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Over The Net: A Mizzou Volleyball Interview Series - Cullen Irons

I sat down with assistant coach Cullen Irons to talk about Mizzou Volleyball, life, and geography.

Mizzou Athletics

Welcome to Over The Net, everybody! This is the first of a weekly interview series with players and coaches from Mizzou Volleyball that will be taking place over the next few months.

My first interviewee in the series is Cullen Irons, Mizzou Volleyball’s assistant coach. He is always smiling and fist-bumping anyone and everyone before the start of a match, and has been all over the country coaching and playing volleyball. He seemed like a great person to kick off this series.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start by talking about the last match against South Carolina. What are some things the team did well, and what aspects of the game do you need to work on heading into the next match?

Cullen Irons: We served and passed really well. That’s something that has been an emphasis, and it will continue to be an emphasis. There are a few metrics that we need to achieve and then maintain in order to win. One of those is siding out at about 67%. That becomes really easy If we can pass the ball well, and if we pass the ball well then we can run the offense. Outside of that, I thought our block did a really good job of slowing down their pins. That was a big emphasis for us going into the match. We let their middles get away with quite a bit, but that wasn’t our emphasis. I talked about it this morning with Coach Dawn and that was definitely a me thing. I call it a little oversight. What we can do better is going in with an attack mentality and then maintain that. We’ve had a tendency to let up a little bit as the match goes on. As soon as we can figure out how to keep going in a sustained way, I would say the sky’s the limit for this squad

We’ve seen flashes of potential from this team, whether it was the Louisville match or Set 1 against Tennessee, but they hadn’t been able to put everything together for an entire match. There seemed to be a lot more consistency in that South Carolina match on offense and defense, though.

CI: Like you said, if we can be consistent, that’s been one of our main points for weeks now. Just consistency. You see that out of teams like Louisville and Tennessee, and there’s no drop-off. But when we do play at the high level we are capable of, we can compete with or beat any of those teams.

One of your main specialties is defense, particularly blocking. What are your thoughts overall on the defense this year, and especially the blocking?

CI: I’ve been pretty pleasantly surprised. We definitely have a lot of work to go. Blocking is one of those skills that we’ve got to work on every single day. A lot like passing and serving, if we take a step back, even for one day, it feels like we’ve taken three days off. But I really enjoy what we’re doing. The ladies take feedback really well and they are able to make adjustments on the fly. So I appreciate that.

What are some of the main adjustments that need to be made heading into the next match at LSU, and what can Mizzou fans expect from the Bayou Bengals?

CI: Fun fact, I coached one of their starting outsides at Oklahoma, so I’m really looking forward to seeing her. That’s Sanaa Dotson. What we can look forward to is a really big block and a very potent attack. They’re looking really strong right now on the pins and in the middle. They’ve got a couple of beasts in there. We’ve just got to play our game, that consistent game that you’ve seen flashes of. If we can maintain that, then we’re gonna give LSU a pretty good run for their money. It’s a fun place to play. That’s the house that Shaq built.

What’s your relationship with Coach Sullivan like, and what made you decide to follow her to Mizzou from UNLV?

CI: We have a very strong relationship. The reason I followed her here is because of what I saw her do in Vegas. I know that she turned that program around, it was about a five year process. I have aspirations to be a head coach someday, and I know that I can learn a ton from her. She’s already got the blueprint on how to turn a program around. I’m here at ground zero with her and already learning a ton. The take-home is just that it takes a ton of hard work and emphasis on a ton.

We spend countless hours here (Hearnes) every day, every week. But as I’m sure you’ve seen, it’s paying off. I think she has always appreciated just how direct I’ve been with my feedback. It’s not like I’m pulling punches, but there aren’t really any punches to give. We just have a very direct line of communication, and it goes both ways. I like to say that we take the emotion out of most of those conversations. So if she sees a deficiency in our block, she lets me know, and it doesn’t hurt. I know that I need to adjust and get to work right away on how to adjust, and the same could be said if I was talking with her about the pass or attack. I think she’s really good at what she does, and I’m so happy and blessed to be here.

How long do you think the process will be here at Mizzou? What’s the end goal right now, the vision for the program as it stands?

CI: The vision for the program is to become an SEC powerhouse, and in doing so become a national powerhouse. I mean, you see the top programs here in this conference and they’re well within the top 25. If you go back to those Vegas days, she was able to turn that around right away, going from the bottom of the barrel right into the postseason within her first season. I’m not going to say that’s out of the question here. I think this team is very capable of competing in the NCAA Tournament. It is going to take a lot of hard work, and harder work than they’ve ever done before. And this group is very capable of putting that in.

The SEC is one of the best conferences in the country, and about to get a lot tougher with Oklahoma and reigning national champs Texas coming in. What do you think about them joining the conference, and what’s your opinion on conference realignment as a whole?

