DiG Interview with…
Following a successful pro beach playing career, the California native is building a collegiate powerhouse as head coach of Florida State
Interview by Tom Feuer
The “best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men …” So wrote Robert Burns, an 18th-century Scottish poet. It could aptly describe the scuttled plans of sportsmen and women all over the world whose lives were dramatically affected by the coronavirus. The list includes Brooke Niles, whose Florida State beach team was primed to become the first non-California school ever to win an AVCA or NCAA national beach title. But there’s more. The coronavirus and its aftermath affected Brooke even closer to home. Her husband, Nick Lucena, was in the thick of qualifying for his second Olympics before the whole process cratered in a matter of weeks.
If you think Niles is feeling sorry for herself, perish the thought. She has the proper perspective to weather the storm, which comes from both her upbringing and the support system she has in place in Tallahassee. Niles, 39, was born into an athletic family in Southern California. Her late father, Randy, was an standout athlete, spending time in the Angels organization and having beach bona fides himself. He played on the old Parks and Recreation tour, which was the AVP of its era. In 1974, he took fourths at Marine Street and Laguna Beach with Mike Normand and Jon Lee respectively.
“He and I played together on numerous occasions,” beach legend and broadcaster Chris Marlowe said. “And while we never won a tournament, he was always great at digging the hard hit. He wasn’t a Nick Lucena kind of chaser. In those days, you needed to be a digger because the ball was set on top of the net.”
Raised in Woodland Hills, California, Brooke attended Calabasas High School in the western part of the San Fernando Valley. She was heavily recruited to play indoor and ended up at UC Santa Barbara, where she was a four-year letter winner and a third team All-American her senior year in 2002. She played every position but middle blocker, then got her first taste of coaching as a Gaucho assistant to Kathy Gregory.
Niles’ first “real” season on the AVP Tour was 2004. Just three years later, she positioned herself among the elite by taking a second in Chicago with Angie Akers. Her greatest successes came later, playing with Lisa Rutledge and Lauren Fendrick, who she teamed with for her biggest domestic win – a title in 2011 in Miami Beach. They finished ahead of, among others, Jen Kessy and April Ross, who only a few months later would be Olympic silver medalists. Niles was the AVP’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
Niles also had a nice series of international finishes, including a fifth at the World Championships in 2011, when she and Fendrick pushed the eventual gold medalists, Brazil’s Juliana and Larissa, to the limit before losing in three sets.
“The thing I saw in both Brooke and in Randy was the determination, the doggedness,” Marlowe said. “They both were highly skilled and fundamental players.”
Once her playing career ended, Brooke jumped back into coaching and was involved with several FIVB teams. She also founded the Beach Team Club in Hermosa Beach, California, where she was the director and head coach.
Niles was hired by Florida State in 2015 and hit the ground running. Her first Seminoles team went 32-3 and was the NCAA runner-up to USC, and she was named the AVCA’s National Coach of the Year. Two years later, she got the ’Noles back in the title match, where they were defeated by UCLA. Before this season was halted by the Coronavirus pandemic, FSU was 12-1 and had the highest winning percentage in the country. Her career record as a Seminoles coach is a sparkling 135-27.
DiG interviewed Niles from her Tallahassee home and office on two separate occasions, once before play was suspended and again afterwards.
DiG: What did you tell your team when the season was preempted by the Coronavirus?
BN: It’s tough for the kids, who were really disappointed. Obviously, there are bigger things in life than beach volleyball. I told my team that if this is the worst thing that was to ever happen to you, then it’s a pretty good life that you’re living. So, let’s try to look at the positives of this situation and realize that it’s bigger than what we are going through in Tallahassee right now.
There’s talk of an NCAA eligibility expansion for the spring semester sports programs. What are your thoughts?
BN: I think it helps because for your college career to end like that is the hardest thing for a lot of these kids. The thing I love most about going through a year, whether we go to Gulf Shores (to play in the NCAA Tournament) or anything post season, is just the experience that it gives these athletes and knowing that it helps them for their future careers and their life.
The difficult part is that the NCAA has yet to give us guidance, and it will take a few weeks before they figure it out. (For instance) how will this affect calendars and scholarships, and who is going to pay for what? I don’t know how they are going to deal with it. We had an athlete who was still technically on an indoor scholarship because the fall was her last year of indoor eligibility. She was getting a full ride because of indoor, so how is it going to affect her, and who is going to pay for that? (For beach), everybody is on partial because we have six scholarships that we split among 14 people. That’s a pretty complicated issue. But I think the NCAA initially saying that all the spring sports will have another year of eligibility is a step in the right direction and they are trying to do the right thing for everybody.
The coronavirus is a unique bit of a double whammy for you because it affects your husband Nick Lucena’s chance to participate in the Olympics.
BN: My husband and I are in a good place in terms of the Olympics, in terms of the value we put on it. I think we both learned a tough lesson during the (2012) London Olympic qualification process because our whole careers up to that point had been built on qualifying for the Olympics, and that was the biggest thing for both of us. And both of us didn’t qualify. We looked at it like we just put so much weight into the Olympics, and obviously it is an amazing event. To call yourself an Olympian is just a huge thing, and everybody looks forward to the Olympics. But I think right now we have come to terms with what that means to us as a family.
