This isn’t the story of a man who was handed a job. This isn’t about a quick splash into the world of Division I men’s volleyball. This is a story that begins at a community college in El Cajon, California, in a gym where John Hawks spent countless hours practicing, playing and, ultimately, coaching.
A Southern California tour and a stop in the Midwest would play major roles in guiding him to where he is today – to a reunion with old friends at UCLA.
Hawks started his collegiate coaching career at Grossmont College, spending three seasons there. All the while, he continued to coach high school and club ball. After 1997, he would focus on his club and high schools teams solely. But by 2003 he would take a step up, getting a call to coach at UC Irvine from a now-familiar coach.
“I first officially met Hawks in my office at UC Irvine,” said John Speraw, the former Irvine coach and the current coach at UCLA. “I knew who he was. He came highly recommended and I was looking for an assistant coach who would basically work for no money.”
Hawks did not waffle.
“I told him ‘let me think about it,’” Hawks said. “I thought about it for, really, 30 seconds and said ‘Yeah, sure, let’s do it.’”
However, balancing a busy schedule and working for essentially no money would prove to be a challenge.
Hawks had coached for almost 15 years prior to getting the call from Irvine. And most recently, when he wasn’t coaching, he worked in the medical equipment industry as an engineer.
But in 2006 he chose to give his love of coaching precedence.
“I had – at the time – quit my full-time job in the medical field,” Hawks said. “I just really wanted to coach.”
In order to make that happen financially, Hawks took a second job with the women’s team.
Hawks was at that job for about two months when the head coach of USC men’s volleyball, Bill Ferguson, called to offer him an assistant position.
Hawks talked to Speraw about it and, even though Speraw wanted to hold onto his reliable assistant coach, he knew that it was in Hawks’ best interest to go.
The move would do more than just open doors for him in the future. While a Trojan, he would meet another young coach, Brad Keller, who would eventually become a colleague at UCLA and a close friend along the way.
Hawks’ first recruited class as a Division I coach would eventually win a championship at UC Irvine as seniors. He would quickly become one of the top recruiters in Southern California and across the country.
During 2007 and 2008, Hawks recruited some of the top volleyball classes in the nation and helped the Trojans to two consecutive playoff appearances. Those two classes would go on to play in two semifinal appearances during their collegiate careers.
Finally, during his time at yet another Southern California powerhouse, Long Beach State, Hawks coached three highly-touted squads. All in all, there were 10 All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation selections and four American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American picks.
At this chapter in Hawks’ story, the plot took a twist – a new job in a city across the country.
What came out of the change was the SPIRE Institute in Cleveland. A bit like the soccer academies of Brazil, SPIRE was geared toward volleyball.
“It’s a volleyball academy,” Hawks said. “A boarding school where kids would come from all over the world, train full time, but they had to follow a curriculum because they were all high school aged.”
Hawks met the founder of SPIRE while coaching the junior national team for USA Volleyball. SPIRE had just been founded and they offered to host a training program that summer for the junior national team.
Hawks and his team went to Cleveland to train and he was given a job offer on that very trip.
That’s when he knew the time for change had come.
“I wanted to try something new,” Hawks said. “I figured, I’m young enough to go explore something in the Midwest, live in the snow and try to start a volleyball institute, which hadn’t been done before. That challenge appealed to me.”
During his time at SPIRE, Hawks handled everything related to volleyball.
The student-athletes would have classes from 7 a.m. to noon every morning before transitioning to volleyball.
Hawks would work with the students on many different aspects of the game. He didn’t just touch on technical skills; instead, he would train them in mental toughness, nutrition, weight training and sports psychology – to name a few.
The goal was to prepare these kids from a relatively young age for college athletics, he said.
But after spending four years as the director of volleyball, Hawks said he felt a little lost and the institute did not have a clear direction. He was ready to come home.
“We’d often talked about working together again at some point,” Speraw said. “The timing worked out, with (former assistant coach Andrea) Becker moving back to academia and (Hawks) looking to move on from where he was at. So a job was waiting at UCLA.”
Speraw was now the head coach at UCLA and Keller, the young coach from USC, was an assistant. The only piece missing was Hawks.
“John and I were at Irvine and playing here at UCLA and he says, ‘Man, if we were here we’d be killing it.’” Hawks said. “I never forgot that quote. It’s funny, when he called me up in March of last year (for the job offer) he said, ‘Hey what do you think?’ and I responded ‘We could kill it here’.”
Hawks, Keller and Speraw had stayed close throughout the years, even being in each other’s weddings.
“Getting us all together has been a dream come true,” Hawks said. “I come to work and it’s not a job. It’s truly fun every single day.”
That coaching dynamic has spread its influence to the players.
“I go into the office and they’re always messing with each other,” said senior middle blocker John Zappia, who played with one of Hawks’ club teams. “But the thing I like about this program is having that foundation at the coaching level where they’re friends outside of the workplace.”
Dozens of years, coaches, players and jobs later, John Hawks has done it all.
But now, with Speraw and Keller at his side, he is finally working with two close friends who have brought him to where he is now – his dream job.