DiG Article: Q&A
The Dain Blanton Era Begins at USC
Interview by Tom Feuer
Sometimes you can get a call that can change the direction of your life. Such was the case for Dain Blanton on a fateful day five years ago. USC Beach Volleyball Coach Anna Collier was on the other end of the line and wanted to gauge Dain’s interest in becoming an assistant coach for the Trojans.
Blanton’s pedigree certainly stood out to Collier. A winner from the womb. As a sophomore at Pepperdine in 1992, he was an integral part of the Waves’ NCAA champions indoors. But it was the beach where he really stood out. A 15-year professional career on the AVP and FIVB circuits featuring 11 victories, back before players could pad their statistics by winning smaller FIVB tournaments. His first title was a big one, in Hermosa Beach, in 1997, with Canyon Ceman. They beat Jose Loiola and Kent Steffes, who had won an Olympic gold medal the previous year in Atlanta.
In 1998, Dain changed partners and teamed up with Eric Fonoimoana. They decided to make an Olympic run of their own. Two years later they were on the periphery, needing a Hail Mary to make the USA team. They showed up at the last qualifying event, an FIVB tourney in Ostend, Belgium needing not only a high finish for themselves but a low finish for Karch Kiraly and Adam Johnson. Kiraly, the defending Olympic gold medalist, lived for just those moments. But it was not to be this time. An injury forced an early withdrawal from the tournament, an ignominious 33rd place and 14 points to Blanton and Fonoi’s 272 points for third place.
As unlikely as it seemed, Dain and Eric had booked passage to Sydney for the Games. They were expected to be non-factors, as evidenced by their ninth seed, but a funny thing happened in Bondi Beach. They won their first four matches and found themselves inexplicably in the gold medal match against third-seeded and heavily favored Ze Marco and Ricardo of Brazil. The latter duo had won five FIVB tournaments in 2000 in the leadup to Sydney and had finished second on three other occasions. Ricardo was the “Wall,” the most dominant blocker on the beach. Ze Marco was like a Swiss Army knife. He had all the precision shots and then some. The final was held September 26th in the heart of Sydney’s spring, and it was chilly, windy, and there were even some drops of rain. Blanton and Fonoi had videotaped Ze Marco and had a line on his tendencies. It proved to be a big difference-maker. In a match that lasted 1:41 during the end of the sideout era, the Americans came away with a stunning, 12-11 and 12-9 win. Let the celebration begin.
Dain wasn’t through with the Olympics. Four years later, he became the first USA player to make two Olympic beach volleyball teams. He partnered with Jeff Nygaard – in an ironic twist, Nygaard is currently the USC men’s indoor coach – but finished a disappointing 19th. Blanton played for four more years but, at the same time, started to branch out in his professional life. He was in demand as a public speaker and soon parlayed that into a flourishing broadcast career that not only included calling men’s and women’s beach and indoor but the Los Angeles Clippers for Fox.
Blanton is now head beach coach at USC following Collier’s retirement last June. The takeaway from interactions with him is how approachable, sincere and positive he is. He always has time for people and always projects that laid-back Southern California vibe.
When Blanton spoke to DiG, he was just coming back from an all-coaches meeting with new USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, then headed out to the sand for practice.
DiG: How did the USC job come to fruition?
DB: I was on the road doing some broadcasting up at Stanford, and I got a call from Anna Collier, who I had known since the mid-1990s. She said, “Would you be interested in volunteer assisting for the women’s beach volleyball team here at USC?” At the time, I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of what was really happening at the collegiate level for women, so I said, “Let me think about it, and let me come meet with the team to see if I wanted to dedicate my time to it.”
At the time, Misty May was in the position but was no longer going to continue because she was having a baby and had some other responsibilities. I came to a practice and the girls were really classy and respectful, dedicated, passionate and that’s when I first met Sara Hughes, Kelly Claes, Allie Wheeler, Nicolette Martin, and Sophie Bukovec, all the girls that were part of that squad.
I thought it was really cool, and I saw the courts for the first time over here on Figueroa Street (on USC’s campus) and then I said that I would do it. That was in 2015. We went on to win the AVCA National Championship in Gulf Shores (Alabama). It wasn’t yet an NCAA sport and then (we) came back (the next year) and it was extremely important for the team to win the first ever NCAA championship, and we ended up doing that. Basically, going back-to-back, and then in 2017 we ended up doing it again.
It was funny, you would think 2017 would be a walk in the park, but it was the most difficult one, the one we barely won. I continued to be the volunteer assistant in 2018, and after that season I decided four years was enough and I wanted to do more broadcasting. ESPN wanted me to do the national championships; they dedicate a lot of resources to that (event). I ended up in the 2019 season (working) for ESPN in Gulf Shores.
