Fresno State

Matt James: Searching for volleyball coach will be trying for Bulldogs

Anyone know a volleyball coach with a shovel? Maybe some large-scale excavation equipment?

Because the Bulldogs have a volleyball program buried deeper than Sequoia roots.

How bad was it this season for the Fresno State volleyball team?

Try 5-26 and only one win against a team that finished above 250th in the final RPI standings, a three-game comeback against Arkansas back in early September.

There were 324 Division I programs this season and the Bulldogs finished 262nd in the RPI. They finished in the bottom 65 in every team statistical category except for blocks and digs, a pretty good indication of how their matches went. It was like a boxer losing every category but "jabs partially deflected."

It led to coach Ruben Nieves being fired last week after his third season at Fresno State. Or, depending on who you'd like to believe, it led to his voluntary resignation. A lot of people choose unemployment rather than a six-figure salary. It's the new craze.

"If I was offered that job tomorrow," Nieves says of the position he supposedly just gave up, "I'd take it."

Fresno State will likely be going another direction, a search that should have begun this weekend in Sacramento at the annual convention of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

It's being held along with the NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship, where two of the best, Penn State and Stanford, played in the final.

Fresno Pacific coach Dennis Janzen was at the convention, accepting his NAIA Coach of the Year award, giving a moving speech about character and perspective and whether the coaching profession really matters. (He thinks it does.)

Nieves was there, looking for a job.

"I'm keeping my eyes and ears open," he said.

Presumably, Fresno State's next coach was there, too, whomever he or she turns out to be.

Finding the right person is going to be New York Times crossword-tough, and chances are the right person is going to want an easier challenge to fix than, say, world hunger or Donald Trump's hair.

When Nieves was hired three years ago, Charlie Wade, an assistant at Hawaii, turned down the job. Jon Stevenson, who was then the coach at St. Mary's, did too.

Janzen did a phone interview then withdrew his name before it got that far. He sounds slightly more interested this time.

"Fresno State has not contacted me," said Janzen, who has now won three NAIA national titles and been at Fresno Pacific for all but a couple years since 1983.

"I'm very happy where I'm at. But I don't want to close the door on anything. We're open to where the Lord leads us."

Nicely put, because Fresno State would need a divine intervention to get Wade or Stevenson at this point. Wade just took the head job at Pacific (18-9 this season) and Stevenson was hired by Cal Poly and turned the Mustangs into a top 25 program. (Neither returned phone messages.)

No, it's not going to be easy, and another wrong choice could send Fresno State volleyball back to rudimentary-tool era.

Ruben Nieves was set up to fail. He had a better chance at the heavyweight championship of the world than winning at Fresno State.

He had to replace Lindy Vivas, a winning coach whose contract was not renewed, an action deemed in civil court to be $4.52 million worth of discrimination. Nieves had to coach and recruit as Vivas' lawsuit and court case were in the news.

"Put it this way," Nieves said. "When I brought a recruit on our campus, I always woke up to see what was in the [newspaper] and to see what the recruits and their parents would be reading about that day."

Vivas says she, too, had trouble recruiting athletes because of the university's reputation the previous decade.

What really doomed Nieves, though, was how different he was than Vivas. He was a back-patter. She could stare a hole in a Russian tank. He thought college-aged athletes could and should be self-motivating. She planned everything to the minute, summer workouts, three-hour practices, weight lifting.

A Vivas practice left players gasping. A Nieves practice, to some players, was so easy they would go to the track afterward and run laps.

"In the beginning we accepted [Nieves] fine, of course," says Mounia Nihipali, who finished her career at Cal State-Fullerton after Nieves kicked her (and two others) off the team halfway through his first season. "We had respect for him. But as the season went on, we kinda lost that respect because he didn't respect the way we played. That's not the way we're gonna win games, either."

Says Nieves: "One player told me, 'Fresno State could not have hired a more different coach.' It wasn't being critical, or a compliment. It was just an observation. It was like a kid who just says what's on their mind."

It didn't help that then-athletic director Scott Johnson did not renew Vivas' contract the week before the team banquet, an occasion the university never held. Christianna Reneau, the team MVP (not that she ever got the award) was so mad she transferred to Loyola Marymount.

There are more reasons things have gone paws-up for the Bulldogs. Too many to list. The situation isn't any better this time.

Athletic director Thomas Boeh says he doesn't have any names yet, and for once he might not be withholding anything.

At least one guy is interested.

"I am," says Ruben Nieves.

And he oughta know better.

The columnist can be reached at mjames@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6217.

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