Brian Gimmillaro, Long Beach State’s legendary women’s volleyball coach, is having a difficult time dealing with his decision to leave a job he loved with an all-consuming passion.
“This time is really, really hard for me,” he told me in a phone call from Vienna, Austria, on his way to talk with a young woman from Slovakia whom he recruited for this year’s 49er team.
“I just want to assure her that everything is OK at the university and this team will be one of the best in years. I want to let her know that I didn’t desert her.”
That’s just like Gimmillaro. Always thinking of his players first, even if he has to go to Slovakia to meet one of them.
That’s one of his strongest attributes in achieving his staggering success as a coach. As Jim McCormack, the Press-Telegram’s former sports editor, said, “A strong case can be made that Brian is the greatest coach in Long Beach’s storied history.”
Consider Gimmillaro’s record. Since taking over the 49er women’s volleyball program in 1985, his teams won NCAA championships in 1989, 1993 and 1998. The 1998 championship team was the first in NCAA history to go undefeated. His teams made eight Final Four trips.
His win percentage at Long Beach State of .794 is 11th all-time in NCAA history. His win total of 835 is also 11th best in NCAA history.
His teams were among the first to feature African American players. He is credited with playing a major role in modernizing women’s volleyball. His intensity as a coach is unmatched by anyone.
He told me he never took a sick day in 41 years of coaching.
“One time I had a doctor do surgery on my knee at 7 a.m. so I could get to practice at 1 p.m.” he said. “Another time I had more serious shoulder surgery. I scheduled it on a Friday night so I could be at practice Monday.”
Gimmillaro said he fell in love with Long Beach and the university years ago, and the feeling, if anything, is stronger now than ever before.
“This university has a beauty to it, not only physically because of the location but the people who go there,” he said. One of his greatest honors, he said, was being selected for the Distinguished Alumni Award last year, the highest honor the school gives to an alum.
Then, the obvious question: why retire so abruptly?
“Some people think I’m dying,” he said with a laugh. “My health is fine. It’s just that, after 41 years coaching and hardly ever taking any time off, I want to see what else is out there. I want to see the leaves changing. We all are tying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up.”
He said he probably won’t get away from volleyball in some capacity, perhaps in broadcasting or some business venture.
Gimmillaro said he is leaving the 49ers in good shape.
“I think this year’s team will be our best in 15 years,” he said. “They could win it all next year. The cupboard is full.”
In fact, he feels a little guilty about leaving because this year’s team has such great potential.
“But it’s time to try something new. If the Cubs can win the World Series, I can do something else,” he said, laughing, knowing he was talking to a diehard Cubs fan.
Gimmillaro, the kid who grew up in Utica, N.Y., in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, and came to Long Beach on a bus when he was a teenager, said he hoped he left a legacy of community involvement and excellence.
“I hope I had an influence in some way on the university and the city,” he said. “I’ll always be a 49er.”
Rich Archbold is public editor of the Press-Telegram and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. firstname.lastname@example.org