Nov. 18, 2015
Editor Note:This story first appeared in the September 5 Notre Dame – Texas football game day program. It’s being published on UND.com in honor of McLaughlin’s birthday November 18.
By Pete LaFleur
First-year University of Notre Dame volleyball head coach Jim McLaughlin never has shied away from change, when supported by sound reasoning and data. It’s a philosophy born out of his avid quest for learning and tireless preparation, mixed with an unflinching expectation for daily improvement.
The only volleyball coach ever to direct both men’s (USC, 1989-90) and women’s (Washington, 2005) teams to NCAA titles, McLaughlin has come home … in a roundabout sort of way. The devout Catholic briefly was part of the Notre Dame family as a 1996 assistant volleyball coach. Shortly thereafter – at the most sacred campus location, the Grotto – he proposed to Notre Dame soccer alum/assistant coach Margaret Jarc, whom he had met at USC.
Nearly 20 years later, the former national coach of the year is embarking on a new challenge beneath the Golden Dome. In 25 seasons as a head coach – at USC (7), Kansas State (4) and Washington (14) – McLaughlin‘s teams have compiled nearly three times as many victories (579) as defeats (208).
His first seven months on the job at Notre Dame were spent apart from Margaret and their three daughters, who remained in Seattle to finish school and summer soccer.
Retired BYU legend Carl McGown has dubbed McLaughlin the game’s “best teacher in the world. He conveys what he’s thinking so that his team excels. Notre Dame is going to get a whole lot better, real fast.”
Adds longtime Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy: “Jim was born to coach our sport and has a fabulous working relationship with young people. More so than anything, he ‘gets it.’ Not all coaches do.”
McLaughlin has come a long way, literally and figuratively, from his childhood surfing days in Malibu. As a quarterback at Santa Monica High School, he dreamt of playing in the NFL. After a knee injury shelved those aspirations, he tried volleyball to build lower-body strength.
The NFL’s loss was volleyball’s gain.
McLaughlin became an elite setter at UC Santa Barbara, while pondering a career in the film industry. Fate again intervened, when Dunphy hired him as an assistant at Pepperdine. The former NFL and Hollywood wanna-be soon was “hooked” on volleyball for good.
At USC, McLaughlin became the second rookie coach ever to direct his team to the NCAA men’s volleyball title. Two thousand miles away, Jarc was in the midst of her college career before accepting a coaching position with USC’s first-year soccer program.
Jarc returned as an assistant during Notre Dame’s historic 1995 and ‘96 soccer seasons that ended in NCAA title games (one a victory; one a loss). McLaughlin ultimately followed her to South Bend.
The rest, as they say, is history.
That December, five months before his wedding, McLaughlin faced a crossroads: return to the men’s game, or continue coaching women’s teams (which he did, at Kansas State).
“Volleyball is the most interactive sport and takes a whole team,” he says. “I always felt women could play fast, like men. The timing, eye work and movements are the same.”
Kansas State reached the NCAAs in all four of McLaughlin’s seasons, including its first appearance in the round-of-16. That 2000 team finished a program-best second in the Big 12.
Those Kansas State years were a watershed time for McLaughlin, who implemented a swing blocking system and debuted his now legendary white board “information center.”
Swing blocking’s dynamic, deceptive approach previously had been seen exclusively in the men’s game. Today, many top women’s programs utilize the technique, and McLaughlin regularly lecture on swing blocking at coaching conventions.
He first learned the white-board concept from McGown. The retired BYU coach/human-performance professor is one of Gold Medal Squared‘s four founding members, as is McLaughlin. This quantitative analysis of volleyball combines kinetics, organizational behavior, statistics, psychology and biomechanics.
McGown, in a 2010 interview, noted: “Most coaches say, ‘How does this apply to volleyball?’ They don’t see it. Jim sees everything and is immensely interested in change. He just wants to learn.”
One McLaughlin mantra states: “You hear, you forget. You see, you remember. You do it, you understand.” In turn, the white boards – located in the office, locker room and practice gym – “allow you to see things, and mindfulness allows change.”
There is a color-coded method to the white board madness, corresponding to: inspirational quotes; critical thinking; practice timetable and statistics. The board doubles as a projection screen, quickly displaying pertinent video.
Notre Dame players navigated the white-board learning curve during spring practice. As the proverbial light bulbs clicked on, something that initially appeared to clutter the message ultimately crystalized it.
McLaughlin preaches that winning cannot be controlled, but preparation can. Former Washington setter Courtney Thompson remembers the great “feeling after practicing hard all week and realizing you’re prepared for every situation. And it’s pretty amazing when you learn these lessons apply to every aspect of your life.”
This core approach includes evidence-supporting techniques: the essence of why. “There were reasons behind everything we did, which is incredibly motivating,” adds Thompson. “You learn what you need to do to be successful, but also why you need to do it.”
