Q&A with Larry Bock, Volleyball Coach
By Gary Lambrecht
When Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk hired Larry Bock in 2011, the numbers say he brought the best volleyball coach on board. Bock arrived at Navy with an overall record of 1,352-283-4 over 40 seasons as a head coach at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA. That incredible run included a handful of solid years as men’s volleyball coach. But Bock, who has won more matches than any volleyball coach in NCAA history, made his indelible mark over 34 seasons by guiding the Juniata women’s team to 30 NCAA Division III tournaments, topped by national titles in 2004 and 2006 and appearances in eight national championship matches. Along the way, Bock also served as the school’s financial aid director and athletic director. At Navy, the 66-year-old Bock has the Midshipmen making strides toward their first NCAA Tournament. Following a couple of tough, rebuilding years in 2011 and 2012, the Mids narrowly missed the Patriot League tournament in 2013, then put together a 14-12 season last year, which included an 11-5 mark against league competition and a loss in the conference tournament semifinals. Navy finished with a winning record and made the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2007, while winning both matches against Army for the first time since 2005. As he prepared for his fifth season in Annapolis, Bock sat down with writer Gary Lambrecht for a chat.
Q: When you came to Navy, you walked away from a Division III powerhouse to take over a Division I program in need of a culture change. How do you affect that sort of change?
A: Winning solves a whole lot of problems. What’s the motivation for people to invest a lot of their valuable time in an enterprise? It’s nice to have fun, but if the fun doesn’t produce success, that dog won’t hunt for very long. The effort has to pay off on the scoreboard. At Navy, that means we have to get to the Patriot League playoffs and beat Army. No Navy team has ever gone to the NCAA Tournament. Let’s experience that, and the culture will be standing on its head.
Q: By finishing 14-12 and reaching the Patriot League Tournament semifinals last year, the Mids definitely turned some heads. Is there a snapshot from the 2014 season that is burned into your memory?
A: It was the night when we knew we were going to the playoffs. We beat Colgate, I think. I saw our captain, Alex Cassel [who graduated in May] just beaming on the court. She had been through some pretty tough years, but that night she was just a happy kid truly enjoying an accomplishment. To see a team get rewarded for a lot of hard work, that’s what coaches live for.
Q: Assuming that Katie Sylakowski ’16, is definitely not coming back, are the expectations still high for 2015?
A: We’re fully expecting the upward trajectory to continue, but we’re not dumb. We’re losing a core of good middle hitters. That is not an easy obstacle to overcome. All of those kills will not be easy to make up for.
Q: What kind of volleyball player were you?
A: Very average player, and not a good athlete. I was Joe Bag of Doughnuts. I played freshman baseball at Penn State and got cut as a sophomore. I just wound up wandering into volleyball because of my roommate. I was around some club players when the men’s program was incubating in the late 60s. It was enough to get me interested in volleyball.
Q: How did you end up getting the job at Juniata?
A: When Juniata started women’s volleyball following Title IX, I was a banker. I was also the only one in the town of Huntingdon who knew anything about the game. While I was working as a loan officer, I coached at Juniata as a community service instead of joining the Rotary Club or the Jaycees. My salary at the college was $400, and I split that with my assistant. I was a promising banker. I fully expected to do that for the rest of my life, until I got around higher education at Juniata, which is a stellar, under-the-radar institution.
Q: Can you quantify what the sport of volleyball came to mean during that incredible run?
A: Volleyball is a major sport at Juniata. The stands were packed on many nights. We out-drew everybody [at the school]. It was rewarding the way the town and the college community embraced the sport that way.
Q: Once you started to sustain huge levels of success, did high expectations wear on you?
A: It’s a different kind of pressure. It got to a place where there was a shoulder shrug if we won or played for a national championship and it was a big disappointment if we didn’t win one. That kind of success breeds that attitude at any institution. It goes with the territory. But getting there is the best part, and that’s where we are at Navy. We’re in the “getting there” phase.
Q: Do you treasure being known as the most successful volleyball coach in NCAA history, or do you ignore that?
A: I really don’t pay attention to it. I’m not a counter, not even close. Right now, I’m only really thinking about St. John’s [2015 season opener]. I think about certain championship teams or some of the kids on my past teams–but not the numbers [of victories]. Somebody told me way back that I had two records. I had won more NCAA Tournament games than any other volleyball coach, and I had lost more tournament games than any other coach.
Q: Well, that speaks to some real longevity. How much longer do you plan to coach?
A: I don’t have a [retirement] date in mind (Note: Bock signed a new contract during the summer of 2015). I’m relatively fit and I have a great staff that is brutally tough. We don’t slip or slide around here. I’m really enjoying the whole experience. At Juniata, I always had another job to do besides coaching. This is the first time I’ve ever just coached one team. I’m at this great school with young people who make me feel like our nation is in very good hands down the road. As long as my health and my family and Chet are supportive, I’m in a good place, literally and figuratively. It’s like dying and going to heaven.