CI: Firstly, I am very excited that both of those programs are coming to the conference. If we want to be the best, we’ve got to play against the best and play with the best. Texas has proven to be one of those teams year in, year out, and OU and their new staff with Aaron Mansfield and company are going to elevate quickly. I really enjoy both of those groups, and I just really respect the heck out of them. As far as conference realignment goes, the SEC has been a powerhouse and will continue to be a powerhouse, and likely even more so. And as we continue to elevate this program we’re going to be competing with those teams. I’m just really excited.

You spent some time as a practice player with the women’s Olympic team. What was that experience like? Did you get to go to Tokyo?

CI: I didn’t get to go to Tokyo, but I was with them right up until about a week before departure. I had an absolute blast. We’re talking about a bunch of women that worked their tails off. They are 100% committed to the process and getting better and really just being the best. They pushed each other every single day. I was with them from a group of 18 or 24, and seeing them compete and still love each other as they got down to the group of 12 was really, really exciting. And that staff is just amazing. The amount of work that they put in is unbelievable, not to mention all the countless hours of travel and scouting. I mean, they’re all over the world, four continents in a month. It’s pretty amazing, certainly something to aspire to. I had the honor and pleasure of being one of the practice players, and it was my job to emulate the international outsides and opposites and just take a million swings for them. I had a blast, and I still enjoy seeing them when I get a chance. I actually need to get a call out to one of the assistants, Tama Miyashiro. We’ve just missed connections a few times here. I hope I get an opportunity to do it again. I get a feeling that I might be getting too old, though.

You had a very successful college career at UC Santa Barbara. How was your college experience, and what were some of the biggest lessons you took from your time as a student-athlete?

CI: I was recruited there as a middle blocker back in 2006. There was a coaching change two years into that. Rick McLaughlin took over and he immediately moved me to outside. I spent about a year and a half doing that, passing what we call the sliver. I had space that’s about two feet. The experiment ended because I just couldn’t really do it, honestly. We moved over to the opposite, and all I had to do was jump high, hit hard, play a little defense. I loved it. In my fifth year, we finished as the national runner-up. We lost to Ohio State, which still stings a little bit, but I learned a ton. A couple of big take-homes for me were, one— just work and work hard. The other maybe a little more tangible is buying into the weight room. I always look back and wish that I jumped in there, really bought in right when I got into college. It took a couple of years, and once I did I just saw my numbers improve. On the court, everything I did in the weight room translated pretty directly. So for any of you reading at home, it really goes a long way.

How did you get into coaching?

CI: I played beach full-time for two years after that, which I again very much enjoyed. I was very blessed in that I got picked up by a few different training groups that happened to be Olympic hopefuls and beach legends with Todd Rogers, Phil Dalhausser, Jake Gibb, Casey Patterson, Nick Lucena, there are a number of others. I loved that time. I’d spend all morning down in Huntington Beach with Jake and Casey and anybody else that might have been training with them those days, and then in the afternoon, I’d head back into Manhattan and Hermosa and train, and I loved it. Unfortunately, being a practice player on the beach doesn’t get you any money, and one day, as I was at a fun indoor tournament, my old coach showed up and offered me a job. At that time, I really just needed a steady paycheck and more importantly, health care, and the job offered both of those things.

I went back to Santa Barbara and coached men’s for six years there. I had an absolute blast. Rick knew that I was on a trajectory that just didn’t really fit with what he could offer anymore. He wanted me to expand and get out and chase the head coaching dream and really what that means is getting into women’s, and he helped me do that and encouraged me. I then got the job at Oklahoma and was there for two years, went to Texas A&M, and (then) met Dawn at UNLV.

Interesting background there, as I was looking for that job, I got a call from Jim McLaughlin, who was her college coach, who happens to have been my college coach’s brother. So we’ve got a really tight family tree there. He said, “I think you’re gonna love working for and with her,” and sure enough, he was right. And I think he may have had the same conversation with her. I got into coaching really out of necessity first. And then I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t just about X’s and O’s; it was about people. Understanding that you’re not just an athlete, you’re a person, too. Really, just making you feel that... I hold on to that all the time. You know, everything gets so serious and just to be able to take a breath and not be serious for a couple of minutes here and there can help a ton.

This is the furthest north you’ve ever lived. Are you prepared for winter?

CI: I got here in January. I actually like telling this one. I took my campus visit, and it was December 20-21. Our basketball team was playing Illinois. I got out and there was a jacket waiting for me, and I had to ask for a second jacket. Let me tell you, I was not ready for it. I now wear long underwear as soon as it gets below 60. I’m much more prepared. I got my hat and mittens and I’m ready to go this year.

You graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography. Have you ever seen how long it takes you to name all the world’s countries?

CI: I did, I had to do that once for a test in college. My best time was probably about six minutes. I couldn’t do it today.

How are you enjoying Columbia so far?

