It’s not easy being a head coach at USC.
If you win, it’s expected of you. If you don’t, people start wondering why. And if you find yourself somewhere in the middle, you sort of get lost in the shuffle.
Strangely, Bill Ferguson, the USC men’s volleyball coach, has found himself lost in the shuffle.
Maybe it’s because he shares the university with high-profile coaches such as Lane Kiffin, Jovan Vavic and Peter Smith.
Maybe it’s because he’s had top-notch players like opposite Murphy Troy and senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli who have made his life easier.
Maybe it’s because the greatest coach to ever walk on a volleyball court, Al Scates, has spent the last 50 years crafting a legacy only 20 miles away.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve simply lost sight of a man who quietly goes about his business.
Though it’s more than understandable to see fans clamor at the re-emergence of the football and baseball programs over the past six months, when did sustained success become boring?
The men’s volleyball team hasn’t raised a banner at the Galen Center or Heritage Hall in recent years, but when evaluating the best of the athletic program, Ferguson and his team deserve their dues.
In the early ’90s, the USC men’s volleyball program was the premier program on campus and around the country. Playing at the raucous North Gym, the Trojans used the loudest home-court advantage in the nation en route to a national championship in 1990 and a 1991 runner-up season that was fueled by a school-record 30-match win streak.
When Ferguson took over 15 years later, however, the Cardinal and Gold were a shell of the program they used to be. He inherited a USC squad that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament, let alone the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament since 2001 or swept rival UCLA, also a perennial powerhouse, since 1991.
Flash forward six years, and it seems anything the 41-year-old coach touched turned to gold.
The program has made the MPSF tournament every year during his tenure, two trips to the Final Four — including a heartbreaking loss in 2009 to UC Irvine in the final — a current 10-match win streak and the No. 3 spot in the national rankings and, most importantly, they’ve done it with high-character players.
It’s a transformation that starts with the man at the top: Ferguson.
Every week since the season began, I have had the privilege of talking a few minutes with him about the team’s upcoming week, and if you’ve ever seen him in action on the sidelines of an intense match, he’s the same guy. Rain or shine, Monday afternoon in his office or Saturday night against UC Irvine.
Cool, calm and loving life.
And why shouldn’t he be?
The role of the coach cannot be understated. They spend more hours with their players and coaching staffs than they do with their wives, children and friends. If they win, their players get to bask in the praise. If they lose, their livelihoods are at stake.
It’s a high-stakes profession that takes a rare kind of person, and Ferguson fits that mold.
He’s unflappable, genial and the ultimate player’s coach.
He prefers substance over style, fundamentals over flash and demands his players play the game “the right way.”
Often in our conversations, I try to throw in a personal question. He doesn’t blink.
Even as he captured his 100th career victory last weekend in a road win over UC Santa Barbara, Ferguson was still all about giving the credit to the people he works with.
“[The win] was pretty special on a personal level,” Ferguson said. “For the most part, though, it speaks to the great coaches I have been able to work with since I’ve been here. And, more importantly, the great student-athletes we’ve had the chance to coach since I got here. It doesn’t matter how much you know. You have to have great players to have any kind of success. It starts with them.”
Collegiate coaches like Ferguson are not hard to come by, but you have to choose whether or not you accept to believe that they exist. If anything, Ferguson should serve as an example that not every coach has his or her own sponsors, multi-million dollar contracts or a lifetime guarantee of notoriety.
Maybe we lose sight of that if their accolades and credentials are not highlighted on an ESPN ticker or Twitter timeline.
Maybe it’s not trendy to most of us out there to coach a sport that isn’t a big moneymaker or widely appreciated on college campuses.
But if you asked Ferguson why he does what he does, he wouldn’t hesitate.
He coaches because he loves what collegiate athletics has the opportunity to stand for: the purity of the game, the journey and the chance to teach student-athletes.
He’s not the type of guy that sells tickets or the type that has viral potential, but he’s the perfect kind of guy for this university, the kind that recognizes that his job is to be the man behind the curtain and not the focal point of the action.
Though he hasn’t won a national championship or garnered enough attention for his own bobblehead night, Ferguson is entitled to more than a little spotlight.
He’s earned it.
“For the Love of the Game” runs Wednesdays. If you would like to comment on this story, visit DailyTrojan.com or email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.