When WVU began looking for a replacement for the departed Jill Kramer, the athletic department went through the usual process of identifying candidates. Usually, many recommendations and options become apparent through other coaches in the sport, but in Sunahara's case, it came from outside the land of sets and kills."The big person that got this going was Bob Huggins," Sunahara told BlueGoldNews.com in an exclusive interview. "He's been a good friend of mine for a long time. He told me about the job, and then told West Virginia that I was available, and that they should talk to me."
The tie between the two was forged at the University of Cincinnati, where Huggins was the basketball coach while Sunahara helmed the volleyball team. The two, pushed together by facility sharing, athletic department events and a similar outlook on the game, quickly found common ground.
"We shared the same arena and did a lot of functions together, and one thing just led to another," Sunahara related. "We started hanging out and we enjoyed each other's company. I know I did, for sure. It is different, but it's athletics and you network with people and try to not burn any bridges."
Although Huggins' advocacy certainly helped, Sunahara's impressive resume made him an outstanding candidate on his own. At Cincinnati, he guided the team to at least 20 wins in each of his 11 years, and advanced to the NCAA tournament eight times. He then moved on to an assistant coaching position with the U.S. National Team, where he spent a year before moving back to the collegiate ranks at Buffalo, where he was 17-15 in his only season.
Strangely enough, his journey from Cincinnati to West Virginia also mirrored that of Huggins, who had a one-year stopover at Kansas State before answering the call of his alma mater. At the time, Huggins was clear in saying that he would not have left Kansas State for any school other than WVU and that he didn't want to be viewed as a coach that just moved from job to job. Monday night, Sunahara echoed those comments, demonstrating yet another similarity between the two coaches.
"It's always tough to leave. I am a loyal guy, and I want to be able to build a program," he explained. "Look at the good coaches in any sport. Those guys have been there for a long time. They build tradition."
In trying to achieve that at West Virginia, Sunahara will face many of the same challenges that Huggins faces. There might be one Big 12-level player in the state every five years or so, but for the most part Sunahara will have to recruit nationally. Given his background with the national team, not to mention a personal history that includes three NCAA championships and two All-America selections while at UCLA, Sunahara has the name recognition in the volleyball community that could help him get quality players to come to Morgantown.
"It would be nice if we had players in our back yard," he said with a laugh "There might be one every so often, and the ones that are there we can't miss. So we'll go everywhere to recruit. Volleyball is a big sport in this country, and we just have to find the kids that fit what we want to do."
Sunahara's decision was also influenced by the location of his three children, who are currently in school in Cleveland. He took the Buffalo job because it allowed him to be involved with them more (national team duties had him travelling and away almost constantly), and Morgantown's proximity to the city played a role in his choice to pull up stakes.
"It was kind of a mutual decision (to leave Cincinnati), and I had a chance to coach national team, which was great," he said of his moves. "But the distance from the kids was just so far. The Buffalo job opened up, and that was closer, so I took that, and then this one became available and it's nearby."Sunahara's progression as a coach might appear to have been preordained, but it actually was the furthest thing from his mind when he was racking up championships and honors as an All-American at UCLA. The high-leaping Hawaiian had designs on an Olympic appearance and an lengthy pro career, but a devastating motorcycle accident in 1984, just prior to his senior season for the Bruins, nearly cost him his leg. Five separate breaks and an infection kept him out the entire 1984-85 season, and although he battled back to return to the court for his senior season the next year, much of his leaping ability was gone. He played a year for a pro team in the Canary Islands, then turned to coaching.
Amazingly, Sunahara didn't let the loss of Olympic gold medals (the U.S. team won in both 1984 and 1988), or the chance to be a four-time NCAA champion or three time All American keep him down. After giving the pros a shot, he turned to coaching, and immediately met with the same success he had as a player.
"I don't know if I would have been a coach were it not for my injury," Sunahara said matter-of-factly. "My goal was to play in the Olympics and be a pro for a long time. That was what I was going toward. But the injury just made me realize there is more to it than that. I've had the chance to coach with Al Scates, the winningest coach in NCAA volleyball history. Then I had the chance to coach women, and the national team, which was completely different, but I learned a lot from that."
Now, Sunahara faces a new challenge at a school that rose from the depths of the volleyball world to be at least respectable over the past couple of seasons. Given what he has accomplished throughout his career, both as a player and as a coach, it would be difficult to bet that he won't be successful. Again, like Huggins, he values a team that practices hard and competes all out on the court. He demands "buy-in" from his team, and believes that is the foundation upon which he can build a winning program.
Up next: "More on the "buy-in",Sunahara's immediate plans for his new team, and his approach to the game, both on the court and in recruiting.