating what greatness can look like when you invest yourself fully in the process,” said Kniffin.
Through volleyball, Kniffin hopes to be able to inspire the UCI campus.
“Our mission is to chase greatness, and to educate and demonstrate to people what greatness looks like, people want to know that hard work in a global sense is validated, and so we have that opportunity to demonstrate that in a way that people can associate with.”
As an employee of the university, Kniffin seeks to align and parallel his objectives as a head coach with the university’s mission.
For one, Kniffin not only recruits international players to gain a competitive edge, but also due to UCI’s desire to become global leaders in education.
“That means recruiting globally, that means educating globally, and that means we need to take trips to foreign countries,” said Kniffin. “We’ll fundraise for that, we’ll pay for it.”
Currently, the men’s volleyball team boasts a diverse roster, fielding players from Australia, Chile, China and Israel.
Kniffin’s greatest contribution, however, may be the relationships he has fostered with his players.
“He’s such a people’s person, he looks at you at more of eye-level than what Speraw did,” said senior opposite Zack La Cavera. “It almost kinda caught me off guard.”Even to the players that aren’t making a direct impact, guys that aren’t even traveling, guys that are injured and hadn’t been playing for a while, he’s so equal with all the guys on the team, and I think that’s really cool.”
Each week, Kniffin schedules a half hour meeting with every player on the team, and can often be spotted walking alongside them on Ring Road throughout the week.
“That’s an area where that relationship needs to come before the push,” said Kniffin. “There’s got to be an emotional investment, if someone’s ever going to give their best.”
While the walks may sound small, for Kniffin they have been both program and life changing in regards to better connecting with his players.
“He’s there for guys off the court,” said fifth-year outside hitter Travis Woloson. “Whereas most coaches I feel like would, just worry about taking care of the practice, he has a deeper relationship with the players as for their overall well-being and progress.”
While Kniffin may not be apt to take credit, for the program’s success, there’s no denying the impact he has had.
“He’s really big on facilitating other players, helping bring them up, and then maybe not necessarily taking the credit for their success,” said La Cavera. “But maybe just being more proud of that person for what they’ve done and maybe what he’s been able to do for them,”
When UCI defeated USC in the 2007 NCAA Finals, Ryan Ammerman, the tournament MPV, credited Kniffin for saving his volleyball career, noting he intended to quit several times.
Of his role in Ammerman’s success, Kniffin merely stated all he did was “Believe in (Ammerman) more than he did himself.”
As the number two seed headed into next week’s NCAA Tournament, Kniffin is poised to deliver UCI it’s fifth national title, fitting for the school’s 50th anniversary.
If Kniffin’s reaction upon winning the NCAA in 2013 is anything to go by, don’t expect to see Kniffin get emotional over the results of this year’s NCAA run.
“He’s not gonna get caught up in the moment because the moment is just a moment to learn and winning you can learn from, and losing you can learn from,” said Hamley. “Whether it’s winning a national championship or the first match of the season, it’s the same, that’s why he’s so even keeled.”
However, don’t mistake Kniffin’s collected composure as a sign of weakness or complacency with anything other than absolute greatness.
“My hope and dream for men’s volleyball is that we can be a part of something much bigger than those championship moments,” said Kniffin, “But I think people need to remember that I am a competitor, and I absolutely love those championship moments.”
At the Pauley Pavilion, the site of the NCAA Tournament, rest assured Kniffin will continue striving for greatness , one point at a time.