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SANDCAST: Mike Dodd, And Finding the Soul of Beach Volleyball

Mike Dodd apologized.

He’d been getting all wound up, or as wound up as the man, labeled by anyone you ask as one of the nicest guys in the world, can get. He even dropped the f word not once, but twice.

“Sorry about that,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I think I said the f word.”

You can forgive the man for being impassioned. He’s seen beach volleyball in its every iteration, in every stage of its growth, from infantile to colossus to broken, and broken again, to slightly built up once more. He competed when there was hardly any money in it at all, in the early 1980s, when he was fresh out of college and finished with a brief – very brief – stint in the NBA with the San Diego Clippers. He’d boycotted the 1984 World Championships, not only witnessing the formation of the AVP – then only a players’ union, not a tour – but playing an integral part of it. He’d won five consecutive Manhattan Beach Opens with Tim Hovland. He’d talked smack, and still occasionally does, to Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos. He’d played in and won the only Olympic qualifier to date, securing a spot in the 1996 Atlanta Games with Mike Whitmarsh, where they’d win silver in one of the greatest shows of dominance the United States has had on the men’s side of the beach. 

And he’s since commentated (in 2000 and 2004) and coached (in 2008 and 2012) in Olympics and you won’t ever find the man too far off the beach. He’s not one to preach about the old-school days, as some, mostly the older generation of fans, are wont to do. But he does look at the current landscape of the game in the United States and wonder if there isn’t a simpler solution to the sometimes-complicated hierarchy of things. 

“If I were the czar of USA Volleyball, I would mandate that my eight best guys would just go down. Just go down for five hours in the afternoon, when it’s windy and [crappy] and it’s not little morning 9 a.m. perfect, no wind, no nothing,” he said. “Draw your lines, switch partners, and see who’s the fu***** best. See who’s the fu***** best. Keep score. Keep track. It’s an easy pick.”

It was less about the money than it was about who won, who had bragging rights in an era of bombastic bragging and smack talk, and few won more than Dodd. Few, lest the tour returns to its halcyon days of 20-30 tournaments a year, ever will. Seventy-two times Dodd finished atop the podium in the United States, 73 if you include winning that Olympic qualifier in Baltimore in 1996, which Dodd does.

“If you don’t think an Olympic trial prepares you for the Olympics,” he said, “you’re outta your mind.”

Yet it hasn’t been done since. The FIVB has become the road through which U.S. teams must qualify for the Games. For now, at least. There are other countries who operate differently. Dodd has seen it himself.

Prior to the 2012 Games, he was hired by the Italian federation as the beach program’s head coach. They rented a house in Southern California for the eight potential candidates, and what did Dodd do but bring them out to the beach, draw up some lines, and have them play. They’d mix partners, play in the wind, in the most imperfect conditions. And he’d see who wanted it most, who could just find a way to win, just as he used to do during those endless days when he was a 20-something kid out of San Diego State.

He and Hovland and Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith would practice for four hours with the United States indoor national team, put in another hour of jump-training, then find the closest liquor store, pick up a couple of Mickey’s big mouth beers, and play beach until the sun went down. And they’d learn how to win.

It is hardly a matter of coincidence that those four are now all in the Hall of Fame, four of the winningest players in history, four individuals where only a single name will suffice – Hov, Dodd, Sinjin, Karch. 

“It was just the jungle,” he said. “It was natural selection. Smith and Stokie, they’re winning, they’re great. Dodd and Hovland. Dodd and Whitmarsh. This team and that team. You migrated to each other and you did it by survival because you had the best chance of winning. There was money and this but everybody just wanted to win. At the end of the day, it’s how many opens did you win.”

And then, coaching those eight Italian players a little less than a decade ago, he saw those very same traits emerge again. A cocky, swaggering young player named Daniele Lupo was rooming with Paolo Nicolai, a 6-foot-8 blocker who had won consecutive youth world tour events in 2007 and 2008. When Dodd swung by the house, as he occasionally did, he saw them, after hours on the beach, dinking a ball back and forth in their room, competing still.

“I had the analytics that said they were probably the best team,” Dodd said. “But that’s what told me they would be the best. They just had the love for the game.”

Sure enough, in 2012, Lupo and Nicolai would qualify for the London Games, stunning Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers in the first round. Then they’d claim silver in Rio in 2016.

It’s that love of the game that Dodd wants to see.

Who wants it more?

Who wants to be king of the jungle, where you just draw up the lines, put the ball down, and play? 

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