The nature of athletics often defines its participants by winning and losing, but there is much more to the distinction of "winner" than a cursory summation of the scoreboard.

The funny thing about most winners, though, is that they win.

John Speraw learned how to be a winner long before he enrolled at UCLA, merely sitting at his family dinner table in Arcadia, observing siblings and parents who could teach everyone a thing or two about the tools for success.

"I've got a mom who is off-the-chart smart," Speraw said. "Ph.D., the whole deal. And I've got a sister who is an absolute rock star, who is smarter and more of an overachiever than anyone else in the family. I said in an interview years ago that I sincerely believe I am the underachiever of the family."

But Speraw achieved plenty as a middle blocker at UCLA, where he played on two men's volleyball national championship squads while obtaining his bachelor of science degree in microbiology and molecular genetics.

After serving as an assistant at UCLA under legendary coach Al Scates (he added two more NCAA titles in that role), Speraw brought his boundless curiosity, enthusiasm, a lab-coat mentality and cryogenic cool to UC Irvine, where he took over what most considered a mediocre program before the 2003 season. He also brought his soon-to-be-famous five-year plan that outlined how he could lead the Anteaters to an NCAA crown in half a decade.

The first of three UCI national titles arrived right on schedule, in 2007, and the others followed in 2009 and 2012. Along the way, Speraw, who helped the U.S. men's national team win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as an assistant, impressed all who crossed his path.

His singular ability to break down the elements of building a team, dissect and uncover new strategies with which to both nullify and dominate opponents, and relate to people with a rare blend of grace and inspiration, elevated him to the top of coaches I've ever observed in my 40 years in and around athletics.

He isn't a winner because he wins, but rather he wins because he is a winner.

He solidified this belief when I spoke to him hours after his hiring at UCLA was announced on Tuesday.

After answering all my questions about the decision, he addressed an inquiry about how high the bar would be in Westwood, where Scates won 19 NCAA titles, but only one (2006) since 2000.

"What I've learned through my first 10 years is that you can win a lot more when you stop talking about winning and start talking about how you are going to do it," Speraw said. "People at UCLA are so used to winning at all levels and they spend a lot of time thinking about winning and that's great. I'm here to win, no doubt about it. But I think John Wooden and his values were incredibly prescient about the process of getting better and how great improvement is made. I want to get in the gym and learn about they [Bruins players] and go to work."


Work has begun at UCI on the task of hiring a coach to try to and sustain the excellence that Speraw and his assistants, most notably David Kniffin and Mark Presho, created.

Kniffin, a favorite of UCI players who is credited with fostering much of the family atmosphere that permeated the program under Speraw, has applied for the job. He left the program after the 2011 season to become a women's assistant at Illinois, which reached the NCAA title match last fall.

Presho, a part-time coach who has a successful business career, is not believed to be interested in the head-coaching position, though he would presumably stay on as an assistant, under Kniffin or another compatible successor who would have him.

The regard with which Kniffin and Presho are held among former and current UCI players can not be overstated. Any involvement of either as the program moves forward would figure to at least ease the transition, if not parlay future success.

Kniffin, who played at UCI, is well-suited to accept and deal with the myriad financial challenges that helped make Speraw's decision to leave that much easier.

Karch Kiraly, a mythical figure in the sport after a transcendent career both indoors and on the beach, has been mentioned, though his involvement as an assistant with the U.S. women's team heading to London for the 2012 Olympics may preclude his immediate pursuit of the job.

Former UCLA star and assistant Jeff Nygaard, who has worked the last two seasons on the USC staff, is another high-profile name that has garnered speculation in the myopic volleyball community.