McLaughlin inherited a Washington program that had finished last in the Pacific-10 Conference. Five years later, he had molded the Huskies into NCAA champions. His teams finished first or second in the Pac-10/Pac-12 eight times from 2004-14.
Three of those Washington teams reached No. 1 in the rankings; four others climbed to No. 2. He coached three national players of the year and 17 All-Americans with the Huskies, while Thompson and Tamari Miyashiro became members of the 2012 Olympic silver-medal team.
He professes that the 32-1 championship team in 2005 was not his most talented: “It’s more important to be as good as you can. They made each other better, committed themselves in every way and made good life choices. With unselfishness and chemistry, things go to another level. It creates a powerful vibe.”
McLaughlin made a profound tactical change in 2011, a midseason course correction with the Huskies already 15-1. Statistical analysis revealed substandard results for certain rotations. The response? The veteran coach stunned his team by switching to a 6-2 system, which rotates two setters to maintain three hitters across the front. As with swing blocking, the 6-2 previously had been utilized primarily by men’s teams.
Proclaiming that he was “not afraid to change,” McLaughlin saw his midseason epiphany pay big dividends. The Huskies used the 6-2 over the next three seasons, while being ranked No. 1 or 2 each year.
Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Johnson – a 2003 UW graduate – grew up in volleyball-crazed Hawaii. Yet, in his early years at Washington, there was no buzz for Huskies volleyball.
That quickly changed.
“Now there’s a packed arena and great talent coming out of the state,” says Johnson. “Little girls came to UW games and were inspired to become great players. Jim greatly influenced the tremendous growth in that volleyball community.”
McLaughlin played a role in Seattle’s KeyArena selling out for the 2013 NCAA Championship, while Washington’s 2014 home match versus Stanford drew nearly 9,000 fans – a Pac-12 record. Weeks later, an NCAA round-of-16 match (Nebraska at Washington) was broadcast nationally for the first time.
And then there were the Jim McLaughlin Volleyball Camps. From humble beginnings, they exploded in popularity: 1,200-plus campers, and 200 more on the waiting list. A separate coaching clinic annually attracted nearly 200 paid attendees.
But, ultimately, the opportunity at Notre Dame was a no-brainer.
“With a major decision, you get connected with your heart and your mind,” says McLaughlin. “My heart was pulling me here, and my mind soon followed.”
The former Margaret Jarc has remained active in soccer. This summer, she coached Crossfire Select – featuring daughters Megan (17) and Molly (15) – to second place at the USYS Presidents Cup national tournament.
A day later, the four M’s – Margaret, Megan, Molly and nine-year-old Marit – finally were in South Bend for good.
McLaughlin’s respect for Notre Dame is readily apparent: “I love the values, spirit, tradition, campus and enthusiasm of everyone at this great university.
“Notre Dame offers a powerful combination. If we do it right, it’s not just a four-year package, it’s a 50-year package. With core values in place and a steadily improving commitment level, there‘s no reason we can‘t be one of the nation’s top programs.“
The five-time conference coach of the year notes that “core in Greek means heart. “You have to live it in your heart: how we handle daily situations and how we treat others, while ever mindful of the process. As John Wooden said: Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”
McLaughlin’s strong Catholic faith helps him “feel connected, by seeing things and listening better. Coaching is service. It‘s paying attention to your players and knowing how to help.”
He actively recruits players with strong personal character and those “who will compete like crazy to be great, even though there’s inherent discomfort in becoming the best.” His recent players tell similar recruiting tales: most coaches heaped flattering praise, but their future Washington coach wouldn’t “even tell you that you’ll be a starter,” Thompson says.
“Jim does something even better: giving you every tool needed to earn it all yourself. He always acts with the player’s best interest in mind.”
Former Washington player Lauren Barfield once described McLaughlin as “the good angel on your shoulder, telling you the right thing to do,” while Johnson references the John Wooden maxim that coaching is the ability to cause correction without causing resentment: “Jim creates a culture where our kids want to be there. People tend to be really good at what they really want to do.”
Notre Dame’s full-time assistants were running their own programs a year ago. After fifth seasons at Xavier, Johnson jumped at the chance to reunite with McLaughlin, while Katie Wilson posted several impressive seasons as a high school coach in Seattle.
McLaughlin’s coaching tree includes 11 former assistants/players who have become collegiate head coaches. Five of his former players are Division I assistants.
A sports junkie “trying to figure out the best way to teach,” McLaughlin has been invited to observe the coaching operations of NFL teams and regularly shares insights with Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, whose daughter Maddie is a sophomore and Notre Dame’s current setter.
This coach who advocates continual improvement once heard the greatest champion in team sports, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, echo similar thoughts.
Asked why he won 11 NBA titles, Russell replied simply: “I learned how to change.”