Ron Larsen can still remember the conversation he had with Carl McGown during a volleyball road trip about 45 years ago.
At the time, Larsen was working on his Master’s degree at Brigham Young, and McGown, who would later be the head coach for the school’s men’s program, was Larsen’s advisor. McGown asked Larsen what his plans were after he finished his degree.
“I want to coach volleyball,” he told his mentor.
Larsen said McGown looked at his protégé, laughed and replied, ‘No, really, what do you want to do?”
As it turns out, Larsen was pretty good at coaching volleyball.
He has hundreds of wins to his credit as an assistant and head coach for men’s and women’s programs, plus twice coaching the U.S. men in the Olympics, helping them earn a gold medal in 2008.
He also guided both the men’s and women’s programs at Rutgers-Newark for seven years, was the EIVA Coach of the Year in 1998 and the EIVA Commissioner for six seasons.
For all of that work, success and dedication to the sport before, during and after his time on the east coast, Larsen is also honored with induction into the EIVA Hall of Fame. He is part of a three-man class for 2019, joining another standout from Rutgers-Newark, Douglas Emich (Profile story), and NJIT star Tarik Rodgers (Profile story). The trio will be honored at the EIVA Championship tournament, set for April 18-20 at the site of the No. 1 seed, which will be determined April 12 or 13.
McGown had laughed at Larsen’s answer because, in the mid-1970s, there weren’t a lot of ways to make a living in volleyball. As it turned out, it became a career for both men. They laughed about that fact years later, when McGown was coaching BYU and Larsen brought Rutgers-Newark out for a visit.
Larsen recalled McGown, who passed away in 2016, saying at the time, “Neither one of us would have ever believed that.”
Larsen is certainly glad he believed he could do it.
“It’s been great,” he said. “It’s wonderful coaching guys, it’s wonderful coaching women and girls, and it’s been a great experience. Along the way I got to do a lot of fun things.”
One of those fun things was leaving his comfort zone for a trip east. Nearly all of Larsen’s life has been spent in the western U.S., either at BYU or at various stops along the coast. He had been an assistant or guided men’s club programs, and taught at UC Berkley, but Rutgers-Newark was his first foray as a head coach. In this case, he took over the programs for both genders – succeeding current Sacred Heart men’s head coach Bob Bertucci. Bertucci had left a solid foundation, so the young Larsen was able to step in and be comfortable right away as he guided a Division III women’s team and Division I men’s program.
“I was always in season,” Larsen said. “It was just different. I didn’t think much about it. It was just what I have to do.”
Plus, just one year into the position, he became the conference’s commissioner, a position he held until he returned to the west coast in 1999. At the school he posted a 103-88 record with the men and 122-96 mark with the women.
He has since been a head coach at UC-Riverside and UC-San Diego, plus numerous assistant positions, most recently last year with UC-Irvine. For the last three years he has been a coach with the Prime Volleyball Club, based in Mission Viejo, Calif. He also is a resident coach with USA Volleyball, working with the men’s players when they are training at their southern California home base.
Twice, he also has been on the sideline at the Olympics, including the gold-medal-winning 2008 team in Beijing, where Larsen was thrust into the spotlight as the temporary head coach for Team USA’s first few matches. Head coach Hugh McCutcheon – now the head women’s coach at Minnesota – was the team’s leader, but just before the start of the Games, his father-in-law was murdered in Beijing. As the McCutcheons dealt with the tragedy, Larsen took the reins. He asked team members if they wanted to continue, and it was a unanimous yes, once everyone was assured they and their families would be safe. Once the team got past a tough five-set win against Venezuela in the opener, confidence built all the way through McCutcheon’s return and a spot at the top of the podium.
Surprisingly, the result wasn’t as satisfying as most might think.
“I remember when we got that gold medal, but it wasn’t like it stayed on forever,” Larsen said. “I remember closing my binder, putting it down, and my first thought was, What’s next? What are we doing next? I’ve always felt, ever since then, whatever match you’re in now is the most important match, the match that matters.”
Helping guide a team to a gold medal might seem like the culmination of all those years on the road, walking into gyms big and small around the world, but the time delivered learning experiences that are never found in any Master’s program.
“Winning a gold medal was awesome, I would never say it wasn’t, but more than anything else, what I’ll remember are the people,” he said, ticking off name after name of players and staff members. “The reality is, the relationships developed during that period of time are what I will always remember.”
Much to the surprise of both Larsen and his mentor, there indeed were ways to make a living in volleyball. Helping make that happen was an adventure into the EIVA.
“The EIVA, going out there, it was really a great experience for me,” he said. “I liked what the EIVA was trying to do. I liked that the EIVA at the time had Division III programs, and Division II and (Division) I all playing against each other – that was great.”