Nick was a Rio (Olympian in 2016). He didn’t medal, so now you could always be searching for more, if you look for that kind of thing. The (FIVB) tournament in Australia (Coolangatta in March) where he was there and got sent home (due to the coronavirus) would have been his 12th tournament in the Olympic qualification process with Phil (Dalhausser). Most of the athletes were there and ready to compete, but they cancelled it.
They (Lucena and Dalhausser) have 11 events, even though the qualification process requires 12 with your partner. Obviously, (the IOC/FIVB) said things are going to change, and they are looking at that process as well. We are in a wait-and-see mode. I guess the only thing we can do is come back home, keep training and work hard and prepare for whatever decisions are to be made.
How are the two of you spending this “down” time?
BN: We’re lucky in that we have a gym at home. Because of Nick’s international travel (to Australia and Doha, Qatar), he is not allowed on the campus at Florida State where he has done most of his weight training. We don’t know what he is going to do as far as a court right now, but (fortunately) there are courts around town. So far none of that has been shut down – just the ones on campus he is not able to use. He doesn’t really know anything other than to get back to work and stay healthy. We are spending a lot of time with our boys (Gunnar 7, Cole 3), which is fun and challenging. We’re getting back to what matters in our life.
How did a born and bred Southern Californian find her way to Tallahassee?
BN: I didn’t really know exactly what I was walking into. Being from California, you can kind of feel like California is the only place for beach volleyball. So, when I went to Florida State and interviewed, the reason I took the job really was everyone I met treated beach volleyball like any other sport. Obviously, we are not a money-making sport, but the funding we got, and our operational budget, and all that stuff just made me feel excited about being here.
I hadn’t seen any of the players play or anything like that. Once I got the job, I spoke to them on the phone and just tried to share my vision for the program. I was just really pleasantly surprised by all of their attitudes, about wanting to work hard, train and get better. They were really open to listening to me and all the different things I was trying to do.
Tell us about the sequence of events that got you hired?
BN: I had been interested in getting into college coaching. I just had our first child, was playing a little bit, but more coaching club and stuff like that. And then I actually emailed Florida State’s head indoor coach Chris Poole because Nick loves Florida State. Nick had brought me back to Tallahassee for some football games and things like that. I emailed (Poole), and he told me that he actually was looking me up because somebody had suggested me for the job. He was googling me and then my email popped up. He emailed me back right away.
We got on a phone conversation, and I was in my car and it was like an hour and a half and that was our first conversation. He was the one who really spearheaded starting beach volleyball and building this program and separating it from indoor right away. He got me excited about the position and what we could do with the team. Florida State had done an amazing job building the program before I got here, and it all worked out.
What would best describe your coaching philosophy?
BN: I grew up around volleyball. My dad (Randy Niles) played volleyball professionally, which was the (Parks and Recreation) Opens at the time. My mom (Tria Harris) grew up in Pacific Palisades. My dad grew up in Venice. We were at the beach all the time, always playing sports. My dad and mom wanted us to be the hardest workers and the best teammates and never complain. We were always competing against each other in everything as a family.
I remember my dad organizing runs around the block, and we would all race. It didn’t matter that I have an older brother, an older sister, then me, and a younger brother. It didn’t matter what age. We were always racing. They never thought that just because I was eight years younger than my brother that I could not beat him. So, it was a very competitive environment, but also my dad playing a high level of sports understood that nothing was given to you and that you had to work hard and earn it and go for it. So, we were just in that environment all the time.
(At Florida State), we want to be the hardest working team there is. There are a lot of variables in our sport: the wind, the rain, everything can change depending on your location. But the effort you make on the plays, in watching video, working hard off the court, on the court, it can all help you be a better volleyball player. Those are the things we can control, and so we try to be the hardest working team out there and play as a team. That is one of the big things we have been able to do in my tenure here; everyone knows it is a team sport. It’s not won by one individual person or one individual team.
Did any of your past coaches and/or beach partners play a role in developing your coaching philosophy?
BN: I would say all of them but in different ways. I played for Kathy Gregory at UCSB, and she taught me how to be a competitor and work very hard. I think I went there because it was an extension of my parents and what we grew up with. I worked with (former pro) Angela Rock (an assistant for UCSB’s indoor team), who taught me a lot about being more of a student of the game and learning patterns.
Scott Davenport was a huge influence. Before I started working with him, I never got higher than a ninth. Once I worked with him, I learned more about technique. I had been a natural player, and I did not really think about how I played. He kind of broke down my skill set, and then I was getting in finals and semifinals on a consistent basis.
My first (beach) partner was a college teammate, and we were kind of having fun. I think we packed more outfits for the parties than actual playing (gear). Once I got a little taste of success, I knew I wanted more. I played with Sarah Straton, who was an Olympian for Australia, and she was also a mom at the time. She was just there to get her work done and be good as a team and finish well and then go home to her family. I learned how that was, taking it a little more seriously, and realizing that this could be a career for me.