CI: I am very much enjoying it. I grew up in a smaller agricultural community in Central California, so this pace is about normal for me. I do enjoy it. What really stands out to me is how green it is. And now as fall is coming, seeing the leaves change. That’s pretty new. What really stood out as soon as I got here was just how warm and welcoming everyone was. And that continues to be the case. It’s definitely been very pleasant. It made the move really easy. Outside of Dawn and her family, I was leaving everyone else that I knew behind, starting fresh. Not always easy. This community has made the transition very simple.

Do you have a favorite thing to do or a favorite place to go in Columbia?

CI: I really enjoy food. Someone just told someone else on our staff that if you ask me where you want to go, I’m gonna say 44 Canteen. That’s pretty accurate. That’s probably been one of my most visited spots in town. Can’t leave out Bud’s, our guy Jason over there. He’s killing it. I do enjoy barbecue. I enjoy Mexican, and there’s a few good spots in town for that.

What’s it been like working at the Hearnes Center every day? What do you think about the game day atmosphere that Mizzou fans create?

CI: Working here every day now, I get to see a little bit of history. This is the house that Norm Stewart built, and of course the Kreklows have done some amazing things in here; just look at these banners. It’s really awesome coming in here every day and walking down onto that floor. That’s one of my favorite things about athletics is I get to go into these really special, arguably sacred spaces and do my best to leave my mark. This place is amazing, and I haven’t been at a place that has as many butts in seats with 25 minutes until tip-off as we have here. Last night we had just about 1600, and with the Louisville match we had over 2500. We’ve been in the low 1000s almost every home match. That has been just amazing. And I know that as soon as the community understands truly that we’ve got a product that’s worth looking at, this place is going to be bumping, and I cannot wait for that. Because the community wants to get behind something. I can feel it and I can see it, and it’s a lot of fun.

You have worked with Wendel Camargo (Recruiting Coordinator) before during your time at Texas A&M. How has it been to work with him again after a few years apart?

CI: It’s been a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time together there at A&M as I was the volunteer. I’ve always considered myself very much a training coach, and that is definitely what he did at Texas A&M. So I got to witness that firsthand. And now being here together at Mizzou, it’s every day. It’s not just a six-month stint. We are in it together, and now we get to work together on the scouting side and the practice planning and the recruiting and it’s great. That man is just a big bundle of energy. He’s relentless in his energy. And it’s been just a pleasure getting to work with him full-time. I’m happy that he made the choice to come here.

A big part of putting together this year’s team was the transfer portal. Is that going to continue to be the case in the future, or are you looking to move a little bit more toward the recruiting and development side in the coming years?

CI: The answer is both. The portal for us this year was an absolute necessity, and it has helped out big time. We brought in seven transfers, including one from Vegas that came with Dawn and me, and the other six are from all over the country. The four other additions we had were freshmen, and their impact has been felt as well. Moving forward, we hope to be at a place where we can recruit and develop from high school. But the portal definitely serves a purpose in that we can do smaller spots for one or two years and fill a need, and the advantage of pulling out of the portal is that we can get known entities statistically but we also get just developed players and with that kind of breaking some habits or creating new ones, but the maturity is always nice. That’s going to be around until something changes at the NCAA level. And I don’t see it going away anytime soon. So we hope not to live in it, but we will continue to use it.

As we continue to move into the beginning of conference play, how do you think the team performed during the non-con schedule? Moving forward, what are your goals for SEC play?

CI: Well, we finished non-conference 8-3, which was a strong start. It was really important that we found success early. As this team developed their relationships on the court and off they were able to do that. We had a couple that we wish we could have back or just turned around really. You know, we learned a ton from those losses and we’re continuing to learn. I think what it really revealed to us and we mentioned it earlier, is that we can’t come out and just expect things to happen. We’ve got to force the issue. So we’ve got to go hard every single point from the outset. And when we do that, good things happen. We saw that last night. So if we can sustain that through the SEC now, we’re going to put ourselves in a place to be successful again and find that NCAA tournament.

That is really the goal for this season to go from the bottom of the barrel into the mid-pack. And really, it’s a very feasible one. With the amount of work that these young ladies are putting in, they’re not gonna let anything but that happen, on top of the amount of work that we’re putting in, we’re not gonna let anything but that happen. Dawn has found success everywhere she’s been, and it’s because of all the hard work. Really just determination that’s being stamped into our team’s brains. It’s gonna take hard work, and they’re all about it. So I appreciate them for it.

As we wrap up, is there anything else that you want to share, or anything you want Mizzou fans to know?

CI: I’m just so excited to be here in Columbia with Mizzou and with this staff. We’ve got an amazing staff. Dawn leads from the front, and she shows us how to do it by example, not by decree. It’s really cool and she is working very hard. We are working very hard to get the community involved. So please, everybody come out and see the show. And stay after and get autographs from the girls, have a conversation with one of the coaches. We are here for it. We want you to feel like you’re part of this team or this family. So please, come by.