In an unpretentious suite, part of a modest Encinitas office building, one of the most successful and impactful American volleyball coaches in recent history is contentedly engaged in a variety of ventures involving his marketing, consulting and strategic planning company, Total Sports, Inc.
Seventy-one-year-old Taras “Terry” Liskevych, a Leucadia resident for more than 30 years, is officially “retired” from coaching, having stepped down in the summer of 2016 after more than 40 years, the last 11 as head coach of the women’s volleyball team at Oregon State. But retirement, in the Liskevych vernacular, doesn’t mean getting in a regular 18 holes or playing bingo.
“I have always enjoyed a work environment, especially developing and creating new things,” says Liskevych. “I know many people who retired in their 50s and are not happy. There is only so much golf and traveling that they can endure—I like to keep busy.”
As CEO of Total Sports, he and veteran sports executive Mark Tilson (president/COO) are engrossed in a mixture of projects, the majority centered around The Art of Coaching (AOC), another Liskevych enterprise, co-founded in 2011 with fellow volleyball coaches Russ Rose (Penn State) and John Dunning (Stanford/retired). The AOC was initially formed to manage a series of volleyball clinics while simultaneously developing and operating a volleyball coaching website. It has since branched out into softball and football while researching further sport and event expansion.
The AOC Volleyball online location boasted 1.1 million unique users in its most recent 12-month count, has 60,000-plus total subscribers and its coaching resources include more than 5,000 videos as well as certification courses, workbooks, practice planners, drill books and other training tools. The clinics side of the organization has events scheduled for Florida, North Carolina, Texas (2), Illinois, Kansas and Oregon in 2020, all expected to draw more than 300 attendees.
“There are a lot of reasons I’ve stayed involved with volleyball and coaching even after retiring,” said Liskevych. “First, I’m committed to mentoring both coaches and all the people that are my co-workers at Total Sports/Art of Coaching—several people mentored me in my career and I’m passing that forward.
“It’s also been very satisfying to see this company grow as much as it has from small beginnings. We have grown the Art of Coaching Volleyball brand to be a well-known entity in the volleyball community and I want to continue being a part of scaling what’s been an organically grown business.”
Liskevych was an outstanding, but never typical coach—foreword thinking, honest to a fault and a calculated risk taker never afraid of going where others wouldn’t risk. And maybe that’s why now that his formal career is concluded, his work and innovations continue to exert influence over his sport (volleyball) and others. The course of his career path was unique.
Born of Ukrainian descent in Munich, Germany, Liskevych grew up in north Chicago where sports were certainly a part of his upbringing but education, in and outside of school, was the primary focus. He was introduced to volleyball as a teenager and played for the top echelon Kenneth Allen team, directed by 1968 U.S. men’s Olympic Coach Jim Coleman, in the city’s thriving club system.
Steered towards becoming a doctor, Liskevych went to medical school but left after a year to pursue a master’s in physical education and eventually become an assistant volleyball coach, under Coleman, at George Williams College in Chicago.
“At the last minute, I got accepted into medical school (Loyola of Chicago) but I knew right away that ‘this was not for me,’ “ said Liskevych. “The master’s opportunity presented itself and I liked the idea of pursuing coaching, sports psychology and the history of sport. I finished my master’s after one year, Coleman became the head coach, hired me as his assistant and I was retained as a full-time instructor at the school. That put me on my way.”
It eventually led to his first head coaching position at Ohio State where he twice guided the Buckeye men to the NCAA Final Four (1975-76) while getting his Ph.D. In ‘76 he made the critical decision to take over the same post with the nondescript women’s volleyball team at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
From the humble beginnings of a year-old NCAA Division III team, Liskevych built one of the nation’s first women’s volleyball powerhouses, combining that relatively blank canvas with his distinctive, indefatigable approach and the onset of Title IX. He not only coached the 3,600-student institution’s team to unimaginable heights (seven conference titles in nine years, six consecutive top five Division I national championship finishes, annually being among the highest schools in average attendance) but made surprising, ahead-of-their-time women’s sport inroads in areas that included marketing, fundraising and sports psychology.
That propelled him to the pinnacle of American volleyball—head coach of the USA Women’s National team. Liskevych’s 12-year run in the high pressure, one-of-a-kind international volleyball world, was longer than anyone before or after. His U.S. teams qualified for three Olympic Games (winning bronze in 1992 at Barcelona) and defeated all of the world’s premier teams to capture the 1995 World Grand Prix Championship.
With 337 international victories, Liskevych retired from the national team space following the 1996 season, taking a respite from on-court coaching, before returning to the college ranks in 2005 at Oregon State, a program that had traditionally struggled in the powerful Pac-10/12 Conference. He was at OSU for 11 years, departing with the most wins in school history and was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2014 after guiding the Beavers to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time.
