Creating Coaches: Californian John Hawks Soars in the Midwest

Hawks was recently honored as the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Coach of the Year — the first Loyola coach to receive the honor in their first season, according to Loyola Athletics. 

The window of Loyola men’s volleyball Head Coach John Hawks’ office overlooks Lake Michigan. But for most of his life, he’s been looking out at a different coast.

Hawks grew up in Huntington Beach, California, a city along the west coast known for surfing.

“I just was fortunate that my parents exposed me to getting in the water,” Hawks said. “I just did everything. I was outside a lot.”

When he wasn’t surfing in the Pacific Ocean, Hawks recalled playing pick-up football games with his neighbors in the street. In pads and on the field, he and his younger brother were coached by his dad.

Now a coach himself, Hawks was recently honored as the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) Coach of the Year — the first Loyola coach to receive the honor in their first season, according to Loyola Athletics

But before volleyball and after football, he and his sibling gravitated to a different sport on an even bigger field — soccer. Juggling football, soccer and baseball, it wasn’t until the fourth grade when Hawks would eventually try volleyball when he transferred to a private school. 

“I just got around some really good players and really kind of liked it,” Hawks said. “The girls are watching us, and it was an easy sport to fall in love with.”

In high school, Hawks and his brother stuck with soccer, but each continued playing a different sport. His brother played football in the fall, the two found themselves together on the pitch in the winter and Hawks focused on volleyball in the spring.

The schedule worked perfectly for the brothers and their family, as the two could support each other at each of their games while their parents, Hawks said, went to every game for all three sports. They still watch every Loyola volleyball match, according to Hawks. During this time, volleyball became Hawks’ sport. 

“I felt like in soccer, there was so much stuff away from the ball,” Hawks said. “In volleyball, I was always touching the ball. It was a really fast-paced sport, so I felt like it just stimulated me in a way that soccer didn’t.”

He would wake and practice on the beach at 6 a.m., ride his bike back to the Edison High School at 7 a.m., shower and go to his first class by 7:30 a.m. That afternoon, he found himself at soccer or volleyball practice.

“It’s a different lifestyle in California,” Hawks said. “A lot of it was just consumed by athletics.”

During his senior year in 1989, Hawks was asked to help coach the girls volleyball team during the preseason — while Hawks’ soccer team was in the playoffs. He originally agreed to get more reps in, but soon found he enjoyed watching them “really thrive” off what he taught them.

“When you see a kid’s light bulb go off, and they figure something out and you can help them,” Hawks said. “I just really enjoyed that part of it.”

After graduating, Hawks went into college to become a firefighter and paramedic and never saw coaching as a full-time job. His dad, despite being his pee wee football coach, worked for an aerospace technology company.

Instead of fighting fires, Hawks graduated and worked for medical equipment companies, testing, designing and signing-off on products — including the defibrillators found around campus today. This was his job for eight years, while simultaneously continuing to coach high school and club volleyball.

As a club volleyball coach, Hawks would regularly talk to his friends who were coaches at a higher level, including John Speraw who was hired as the head coach of University of California Irvine in 2002. He reached out to Hawks that year about an assistant position.

“I didn’t know very many people down there,” Speraw said to The Phoenix. “He was a well-regarded club coach down there, so I brought him on staff and we’ve been friends and co-workers and collaborators ever since.”

Hawks immediately accepted the offer but just like in high school, found himself working from sunrise to sunset.

At 5 a.m., he’d start at the medical company. By 2 p.m., he’d drive to UC Irvine and coach for a few hours. Later, his club practices would end at 10 p.m.

The season prior to Hawks and Speraw’s arrival, UC Irvine placed last in the MIVA conference. In their first season at the helm, Hawks said the Anteaters went 10-0 in their first ten games and shot to first in the country.

“I go, ‘Wow, this college is kind of easy,’” Hawks said. “Joking — it wasn’t easy, but we just bounced in success. And he’s a great coach. And I just learned a lot from him about how to manage teams.” 

Hawks said he helped recruit the classes that went on to win two national titles at UC Irvine in 2007 and 2009 but wasn’t there to see their success. At that point, he had already moved to be an assistant coach at the “iconic” USC, where he helped the team make the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. 

He then coached at Long Beach State University and ran a volleyball academy in Cleveland, where he met his now wife. Eventually, he got another call from Speraw — now the head coach at UCLA. 

Hawks spent seven seasons at UCLA as an assistant coach and made three NCAA tournament appearances before accepting the job offer at Loyola, motivated by the program and the chance to return to the Midwest and be closer to his wife’s family.

“When you experience that much of real life and the ups and downs and the wins and the losses with someone, you build a deep amount of trust and respect,” Speraw said. “I’m just really thrilled for him and the direction his career has gone over the years, because I’ve seen it from the very beginning. Just so happy that he’s at the place that he’s at now and having the success he deserves.”

The Loyola men’s volleyball team went 21-6 in the 2023 regular season and finished No. 10 in the country, peaking at No. 9 in March. Hawks attributes this success to the players and the “two-way street” of trust they developed.

“They want to earn respect among the athletes and the athletic department and the staff,” Hawks said. “Everything we do is just being mindful of earning trust and earning respect and that carries over to the court.”

The Ramblers’ season ended in the quarterfinals of the MIVA Tournament to McKendree University, 3-2. Along with Hawks winning the Coach of the Year accolade, six other Ramblers players also received MIVA honors.

Featured image courtesy of Steve Woltmann for Loyola Athletics

Austin Hojdar

Austin Hojdar