I remember landing in New York to broadcast an AVP event (for NBC), and I got a text: did you hear the news? That was when I found out Anna was retiring, and that was a little earlier than what she always told me, which was like 2021, 2022 – something like that.
When I heard that news, my whole timeline got accelerated and I had to make a decision. Do I want to go for the position of head coach, and is this something that is possible where I could get hired? If I had to pick any job, it would have been right here at USC, not only for proximity to where I live (in Santa Monica) but also the athletic department support and their reputation of excellence and putting a lot on academics as well as athletics. I didn’t want to go to a school where athletics were second rate.
What were the main aspects of coaching you learned from Anna?
Anna’s pretty blunt and pretty old school and straightforward. I could see what athletes responded to different situations. (There was) no BS with her. She is going to call it like it is, and sometimes that can be a little controversial and other times athletes respond really well to that. I saw her take a few different approaches, but probably the biggest thing was her competitive fire. She wants to win. She is very intense and that desire to win and to make things happen was one of the biggest aspects of what I saw from her.
What is the Dain Blanton coaching philosophy?
I want students to know that if they come here their game is going to improve tremendously. But not only will their game improve, I hope they improve as individuals and human beings. Our goal is not only to make you the best player you can be and prepare you for the next level if you desire, but also to get a great education and be a great representative of the university. At the end of the day, I want people to say that this program is a lot of fun, it’s very competitive, and it’s a no-nonsense thing where we are trying to create the best individuals on the court and off.
We’re trying to recruit players of high integrity and character that want to go to that next level, whether that’s professional or going after the Olympics. I like when they have more aspirations after school because they are going to be more effective at this level. Case in point — a Kelly Claes or a Sara Hughes, Nicolette Martin, Allie Wheeler, Sophie Bukovec, Terese Cannon. They are all still playing, and I think that is crucial.
SYDNEY SUCCESS: Dain Blanton and partner Eric Fonoimoana had a golden ending to the 2000 Olympics. (Photo: Peter Brouillet)
You mentioned earlier that this was the job for you. Yet your alma mater is Pepperdine. What makes USC so special for you?
Proximity to where I live here in Santa Monica. I take the Expo line and get off right on campus. It may be a small thing, but I don’t have to tell you (how difficult it is to maneuver around Los Angeles). Literally, I don’t drive to work. I take the train.
I love the fact that we have courts on campus. That is something that Pepperdine does not have. They are still playing at Zuma Beach. I don’t know whether you have to have a football team to have a really successful athletic program or not, but I know it doesn’t hurt the funding or support you get. If the SEC was huge in beach volleyball, that would be something that you would look at as well. They take athletics very seriously.
(But) I just love the environment, like this morning, where you had the coaches meeting and you can tell that everyone has one goal: to make their athletes better and to win some championships.
What would you tell Claes and Hughes when you were coaching them up at USC?
The number one thing is, “What is the culture going to be like?” I like to get players focusing on principles and adhering to those principles and not focusing as much on outcome and scores. I believe that if you stick to principles, the score will take care of itself.
We were always playing different games with (Hughes and Claes). Here you are playing to 21, but maybe their goal is to keep an opponent under 10. Or we would play mini games within a game. Can you get five points on this side on a seven-point switch? It wasn’t like we were playing for what everyone else was looking for from the scoreboard.
Who were your major volleyball influencers?
I always look at everybody (because) everyone has something positive to offer, but of course there have been stronger influences over time. From a coaching standpoint, a huge influence is Marv Dunphy (former Pepperdine men’s indoor coach, USA men’s coach 1988 Olympics). By playing at Pepperdine and winning the national championship in 1992 and learning that mentality that you need to focus on principles and winning. I think that has helped me my entire career. I think people that go to the beach directly without any formal team training can sometimes lack that extra edge, and I think I was very fortunate to spend four years (at Pepperdine) – learning how to win, work with teammates and compete at that level.
From a player standpoint, the biggest influences were Sinjin (Smith), Randy (Stoklos) and Karch Kiraly. Karch ended up being an opponent. When you’re growing up, you never think you would actually play against him. And then all of a sudden in 2000 we are competing for an Olympic spot. I always loved playing Karch because I thought he brought out the best in me.
I always tell players that if you are the best player on your court, then you need to go find another court because you always want to be playing up and surrounding yourself with great people. I remember in the 1996 season, Canyon Ceman and I would play Karch and Kent once a week in the preseason and that made our game so much better. But then we ended up playing them in a final early in that season (Fort Myers, Florida, March 31st), in our first final, and almost beating them after being up 13-8 and ended up losing 16-14 (sideout scoring). After that we didn’t have those practice sessions anymore. They did not want to be competing during the week with a team that they might be playing in the final.
