Utah women’s volleyball coach Beth Launiere stood on the sideline of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena, losing her voice as she strained to be heard amid a noisy crowd. She kept from overreacting in a match that appeared headed toward a sweep for the hometown Ducks.
“I knew we'd get it turned around,” she said the next day, “and sure enough ...”
The Utes ended losing to Oregon in five sets, though. So that snapshot is somewhat unfair as a summary of her career, among nearly 1,000 matches — especially when that remains No. 18 Utah’s only Pac-12 defeat this season.
Yet the team’s comeback on that afternoon in late September, staying steady through the tough times, illustrated what Launiere has achieved in 30 seasons on the job. She built a program that became a perennial NCAA Tournament contestant and then successfully regrouped in the school’s era of demanding competition in the Pac-12.
NO. 18 UTAH VS. UCLA
At the Huntsman Center
When • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Mountain.
Launiere, whose record is 575-364 (.612), will be honored Friday night. “Beth’s 30-year anniversary” is being promoted during a season that also includes “Mythical Creature Night” and “Frozen Adventure Night” at the Huntsman Center. She diverted some attention from herself by insisting that the weekend include former Ute star Kim Turner as a co-headliner, becoming Utah’s first volleyball player to have her jersey (No. 15) retired.
“It’s about them,” Launiere keeps saying of her players. That’s mostly true, during a tenure that has covered a mother (Mikki Kane-Barton) in the early 1990s and daughter (Dani Drews) from the current team as star athletes, with Turner’s career falling about in the middle.
Yet she’s the constant element of it all, having arrived as a 26-year-old coach and taking over a team that went 1-32 the previous season. The job was tougher than Launiere made it look, winning seven matches in her first season, then 15, 18 and 25 the next three years. After a leveling-off phase, she made the NCAA Tournament in her ninth season — and for the next eight years.
“I never had to do that; I never had to build anything,” said former Ute women’s basketball coach Elaine Elliott, a mentor to Launiere in those early years. “She’s a success story."
Coming from an assistant’s job in Illinois’ nationally prominent program, “I was very confident. … I thought I knew everything,” Launiere said.
That's not completely true. Elliott contends that Launiere's growth as a coach came from immersing herself in the volleyball world and seeking advice. And the Utes just kept getting better, continually raising expectations.
Launiere remembers earning her second victory, and being congratulated for doubling the previous year's win total. “People were pretty excited about that,” she said. “I'm like, 'we've got higher goals than that.' ”
Supported by former administrators Chris Hill and Fern Gardner, Launiere thrived. Once treated as a Tier III sport in Utah's athletic department, volleyball received more funding and developed into a Mountain West power. Turner's career (2000-03) came during that nine-year NCAA run and featured an upset of No. 1 Stanford and the first of Launiere's three Sweet 16 appearances.
Turner (who's now Kim Howard, raising a family in San Antonio) “elevated us,” Launiere said. “I didn't know she was going to be as good as she was; nobody knew that. But she was so willing to take responsibility for her talent level and this team. Just handled it with such grace, it was unbelievable.”
She credits Launiere for empowering her: “From the very beginning, she had a lot of faith in what I could do.”
As the Utes surged, Launiere turned down offers from Big Ten and Pac-10 schools. In a department-wide theme, she in essence got a new job when Utah joined the Pac-12, giving her "this great, new challenge without having to move,” she said. “I loved it and embraced it. [But] it was stressful …. I wasn’t used to taking ninth in a conference; that was really hard. We had to learn how to lose; to come out of that OK. It was not easy, but we had to keep learning from it.”
And they started winning again, returning to the NCAA Tournament — twice, with losing records in conference play, illustrating the Pac-12′s power. Volleyball is among Utah’s top-performing programs in the Pac-12 era. Launiere’s team (11-4, 3-1 Pac-12) is in a four-way tie for first place, going into Friday’s match vs UCLA, another co-leader.
She remains energized in her 30th season, while feeling a responsibility of her role in the profession as a former president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She'll speak about “What I've learned in 30 years” at the AVCA's next convention, and here's a preview: It really is about the players.
As her coaching and support staffs have grown, Launiere remembers the early days when there were fewer layers between the head coach and the players. She's conscious of focusing on relationships with the players, leaving administrative details to others.
That worked in Turner's era, when Launiere “took time to get to know every individual player, because we're all different,” she said.
Mikki Barton’s ties to the athletic program are mutildimensional. She played basketball and volleyball, her husband played baseball, two sons played football and now her daughter plays volleyball. That has created “relationships that have lasted two-plus decades and will last the rest of my life,” Barton said. “The second-generation Ute family is growing and Beth is right there in it with us.”
That’s just where Launiere has always wanted to be.