From left, USAV Board of Directors Chair Cecile Reynaud, John Kessel and former USAV CEO Doug Beal
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Aug. 18, 2020) – Tell someone within the sport of volleyball that you work for USA Volleyball and many times they will ask, “Do you know John Kessel?”
Such has been Kessel’s impact on the world of volleyball both before, during and probably after his 35 years with USAV.
The man who literally wrote USA Volleyball’s book for how to train volleyball coaches has retired this year. Most recently, he served as the director of sport development and strove to increase the sport’s accessibility to people across the country.
“I don’t have any regrets; none at all actually,” Kessel said after looking back over his career. “When you get little kids to love volleyball, it’s so cool because they keep playing. They not only keep playing, they give back to the sport by coaching.”
Kessel’s blog series for coaches on the USA Volleyball web site includes titles like:
“Volleyball Should Be a Game Before It Becomes a Sport”
“You Are Not the Parent”
“Suffering from the Illusion of Knowledge”
“Never be a Child’s Last Coach”
Kessel was just a kid himself when he would tag along with his father who played beach volleyball in Emerald Bay, Calif. He moved on to Colorado College in Colorado Springs where he and friend Mark Eastman would play doubles volleyball on the lawn outside the dorms.
“We used to say the loser has to buy the winner an entire chocolate cream pie on Sunday night,” Kessel said. “That escalated into other Southern Californians saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a volleyball dude.’”
Kessel founded and coached club volleyball teams at both Colorado College and the University of Colorado. He also went on to become club sports director at CU for two years.
He made a run at playing on the Men’s National Team, then played professionally.
He got back to coaching in the mid-1980s with then wife Laurel Brassey, a two-time Olympic volleyball setter, helping her coach at the University of New Mexico.
Kessel officially joined USA Volleyball in 1985 after working with several of the regions that make up the organization. One of his first accomplishments was writing the Impact Manual that is still used in USAV’s coaching education program.
“I asked (Pepperdine Coach) Marv Dunphy, ‘In 25 words or less, what would you want to see a brand-new coach for USA Volleyball have in this Impact Manual?’” Kessel asked Dunphy, whose advice was, “Be consistent.”
“I still use it in my clinics, because it’s true,” Kessel said.
Kessel lives by the Chinese proverb: “Winning and losing are temporary, friendships last forever.” The sentiment runs through his interactions in the volleyball community. Kessel has had an impact, and been impacted by, many other top volleyball coaches.
During an FIVB clinic Christchurch, New Zealand, Kessel met a tall young man who asked about playing college volleyball in the United States.
“He was like a tree,” Kessel said. “I gave him a pair of my USA socks. I said, if you were my son, I would either play for Marv Dunphy at Pepperdine – a great coach and a great school. Or if you want to play for Marv’s mentor, and you don’t mind being landlocked, then you go to BYU.”
The young man, Hugh McCutcheon, played for legendary coach Carl McGown at BYU and went on to become a coach himself, leading the U.S. Men’s National Team to an Olympic gold medal and the U.S. Women’s Team to an Olympic silver. McCutcheon now coaches at the University of Minnesota.
Kessel was also instrumental in bringing China’s “Jenny” Lang Ping to the United States, shortly after she had led her country as a player to the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games. Kessel was still coaching at New Mexico at the time.
“Four months after she kicked our butt in LA, she lands in Albuquerque to learn English and the American way,” Kessel said. “When somebody kicks your butt, you should go to them and say, “We love volleyball, it seems like you do too. Want to have lunch?”
Lang Ping would go on to coach the U.S. Women to the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games and now coaches China’s women’s national team.
Kessel remains on the World ParaVolley Board of Directors as the director of development.
His interest in Paralympic volleyball began with his friendship with Mike Hulett, whom he had played against.
Hulett lost his arms and legs due to gangrene from type I diabetes.
“Mike was pretty morose,” Kessel said. “I said, ‘Mike, you still have a volleyball brain. Why not coach? There is a program called sitting volleyball. We need a coach.’”
Hulett went on to coach the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team at the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Games. He helped establish the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team in 2003 and coached it to the at the 2004 Paralympics and the silver in 2008.
Sitting volleyball will keep Kessel involved in the sport as he remains on the Board of Directors for World ParaVolley. He will also continue to write his blog for USAV.
He continues to give coaching clinics, although more virtual now than in the past. Pre-pandemic, Kessel had traveled to 64 nations in person (most more than once) and all 50 states more than once for clinics.
“I look forward to doing them in person again,” Kessel said. “I would also love to host clinics at our family legacy project the Bison Peak Lodge.”
When asked why he never wanted to be a college volleyball head coach, Kessel said, “I knew if I can make a coach be better, then every kid after that gets a little bit better. That means I am impacting a lot of people and not just a college team.”