How BYU volleyball found its footing in a men’s volleyball desert
With no other NCAA Division I men’s programs inside a 450-mile radius of Provo, the Cougars established something solid and enduring in Provo.
The loud roars heard at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse in Provo during men’s volleyball season are an anomaly for a sport that has found most of its popularity in regions outside the Mountain West.
The school is the only university in Utah that fields an NCAA-sanctioned men’s volleyball team, with no other program in the country coming inside a 450-mile radius of Provo. Before fellow MPSF member Grand Canyon began playing men’s volleyball in the 2010 season, BYU was the only university in the Intermountain West with a men’s squad competing at the NCAA Division I level.
Despite playing in a region not often associated with volleyball, few fan bases rival the support the Cougars receive in Provo.
“BYU fans are some of the most dedicated fans of any college for any sport,” BYU sophomore middle blocker Gavin Julien said. “I think we get a lot of support just because of the ‘Y’ that we wear, and that people love to come support any team that’s BYU.”
The support of Cougars fans has turned the Smith Fieldhouse into one of the top venues in the sport.
“The Smith Fieldhouse, there’s literally no place like it,” Stanford transfer Kupono Browne said after seeing action in one of his home matches in a Cougars’ uniform earlier this season.
Support from BYU’s fans and administration has also bolstered the Cougars’ stature.
“The support that we get from our administration is amazing,” Julien said. “All of the administrators know our names. They come to our games. We get tons of great gear, tons of stuff. I think we’re really blessed to be on a team and part of an athletic department that actually really cares so much about volleyball.”
After transferring from Stanford, where the men’s volleyball program was nearly shut down, Browne has seen firsthand the difference an administration’s support can make.
“I think knowing that men’s volleyball is something that is prioritized at BYU was something that helped me make my decision (to transfer here),” Browne said. “When I made my decision, I was like, ‘BYU is one of the most supported when it comes to their men’s volleyball program. They’ve got an administration that loves them. They’ve got fans that love them.’”
The Cougars’ popularity and success have grown hand-in-hand, creating one of the best volleyball programs in the country.
“I think people just love the atmosphere of being at BYU events,” Julien said. “That environment is also what makes coming to volleyball games popular as well. I think people love coming to watch (BYU) volleyball because of the atmosphere, but I think that also just helps grow the popularity of the sport in general.”
In addition to great fan support over the years, the Cougars’ men’s volleyball program has been built by outstanding coaches who have taken the school to impressive heights. From Carl McGown to Shawn Olmstead, BYU coaches have formed one of the most successful and well-known programs in the country.
The success of Cougars’ coaches has come in large part through their ability to recruit across the world. The program has touted players from California, Wisconsin, Hawaii, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Finland, Italy, Puerto Rico and Poland among others, proving the reach of the BYU men’s volleyball brand.
Julien has a great appreciation for his school’s coaches, both past and present. “(BYU has a) history of great coaching and great recruiting and just being a good program all around. We’ve had great coaches and staff.”
The impressive work done by administrators and coaches at the school has helped the Cougars create a men’s volleyball niche nestled in the Wasatch Front.
It only took 10 seasons for BYU to win its first national title in men’s volleyball in 1999. That year also saw the Cougars fill the Marriott Center with a record-breaking 14,156 fans for a match against Hawaii. The contest had more supporters than the men’s basketball team would average that season in the same arena.
The Cougars, along with their administration and fans, have proven that volleyball can thrive in the Intermountain West.
“I would say volleyball is actually pretty popular here (in Utah),” Julien said. “I think that if there were more volleyball teams around, there would still be just as many fans, honestly.”
While the sport may still be growing in the region, no one has to wonder about the popularity of BYU volleyball in Provo. The Cougars’ success in men’s volleyball over the years, has helped the growing sport find a welcome home in an unexpected place.