And then Lauren Fendrick was one of my favorite partners of all time because we kind of made that transition from playing AVP to FIVB. While we were playing FIVB, we were thinking that maybe we could qualify for the Olympics, which was totally not something I thought of when I first started playing beach volleyball. I just thought about playing AVP.
And obviously playing with Kerri (Walsh Jennings) was a huge opportunity for me. I was so nervous and scared that whole tournament, and I remember it was only eight teams in Cincinnati (in 2010). I think we lost both of our games. Playing with somebody who has had her success, all of these nervous feelings came out that I had not had for a while. That was a really good learning tool for me. We did not play together again, but I said I would never play that scared again. I felt that helped me get better.
And what about this guy Nick Lucena? Did he contribute at all?
BN: Yes! I think we are just constantly bouncing things off each other. He plays at a high level and trains at a very high level, and he is so smart about the game. He has taken the complete opposite approach (to me). I grew up around the sport being pretty technical. It’s been a natural thing for me, whereas he has been an athlete and then when he was a little bit older, he got the technical piece.
But throughout the whole thing, he has been able to win. He is just a winner. I like to pick his brain on certain things, especially on the technical side. Sometimes he watches our team (in tournaments), and of course we go home and talk about it. He is always pushing to make me better and challenge my teams. I feel like it rubs off on me as a coach. He is so smart and has worked so hard to get where he is. He trains in Tallahassee. A lot of (my) players will go out when they are not in class and watch his training and see the time he puts into it, and how he is still working on skill stuff and his process as a player. I think it is really good for all of us to be around.
Any regrets about your playing career? For all intents and purposes, you stopped playing in 2015 when you were only 34?
BN: I don’t have any regrets on my (beach) career. My regrets come from playing indoors and having some injuries. I stopped (playing beach) because I had my son (Gunnar), and I really wanted to be a mom with him, and my husband travels as well. Family is really important to me, and I didn’t want both of his parents being gone. And we could not have afforded to travel and bring him and someone else to help. I know a lot of people can do it, but we felt like we couldn’t do it with the sleep on the road and being able to rest when you can and prepare for teams. We knew what it would take, and I was not willing to sacrifice time with him.
Also, during Olympic qualifying (in 2012) I had a bad knee injury and didn’t get surgery and got cortisone shots to get through the qualification. My knee is really bad. I think if I played a match right now, I would not be able to walk for three days. I have really bad arthritis, bone spurs, bone on bone.
I have coached ever since I was in college. I enjoyed the coaching piece. I enjoyed being with my son, and I was really happy with my playing career. If you asked me when I started –(before) college coaching (was an option), I would say I was going to play in the AVP until I was 80 years old. I love volleyball, and I wish I could still compete and not have my knee be the way it is. But it is what it is, and now I’m able to coach college, which is my second love.
Brooke Niles: Seminole Beach Bash (Photo: Techandphoto Images)
How difficult is it to recruit against the Southern California schools? And how do you get California kids to come to Florida State?
BN: The only part that is difficult (is getting them to come out and visit). Once we can get athletes on our campus, see our team, meet our coaches, then it’s not that difficult for them to like Florida State. Everyone is different. I remember I wanted to go very far from home (when first looking for a college), and then I took visits to places far away from home and went, “Oh my God. This is too far away.”
But some people really want to go far away and experience something different. I think the way our college is set up, with two semesters, there are little pockets where they can go home. You end in May at Gulf Shores, and then I don’t see the kids (again) until the end of August. Then there is a five- to six-week break in December.
Here, they can experience a different culture. The people in Tallahassee, the whole university, feels like a big family, and we do a lot of things together as a team and also as an athletics program.
I was in the bubble of California, and I didn’t want to leave. And I didn’t leave until I began to travel internationally, and then I realized there’s a whole different world out there.
What do you tell graduating players who want to play pro?
BN: There are actually former Florida State players who are currently playing (professionally). All of them have extra side jobs or real jobs, then play volleyball on the side. That’s really hard when you’re competing against (players) like my husband. That’s all he does, and he is funded by USA Volleyball (supplemented by prize money), and we are so thankful for that. He had to work really hard to get to that point.
When you’re just starting out, it seems like it’s impossible. When I first started playing, I worked, but we had 20 AVP tournaments a summer, and all of them had pretty good prize money. There were more opportunities to make money. Then I remember I wanted to play internationally, and I was not one of the funded athletes, so (my thought process was), “I’m going to play this year and save up as much money as I can and then pay for my own travel to play on the FIVB.” I was able to save an extra $10,000. So, I (decided) I would play international until the $10,000 ran out, then figure something out.
Because there aren’t as many domestic events (now), I don’t know how players can do that and afford to pay for food and expenses in California unless they have outside jobs or (family support). I do think the AVP is trending in the right direction with Amazon Prime and more and more prize money per event. Hopefully, especially with college beach volleyball a major sport now on ESPN, it will all come together and form an amazing tour with a lot of tournaments and prize money. It’s such a fun sport to watch, and the athletes are so unbelievable. As a fan, you can sit three feet away from your favorite player and watch how dynamic they are and fast and how they celebrate. I just think it’s a really great sport to watch.