Coach Jeff Mozzochi is a disciplined man. But one nice guy.
I sat down with the coach this week to get to know him and to talk about the volleyball team’s shaky start. What I got was a pleasant and informing conversation with a very relaxed, yet frighteningly focused, coach; a coach that knows what he wants and how to win.
Mozzochi started his volleyball career off at UC – Santa Barbara, but hadn’t played much before. Growing up in San Diego he played baseball, basketball and football from age 8, but didn’t pick up volleyball until late in high school.
He started getting tired of playing the same sports, and between his junior and senior year of high school started playing volleyball.
“I had a pretty good opinion of myself, I was a good athlete,” Mozzochi said, “and the first couple times I tried to play this game I was so bad that I just thought ‘there’s no way I can be this bad at this. I’ve gotta’ figure this game out.'”
From there he got more excited about volleyball and pursued it in college over the sports he had played for so long. And he had company. His best friend and eventual roommate, a track athlete and cross-country runner, found volleyball at the same time and together they went to UCSB to play volleyball.
Mozzochi spent three years at UCSB, but finished his playing years at UC – Berkeley, and also started coaching there. An opportunity to coach was partly responsible for his decision to transfer, though he never intended to become a professional college coach.
So much for intentions.
He ended up being a 21-year-old assistant at a D – 1 program, a very good place to start, and at 23 was an assistant coach in the US Olympic Committee’s National Sports Festival.
“That really got me intrigued with coaching,” he said, “having that kind of positive feedback from athletes and other coaches that were telling me ‘Yeah, you’re doing a good job, doing the right things.'”
After a stint as the assistant head coach at Berkeley, the head coach Mozzochi had been working with resigned. Marlene Piper of Portland State and Mozzochi were the finalists for the job. The school selected Piper, and Mozzochi planned to stay and assist her and did so for a month.
There go those intentions again.
The pair found they had similar styles of organization and discipline, and according to Mozzochi, Piper was concerned about the future of the program she left at Portland State, which led her to encourage Mozzochi to pursue the PSU job.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mozzochi was a southern-California kid who originally intended to go into sports medicine and exercise science to do research. He ended up becoming the best volleyball coach in Portland State history.
Mozzochi took the helm of the Portland State Volleyball program at a very good time. The team had finished 2nd in the nation the year before with Piper, and in 1984 the Mozzochi era began with a national championship.
The Viks repeated the following year and earned a third national championship three years later in ’88. The last of the four national titles claimed during Mozzochi’s first term as coach came in his last year at PSU, 1992. And none of his teams ever finished below regional finalists.
Mozzochi left PSU to explore the Pac-10 as Oregon State’s head coach for six years. He ended up being the most successful coach in Beavers history, but ended his tenure in 1998 and took some time away from college coaching to coach in the US national training program.
In 2001 he returned to the school where he won four national championships and has said he’s extremely happy to be back at PSU and very excited to rebuild the program.
And he’ll rebuild the program using his coaching philosophy centered on
responsibility and accountability.
“Those are two terms we use a lot a round here,” Mozzochi said. “I like to
surround myself with players and coaches that have those characteristics; that
are responsible and feel responsible for their own success whether in the
classroom or on the court. That don’t mind being held accountable to the
standards that are going to get them to that level.”
Mozzochi says his system revolves around goal-setting, and that’s where the coach comes in: to provide the opportunity to reach the goals and to hold the players accountable for the things they need to be doing to achieve those goals.
He likes proactive and self disciplined coaches and athletes that don’t wait to hear what they have to do. He expects them to know.
“They need to have that burning desire and passion for the game,” he said, “and that’s what I ultimately want to surround myself with. And we’re getting there.”
Mozzochi saw there wasn’t a lot of direction for what the program wanted to accomplish when he returned.
“The athletes were putting in the work, and the coaches were coaching,” he said, “but with no end in sight.”
He’s confident that has changed.
And there’s plenty of proof to back him up. Mozzochi’s return to PSU extinguished a very long losing streak, and the program has improved significantly each year.
The most current example of this is that the Viks are on track to completely shatter their 2002 service ace count of 110. At the midpoint of the season in terms of complete number of competitions, they’re already at 90.
“But on the flipside,” the coach said, “we had 158 service errors all last season, but we’re already at 138 this year. So the errors are hurting us.”
This is to be expected. The team is in a rebuilding phase and playing a lot of new players, sometimes three or four freshman at a time. “It’s not an excuse, Mozzochi said, “just the process of rebuilding.”
Aside from the youth of the team, Mozzochi says team chemistry has been elusive. As he explained it, when a team gets on a roll and is playing well together the errors get spread out. If a team is struggling to find its identity, much like PSU, there are multiple errors. That’s what the Viks are trying to get out of.
“It’s a process,” he said, “but we need more consistency from the younger players and for their ‘volleyball IQ’ to keep growing. Our returning players need to play much more solidly, because they are our leaders and they need to lead on a consistent basis. And we’re doing all this in bits in pieces. We’ll play well one game, and then fail to sustain it through the match.
“There’s no easy night in this conference, and our players are beginning to understand that they have to be able to focus for longer periods of time … and we go over it in practice, so I think we’re getting there.”
And in this conference, it’s all about who is going to bring intensity to the game. Mozzochi sees the conference as pretty level in terms of physical prowess. So the point he’s stressing to the team is the mental prowess that it will take to win in the Big Sky.
“It’s an exciting time for this program, the alumni are coming back and getting interested, and hopefully students will get interested and come out,” Mozzochi said. “Physically, this is the best we’ve been and when the team gets rolling, they’re fun to watch. But the real key to us right now is the team concept and ball handling.
“This is not a team built around the leadership of one or two players. The team coming in on Friday, Sac State, is a balanced team, but what makes them go is their setter, Lisa Beauchene (.366 hitting percentage, 10.75 assists per game and 2.98 digs) and I would be stunned if she’s not player of the year.”
But Mozzochi thinks that what the Vikings have is the best way to play volleyball – a team where everybody has to contribute to do well.
“It’s just the nature of the game,” he said.