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Published: Friday, August 28, 2009, 12:01 a.m.

Husky volleyball coach is one of a kind

Jim McLaughlin has taken what he’s gleaned from a wide variety of sports and mixed in some science, literature and philosophy to produce a unique coaching style and a volleyball program that’s one of the nation’s best

  • Husky volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin instructs his players during an NCAA Tournament game against Utah last December.

    University of Washington photo

    Husky volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin instructs his players during an NCAA Tournament game against Utah last December.

SEATTLE — For a man who absolutely loves being at the gym, leading his University of Washington volleyball team through spirited practices, Jim McLaughlin sure spends a lot of his time in other arenas.
He’s been to at least three NFL training camps, spent countless hours studying NHL goaltenders, crunched numbers while poring over physics and the effects of trajectory, and yet McLaughlin has still found time to give volleyball seminars all over the world.
Needless to say, Jim McLaughlin is not the kind of man who likes to sit still — whether he’s on the court or off of it.
“I’m always trying to study,” McLaughlin said earlier this week, while sporting the Cleveland Browns lanyard he earned when he attended practices and coaches’ meetings with the NFL team last spring. “You go to law school to be a lawyer, you go to med school to be a doctor. There’s no coaching school. So I want to make sure that I’m doing it right.”
The Huskies’ volleyball coach, who also happens to be the greatest in the program’s history, has a unique way of bringing out the best in his players. He’s just as likely to pass on the teachings of Magic Johnson — yes, McLaughlin hung out with him one afternoon a few years back — as he is to tell them that the “angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection.”
Each day, when the UW players arrive at the gym, they find three dry-erase boards that are filled with what looks like, to the untrained eye, the scribblings of a mad man. McLaughlin’s daily ramblings include inspirational quotes, physics equations, schedule times and strategic diagrams of the court.
“When I first came, I didn’t know how to read the board,” senior Jill Collymore said earlier this week. “There’s so much going on. And with each little phrase and little number, there’s a lot going on with it. Sometimes, he’ll have a little personalized message in the corner, just to make sure you’re paying attention.”
In addition to his daily board, McLaughlin keeps a folder filled with insights on the game. One the inside of one cover, he has his “Big Rocks,” which are team goals and areas of focus. On the other, there are the “Little Rocks,” which are breakdowns of each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
McLaughlin’s teachings are one part Isaac Newton, one part Isaac Asimov and one part Isiah Thomas.
Somehow, all of McLaughlin’s madness gets through to the players.
“He’s just a good teacher,” senior Airial Salvo said. “I’ve seen different styles, and he has his own style. He makes you get things, the way he puts things (verbally) and the way he puts stuff on the board.
“He understands volleyball. He’s made me understand volleyball a way I’ve never learned it before.”
But isn’t it all a little strange?
“I think I’m starting to figure him out a little,” said Bianca Rowland, a sophomore middle blocker from Edmonds. “He always throws in a few changeups, though. It took me awhile.”
Engaging, curious and a great storyteller, McLaughlin will remind you of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher one minute, then turn into Bill Gates the next.
He’s confident — five minutes into his first press conference of the season, McLaughlin anointed his fourth-ranked Huskies as a national championship contender — but also eager to keep learning.
“What helps him the most is his willingness to ask other people: ‘Is this right?’” said Tristan Burton, a former physics student-turned-volleyball-coach who is currently serving as an assistant at UC San Diego.
Burton met McLaughlin at one of the UW coach’s many clinics. He’s one of four coaches who serve as advisors to a program called Gold Medal Squared, which teaches the science techniques of volleyball and applies them to teaching.
“A lot of coaches use it,” Burton said of a system that might have as many detractors as it does advocates. “What sets Jim apart is he’s constantly looking for new principles. He’s always trying to stay a step ahead.”
McLaughlin makes no apologies for his methods, nor does he need to. After taking over a moribund UW program that won just eight matches in 2000, the 49-year-old coach has built the Huskies into one of the top teams in the country. He won a national championship in 2005, has taken UW to three Final Fours in eight years, and has the nation’s fourth-ranked team heading into the 2009-10 season.
A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, where he majored in film and had a minor in business, McLaughlin says he first became interested in things like math and physics while tagging along behind longtime Brigham Young20University volleyball coach Carl McGown. McLaughlin, a former high school quarterback who stumbled into volleyball while rehabbing a knee injury on the beaches near his hometown of Santa Monica, became fascinated with the science of volleyball and turned it into an obsession.
But he’s just as passionate about analyzing other sports as he is his own. McLaughlin has been to two NFL training camps — in Seattle and Cleveland — and was invited to sit in with the Denver Broncos’ new coaching staff during the draft last April.
“I love football,” he said. “I got invited to go to those things, and I just was looking at how they’re teaching. … I’m just trying to figure out the best way to teach.”
McLaughlin is, quite simply, a sponge. He watches tennis, basketball, hockey, football — anything to teach him about the science of sports.
Despite his success at UW, McLaughlin still believes there is plenty of room to grow.
“I’m better today than I was yesterday,” he said. “I’m always trying to improve. Every day in the gym with the players, you’re always finding things you can do better.
“I’ve been asked whether last year was my best year. I tell them, just because I’m older, ‘I’ll be better next week.’ I know it.”
To get there, McLaughlin doesn’t mind picking the brains of others — no matter the arena.
“Coaching is coaching,” he said. “The way to get good is to spend time around people who are really good.”
Story tags » Huskies Volleyball

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