On Sunday, May 22nd, 2011, Joplin, Missouri was under a tornado warning, not an uncommon occurrence in the Midwest in the summer. Twenty minutes after the warning, at 5:34 p.m. Joplin was leveled. An EF5 level tornado, (described in the movie ‘Twister‘ as “the finger of God…”) dove into the city’s midsection a mile wide and devastated the earth for over 22 total miles taking property and lives at numbers the United States had never seen before. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and a Pepsi plant were demolished. The nine story St. John’s Medical Center was spun completely off of its foundation..
In the days that followed, the sheer ferocity of the tornado’s wrath became historic. One hundred and sixty two people lost their lives and 1,150 more were injured. Almost 7,000 homes were destroyed and countless other homes and businesses were in need of major and minor repairs. To this day, the path of the violence is landmarked with new buildings and bare cement foundations, new trees and “Spirit Trees.” The city of Joplin continues to rebuild.
Three miles north of downtown Joplin is the expanse that is Missouri Southern State University. On that day, just before the tornado touched down, the Joplin High School graduation finished up there. Had the graduation been at the high school, the body count most surely would have been higher.
The volleyball coach points out that the tornado was toward the campus of MSSU but for some inexplicable reason, veered sharply right into the aorta of Joplin. That coach is John Napier.
Napier is a name many of you in Arizona might know. He was at Northern Arizona University for many years as an assistant coach. He also coached club in Flagstaff and recruited for the school. He is a retired Air Force Major after 22+ years and brings that to a resume’ that also includes a stop in Akron early in his career and an assistant ‘s position at Boston College before he got the head coaching gig in Joplin, Mo.
Two and a half years after the tornado, Napier was hired. He listened to the stories, toured the site of the devastation and was touched by how many people he now worked with or coached that had lost someone, friends or family injured or had their homes damaged or destroyed. He admired their grit. Twenty two years in the military: Napier knows grit. And it’s what he is using to bring back his volleyball program: a rebuilding in the shadow of a city’s reclamation.
So many coaches love the idea of having their own college program but Napier is quick to point out that every program is beset with their own issues and idiosyncrasies that dictate how a coach goes forward. “When you are recruiting at Northern Arizona for example, it’s a beautiful campus and you can play some of that into the recruiting.” Napier says. “Here at MSSU, you are dealing with a lot of Division I schools within 30, 40, 50 miles and for some kids they only want to play Division I, Division II is not an option. My challenge here is to make Division II an option. We’re in a conference now that is maybe one of the toughest DII conferences in the country. I’ve coached Division I and the quality of players is definitely at the mid major level of Division I and that’s how I recruit these kids: it’s great competition and you’ll be playing against some of the better kids in the region.”
He’s had to reach out of the area to help his program get better faster. A recruit from Wisconsin is coming in this season and possible recruits from Colorado and Mississippi the year after. “These first couple of years I may have to reach out and bring some kids in from a greater distance and build a program that way but by 2017, I really want us to be an option for the kids in Missouri and all the surrounding states. For our school to be an option for those kids, it’s going to take years, 2017…2018 is what I’m thinking.” Napier predicts.
He’s helped his brand at MSSU by doing free clinics in the surrounding areas, talking to high school coaches and selling himself as well as his institution which has started putting more money into the athletic facilities. “We’re slowly branching out and getting to meet more potential athletes from the region.” John notes.
One of the things that separates Napier from his contemporaries is a military background. But it’s surprising how he uses this to help his teams get better. He explains:
“Twenty some years in the military and you think I’d have all sorts of rules but I’ve learned if you just let kids go, they’ll do amazing things. That’s kind of my mantra this past year: just let em’ go. We'll do what we need to do in practice but once the match comes around, I tell them I won’t even call a timeout in this match unless I see panic in their eyes. If not, go out there and learn this game, learn how to come back. They have to be free and independent thinkers and that was the main thing we did last year.”