With Tina Graudina taking a redshirt season to prepare for the Olympics for Latvia, who will be the leaders on your team?
That’s an interesting one. Last year Abril Bustamante was that leader along with Terese Cannon. They were both seniors. Right now, we have only two seniors, Joy Dennis and Cammie Dorn. The captains will be Joy and Haley Hallgren. They’re natural leaders, and they have taken those reins. I let the team know real quick that it is their team. I will guide them, but they are driving the bus.
Beach volleyball it seems has evolved quite a bit with data analytics and video analysis. How much of this will be utilized by you at USC? And how has it changed since you were a player?
It’s huge. The only difference with video (from when I was a player) was we were cutting up VHS tape. Now, it’s all digital, so it saves you a tremendous amount of time.
If you do enough analysis, a lot of times you will know more about a player than the player knows about themselves. I was just at a tournament up at Zuma (Beach) and one court had six cameras (on it). This is the offseason!
So everybody is trying to get data and figure out one or two points because I honestly can say I won the gold medal by one or two points, a fingernail here or a lateral step there as a blocker. You just never know what that one tip is going to be that gets you over the top.
Between your broadcasting work for the AVP on NBC and Amazon Prime, as well as your analysis for the world feed on the Beach Majors and World Championships you have sat ringside at the biggest tournaments in the world in the last quadrennial. Who do you like for the gold medals in Tokyo?
With the men, anything can happen. You’ve got those Russians (Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy) that have won the World Championships. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Norwegians (Anders) Mol and (Christian) Sorum. (They are) so young, so polished already, but yet have a larger potential and upside than anyone I have seen out there. It is just the matter of them playing at the right time, at the right level, that is the hardest thing.
On the women’s side, a tough one, but let me go out on a limb and say that April (Ross) and Alix (Klineman) will be a tough out for the top spot. But I really like Canada with (Sarah) Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes.
I really like the way April has handled her career. I think it would be the perfect end to her story, and it might not be the end, but the perfect next chapter. But it’s going to be tough to get through Brazil, to get through Canada, and who knows where (German gold medalist) Laura Ludwig will be, and who she will be with, and whether she will be a factor. The women’s side is stacked, the men’s side is stacked, but I am going to go out on a limb and give you Norway and the United States.
With this new position at USC does it still allow for broadcasting and will you be in Tokyo at the Olympics for NBC?
I actually got the call to do the (Olympics) sideline reporting. They (NBC) were happy with what I have been doing with the AVP. USC was fine with it, with doing the AVP stuff and the Olympics, because it is the offseason in the summer.
What do you tell your players about professional post-graduate playing opportunities? How does it compare to the days when you were playing on the circuit?
It is such a different time. There was so much more money to be won (in the 1990s). Before Sara and Kelly went professional, we sat down with them and told them you are getting so many benefits at this level (collegiately at USC) that are going to disappear next year. From sports psychology, to conditioning, to athletic training, to coaching, and travel booked for you.
“I like to get players focusing on principles and adhering to those principles and not focusing as much on outcome and scores. I believe that if you stick to principles, the score will take care of itself. ”
The opportunities are there, but not as widespread for so many people to make it a career as maybe it was for men in the early to mid 90s where the AVP was really flourishing. But (at the same time), you did not have the FIVB as strong as it is now either. You have to be one of the top three (USA) teams playing, not only domestically but internationally, to make a living, and you have to be marketable as well.
One thing that is stronger (than in the past) is the platform of the AVP. It is back at that level. I would like to see them add a few more tournaments. Nowadays, with social media, and how an athlete can take control of their name and likeness and make a living off of it, the AVP is a great platform for individuals. The way each player uses it gets very interesting.
In a nutshell, what has this journey been like for you?
I feel really fortunate. No one expected us to win the Olympics. I think we kind of shocked the volleyball community. I think to this day arguably that win is the biggest upset in the history of the sport. People always say, “Did it change you?” I don’t think it changed me as much other than from a confidence standpoint.”
It changed the way people respond around you, and it also opens up a lot of opportunity because that gold medal is so coveted in every aspect of the world because everyone knows the universal symbol of what that gold medal is. I have been able to leverage that and get into doors that I could not have gotten into and speak to different groups and corporations and parlay that into speaking to a lot of students. I love to help out students.
I went back to the Olympics in 2004, which was a huge goal of mine – to be the first American male to compete in two Olympic (beach) Games. And (I have been) fortunate enough to be inducted into the CBVA Hall of Fame and then the AVP Wall of Champions. I thought that was really cool to get that honor.
I have tried to handle myself with class and character and surround myself with good people and try to go hard and adhere to certain principles. And I now am in a dream job for me. Every day I get the opportunity to help shape young people’s lives in that transition period to the real world. You hear it all the time, there is no better job than to be a coach and help others achieve their goals.