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'A bolt out of the blue': First-year coach leads ASU volleyball to Sweet 16

JJ Van Niel left a lucrative financial career to become volleyball coach

ASU women's volleyball
December 05, 2023

Jeff Metcalfe started covering Arizona State University sports in 1985 as a reporter for the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette.

For the next 36 years, he was a constant presence at Sun Devil athletic events, devoting himself, in particular, to the coverage of women’s sports.

So, when Metcalfe says this year’s ASU women’s volleyball team — which will play at Stanford on Thursday in a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game at 9:30 p.m. Arizona time, televised by ESPNU — has done something he has never seen before, his words matter.

“I can’t think of any ASU team in any sport that’s done something more surprising or more like a bolt out of the blue,” Metcalfe said.

How surprising?

Well, the volleyball team had a losing record six of the last seven seasons … and hadn’t reached the postseason since 2015 … and had eight players transfer before the new coach was hired last Dec. 29 … and the new coach had never been a head coach in college before.

And yet, here the Sun Devils are, in a place no one expected them to be, and guaranteed — even if they lose to Stanford — to have the best winning percentage (.800) in program history.

“I don’t know what I expected this season to be, exactly,” Metcalfe said. “Maybe they could slide their way into the tournament if they were totally lucky. That would be the ceiling. And now, basically, they’re the best team in school history. It’s mind-boggling.”

And it happened because that coach, JJ Van Niel, decided he’d rather be happy than be a millionaire.

A serendipitous, career-altering moment

It was 2006 and Van Niel was working in the financial world, midway through what would be a 12-year journey that would be spent in investment banking in San Francisco, at a distressed debt hedge fund in Los Angeles and at an activist hedge fund in San Diego — all after earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in finance and graduating cum laude from the University of Southern California in 1998.

He was playing in an adult volleyball league, rediscovering the sport he had played in high school but then given up because, in his words, he was “5-foot-11 and not a great jumper.”

One night, he went to the gym for a scheduled game, not knowing that the game had been canceled. When he got there, and with his own game nowhere to be found, he saw that another group, the Coast Volleyball Club in San Diego, was having a tryout. He walked up to the coach and said, “Hey, I won’t be able to be here all the time, but if you need any help, let me know.”

The coach did, and soon, Van Niel was helping out in any way he could at the team’s practices.

“I remember the first coach I worked with,” Van Niel said. “He said, ‘Hey, don’t say a word to the players. You’re just here to shag balls and chip balls in.’ I was like, ‘OK, no problem.’

“I just started getting into it. I (went to) a bunch of coaching clinics to educate myself because I realized I needed to learn a lot.”

By 2010, Van Niel was burned out by the finance world. When he interviewed for jobs, he’d start feeling sick to his stomach.

“And that’s not me,” he said. “So, I just started realizing that, ‘Yeah, this isn’t a good sign.’”

Van Niel considered taking a sabbatical. But, by then, the volleyball bug had bitten him bad. He sat down with his wife, Maria, and told her he wanted to coach full time.

From a financial perspective, it wasn’t a commonsense decision. Van Niel said his salary cut was more than 90% that first year. He made extra money by doing odd jobs like painting the walls of the Coast Volleyball Club practice facility.

“We went from making a good amount of money to literally making nothing,” he said. “We could have been on food stamps if we wanted. I was doing anything I could to kind of make some money … I’m pretty fortunate that she supported me.”

Van Niel became the head coach at Coast Volleyball before accepting a job as an assistant at Utah. He then served as the associate head coach at USC for five seasons. He also was a consultant coach and scout for the U.S. women’s national team, before being named ASU’s coach.

The personal approach

All of this leads to the question: How does a first-year head coach take a team that was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 in the coach’s preseason poll to the Sweet 16? And how does that coach wind up being named Pac-12 Volleyball Coach of the Year, the first for ASU since Patti Snyder-Park in 1992?

The former finance guy will tell you it wasn’t about any numbers. In his first team meeting, Van Niel stressed the personal rather than the personnel.

“It was some information about me, so they got a little bit of an idea of who I am,” Van Niel said. “I tried to show some vulnerability. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a mistake. I’m going to make a bunch of mistakes. And the only thing I can promise you is when I do, I’m going to own them and then try to be better about it. And I’m going to treat you guys the same way. You’re going to make mistakes, and we’ll just try to get better every day.

“But the most important thing we have to do is build our culture. And the most important thing about culture building is investing in relationships. That’s you guys with each other and you with the coaching staff.’”

During the spring, Van Niel would go get coffee with a player or walk with them to their class. There was just one rule during their conversations: They couldn’t talk volleyball.

“That was really important,” said senior opposite hitter Marta Levinska, who would chat with Van Niel about their shared love of fantasy books. “I think that is partly why our team has been successful this year. We trust in him. We know he wants what’s best for us. We know that he cares about us as people, not just as players.”

“That’s been vital to the program,” Van Niel added. “I’m pretty intense, and I push. I think we create some pretty high standards and expectations, and if they don’t think you care about them, that’s going to be a bad, bad thing.”

Van Niel sometimes thinks about the life he gave up. He knows he might have been a millionaire by now; he has friends in finance who retired at the age of 45.

“I’m like, ‘Man, I could have waited a little longer and then started coaching,’” he joked.

But there are no regrets. The only sadness he feels is thinking about when this magical season might end.

“There are obviously bad days, like in any job, but I love being in the gym and being around the kids and trying to help them develop on and off the court,” Van Niel said. “I think some of my coolest moments are when I hear from former players when they call me about a big life moment or they’re just saying hi. Those are special. You just don’t get that in the other world. So, I feel very fulfilled.”

And to think, that fulfillment — and this Sun Devil season — might never have happened if Van Niel had known his adult league game had been canceled.

“Yeah, if I hadn’t shown up, I might not be here right now,” he said. “I probably would have stayed in the hedge fund world. I’d probably be rich, but I probably would have been miserable. It sounds cliché, but money doesn’t buy happiness. I love every day now.”

Top photo: ASU women's volleyball first-year coach JJ Van Niel. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

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