Napier learned this lesson in officer basic training where he was in charge of training up to 30 cadets for two summers. “You have to do all that yelling and screaming but you realize that stuff doesn’t work. The first summer I was really interactive: yelling and screaming and really getting on them and I don’t think they performed well. I did the complete opposite the second one and just let the kids figure thngs out on their own; just let them go, stepped back and evaluated their potential.It was a much different and improved performance by those cadets. So I employed that approach this past season and whether or not it was the reason for the little successes we had, I’m not sure. Five conference victories was a big deal for us after two previous seasons with NO conference victories, we doubled our victories last year from the season before and we had the number one blocker in the nation. I doubt that’s all from the philosophy I was talking about but still, just let these kids go. Give them the information and let them figure things out, ask them guiding questions along the way and they’ll answer their own questions instead of me telling them. You know, ‘Why did this work’ or ‘Why didn’t that work’ and they have to think through it. That was my philosophy last year, it may change this year...who knows?”
When it came to on court things, Napier decided that simpler was better. “We looked at the numbers and started with the basics. Our service errors were pretty high. Our serving errors to aces ratio was not good so we worked on serving, one of the simplest things out there. Before I got here, the team had so many unforced errors but if you look at this past year, our ball handling errors went down, our blocking errors went down, our serving errors went down and our offense went up a little bit. We just reduced errors and I think that came from just simplifying the game and not overthinking it too much.”
Napier is patient and knows that he doesn’t have a Penn State or Nebraska under his guard, so he realizes things will be in small steps. “I don’t expect immediate huge improvement because I know it’s going to take time. This year our goal is to make the conference tournament which takes the top 8 teams out of 12. I want to be the 8th seed if I’m being realistic about what we’re doing. We need to defeat our rival too. We beat them twice last season which I found out was a huge deal. After we beat them the second time, I was just thinking ‘it’s just a volleyball match, come on guys.’ But being new, you don’t know the significance of it. I thought I was going to get a key to the city and be elected Mayor the next day in the office.”
Along the way, players that don’t buy into what a new coach is doing will likely not be there at the end. “I made some roster changes to kind of help us get to the culture we want.” Napier says somberly. “You’ve got to buy in academically and you have to buy in to what we’re doing athletically. If you aren’t on those pages, you’ll probably find yourself playing for another school or not playing."
Napier has spent his first season tackling recruiting, a team’s philosophy, selling himself and his program, figuring out opponents and creating a positive culture. He is on his way to that rebuilding but it is hard work, hours both thankless and countless: but it’s HIS program. He loves the challenge and employs the grit.
John was asked what advice he would give to those who were looking at their first college coaching job and again, his answer was surprising. “I would say diversify what you do. Do other things besides coaching, go do something else. I was fortunate to be in the military and I learned a ton about leadership and followship. I've blended what I've learned into what I do now.If you ever get a head coaching job, bring whatever you learned outside of coaching and bring it into your philsophy. I see coaches who have been coaching all of their lives and they do some negative things to people that you couldn't even get away with in the military. I consider myself to be a positive coach, I don’t yell and scream on the sidelines but I have seen the coaches that do and thjey have been in this profession their whole lives. You would think being in the military I would be a yeller and a screamer but I've learned that stuff doesn’t work. Maybe for three days or so but then they check out and it goes in one ear and out the other.” John smiles and says shaking his head, “Just do something else.”
On the wall of the MSSU Lion’s volleyball locker room is a poster of a lion that has seen obvious battle. On the poster, the quote says: “Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.” It is attributed to “Unknown.” In this locker room, in this gym and in this wonderful town of Joplin, they all know scars, they all know grit and they are all rebuilding: programs, houses, families and lives. It may seem crass to compare the rebuilding of a volleyball program to that of rebuilding a city scarred by Mother Nature, but one of the things that comes from all of this is the sense of community; people helping people. It’s what will help John Napier realize his goal of making MSSU a factor in collegiate volleyball in the Midwest. It’s what got so many through those days in May in 2011 and continues to help people get through the memories, the scars. They are all in this together.
“…you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”