Beth Launiere is back inside this old gym where she meticulously constructed her program over the course of three decades. All around the gym hang old banners, vibrant-red signs of the successes from those previous years, signifying the foundation Launiere was dead-set on building the day she was hired 27 years ago.
The banners smattered around Crimson Court, the quaint one-time home court of Utah volleyball, provide the sort of appropriate nostalgia for a team that will compete in Utah’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008. A team that has a shot at history, at going further than any Utah volleyball team ever has in the NCAA Tournament.
As the Utes go through their last practice in the HPER east building on campus, Launiere paces around her group, switching the orange whistle from one hand to the other.
She stands on the periphery just beyond the back line, hunched over, both hands on her knees, like the middle-blocker she once was, waiting to study the serve. It’s been nearly 10 years since Launiere’s Utes were this far in the NCAA Tournament. This is the third regional semifinal appearance in her 28th season leading Utah.
And the road to this point isn’t lost on her. Not a bit.
After practice ends, she points to the far end of Crimson Court, reminiscing how there were about 10 rows of wooden bleachers for the sporadic fans to sit on when the gym became Utah’s home in 1994.
“That was it,” she said.
Twenty-three years ago, Launiere explained, a women’s volleyball program having its own court was “big-time — we were stoked.”
The old stomping grounds were the appropriate send-off for the No. 11-seeded Utes, who face powerhouse and No. 6 seed Texas in the semifinals Friday at Maple Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif. Utah athletic director Chris Hill hired Launiere in 1990 with the assistance of former associate athletic director Fern Gardner. It was one the first key hires for Hill, who is celebrating his 30th year as AD.
Utah was 1-29 in 1989, the year before Launiere was hired. Hill still remembers the record.
So when Hill bumped into Launiere after the Utes advanced to the Sweet 16, he projected the Pac-12 Conference having at least one Final Four member in it. Launiere responded quickly, “Why not us?”
“In other words, she’s not counting on dropping out,” Hill said, “and that’s what you need.”
It took Utah eight years before making its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Launiere in 1998. The Utes have been in 13 more since then. Utah won three Mountain West Conference titles and three tournament championships. Launiere won three Mountain West Coach of the Year honors.
This year’s 24-9 team is Utah’s 17th 20-win team during the Launiere era. She has 545 career wins and 345 losses at Utah. That’s an average of nearly 20 wins per season.
How is her motor still running? What’s a testament to her longevity?
“She knows what she’s doing, and she’s got so much experience under her belt,” Utah junior middle blocker Berkeley Oblad said. “She knows what she’s talking about. She’s someone that you can look up to, ask questions and learn a lot from.”
Launiere said it’s the freshness of college athletics, of how new goals arise every calendar year with new student-athletes arriving on campus. She’s had opportunities elsewhere, she said. Hill confirmed that, too. But she didn’t build this to walk away. Not a decade ago, and not now.
“When you can’t find anything better,” Launiere said, “don’t think the grass is greener, because it’s not always. I’ve been very happy to stay here.”
When Utah accepted its invitation to join the Pac-12 Conference, Hill vividly recalls his first conversation with Launiere.
“I said, ‘Oh, Beth, your [transition] is going to be as hard as it gets,’” Hill said.
Launiere knew it, too.
Storied volleyball programs reside on the West Coast. Going back to 2000, seven Pac-12 teams have won the NCAA National Championship. It was, Launiere explained, a brand new job without having to move. Every aspect of the program changed, and it was by design. Utah volleyball added staffers. The recruiting footprint expanded. Launiere reached out to her coaching peers in the Big Ten and Pac-12 for advice.
“We had to figure out how to be,” Launiere said with a lengthy pause, “a big-time program and what that meant. I think we were [before], but it’s just different. Nobody can understand it until you’re in it.”
Utah’s MWC dominance was suddenly a thing of the past. The banners on the walls inside Crimson Court recount tales of triumphs in a different era. While competing with the nation’s best teams such as Stanford, USC and UCLA, the Pac-12 move allowed Utah to move into the Huntsman Center full-time. The comparisons between the early years in Crimson Court and the first couple years of the Pac-12 were stunningly similar, according to Launiere.
“We had to get people to believe in us,” she said. “We had to PR our a way a little bit early on and convince recruits and convince the community and convince people that we were going to do this.”
In Year 1, Utah finished ninth in the Pac-12.
Then seventh, then fifth, then fourth.
Big wins over big opponents were noticed by recruits. Facilities improved by the move to the Huntsman.
“Through the years, you understand that the building part was hard, the maintaining and sustaining part is not easy,” Launiere said, “but every year you’re trying to build that team that can go just a little bit further, and that’s what this year is about.”
As Launiere asked her AD last week, why not Utah?
It’ll take a stellar performance to top a Texas team that has lost just twice all season. But Launiere’s typical stamp on this team shines through when her players discuss the program’s return to the Sweet 16.
“I feel like people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s just Utah,’” senior Tawnee Luafalemana said, “but we’re excited, and we’re prepared.”
Position • Utah’s volleyball coach
Experience • In her 28th season as Utes coach
Overall record • 545-345
A legendary career on the court • Utah has made the NCAA Tournament 14 times during her 28 years as coach. ... The Utes have 17 20-win seasons under Launiere. ... This is Utah’s third Sweet 16 appearance in the Launiere era. ... Launiere is a three-time Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year and led Utah to three MWC conference and tournament titles before transitioning to the Pac-12.
NCAA VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT
Sweet 16 matchup
No. 13 Utah vs. No. 2 Texas
Where • Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, Calif.
First serve • 7 p.m. MST Friday
TV • WatchESPN
Records • No. 11 seed Utah 24-9; No. 6 seed Texas 26-2
Series history • Texas leads, 2-0 (Wins in 1979 and 2008)
About the Longhorns • Texas has won 20 straight matches entering Friday’s regional semifinal. ... The Longhorns haven’t lost since falling to No. 1 Minnesota on Sept. 8. ... Texas went 16-0 in Big 12 Conference play in 2017. ... Texas’ Chiaka Ogbogu, Ebony Nwanebu, Micaya White and Lexi Sun were all-Big-12 first-teamers.
About the Utes • This is Utah’s third-ever Sweet 16 appearance and first since 2008. ... The Utes are 14-13 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. ... All-American outside-hitter Adora Anae broke a NCAA school record with 27 kills in last week’s tournament win over Purdue. ... Anae has tallied 89 kills and 53 digs in her NCAA Tournament career.