He had already demonstrated a proclivity for pushing boundaries and creativity prior to getting The Art of Coaching off the ground. In 1979, he co-founded the Collegiate Volleyball Coaches Association which evolved into the current, 7,000-member American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Starting in the mid-‘70s, he was among the first to promote volleyball clinics nationwide, was a driving force behind events like the UOP-hosted Wendy’s Classic, for nearly a decade the premier collegiate volleyball tournament in the country, and the 1988 Yugo Collegiate Volleyball All-Star Classic, the first-ever women’s collegiate all-star event in any sport.
In 1997, he founded Paragon Marketing, a forerunner to Total Sports, and was co-founder of sports video and multi-media company ARK Digital Technologies.
“I think I have a good singleness of purpose and tenacity,” he said. “I like doing things from scratch and being able to put my imprint on it. I also like a challenge and when people say something can’t be done, that’s a real motivator.
Particularly since returning to full-time residency in North County, Liskevych’s Total Sports configuration has a decidedly local flavor. In addition to Tilson, an expanding full/part-time staff of writers, video editors and interns hail from the north coastal area.
It will be interesting to see what eventually springs from the small office complex. If it’s in typical Liskevych fashion, expect something big.
Liskevych shared additional thoughts regarding his profession, philosophies and others involved in the different stages of his career.
Q—What were your influences as a younger person?
LISKEVYCH—My father was a real influence. He wanted me to learn about different things and would take the time to explore many of those things with me.
Being part of a Ukrainian community in the United States was an interesting way to grow up. It made you self-reliant, you had to be able to figure things out. We kind of lived in a bubble—then you saw the real world. I remember thinking, “I know I’m pretty good in the bubble but I wondered how I would beg outside as a student, an athlete or a coach.”
Q—Given the importance of education and a respected profession, how did your parents respond to your decision to leave medical school?
LISKEVYCH—They were very upset that I quit medical school. Their post-war immigration group wanted the best for their kids and it was expected that all boys would become doctors, lawyers or engineers.
My dad said, “I know that you may not like medical school but if you finish your medical degree in the United States, you will have a good life.” My mother was more worried about what she going to tell people.
Q—What was the impetus for the development the AVCA and Art of Coaching?
LISKEVYCH—With the AVCA, we wanted to make sure coaches had a place where they could express an opinion and also an entity that would be emphasize the idea of driving the profession to a higher level.
AOC is very similar but the 24/7 presence of a website made it valuable in a more comprehensive way and provides benefits to coaches at every level.
It’s really about teaching coaches how to coach. It’s not just about Xs and Os and drills. Those are important but so are relating to your team, mental well-being and consideration of how an athlete’s sport intersects with the other parts of his or her life. There is so much out there and a lot of misunderstanding about what’s important. If we can make a difference, that’s a key.
We use feedback from coaches in developing content. The bottom line question is “how can we make coaches better?”
Q—What was the biggest challenge at each of your three major coaching stops?
LISKEVYCH—At Pacific, the biggest challenge was starting from scratch. That included teaching and convincing the campus and town that volleyball could be important to them and that it is a wonderful spectator sport.
Two challenges stand out from USA Volleyball. First would be taking over a program that had just won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics but again essentially starting from rock bottom. None of the players from the ’84 team returned and we literally had not a file or a single scouting tape to help get the process started.
But just as big a hurdle was that the administration of the national governing body (NGB) was not equipped to start the catapulting of the sport of volleyball to the next level—as soccer began doing at the time. The NGB vision was not the same as mine and that led to some difficult situations.
At Oregon State we were faced with changing Oregon State’s identity as a lower rung school and athletic department within the Pac-10/12 Conference. This became even more of an issue when Phil Knight and Nike started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the University of Oregon program. Renumeration for the coaching staff was excellent but the department’s follow-up on promises for resource support (financial/personnel) in other areas never materialized—thus, I again had to prioritize non-coaching aspects, like fundraising, to make things work.
Q—Who are some of the people who mentored you along the way?
LISKEVYCH—As I mentioned, my dad was very important. Also, Brad Rothermel, the athletic director and chair of the Physical Education/Recreation Department at George Williams College, Jim Coleman, and my Ph.D advisor at Ohio State, Daryl Siedentop.
Rothermel, who was later the AD at Nevada-Las Vegas, was influential in getting me squared away on all of the undergraduate core requirements in Physical Education. Since I had never had an undergrad Physical Education course, he had me read 16-18 different textbooks to satisfy the requirements. Since 1971, I have kept in touch with him every few weeks.
Coleman taught me an awful lot about the sport. He was an encyclopedia of volleyball knowledge.
Siedentop was co-author of one of the books that Rothermel had me read to get my core requirements. Daryl was a brilliant teachers and advisor and I owe him a lot. We also kept in touch regularly until he developed some health issues a few years ago.
I should also mention George Davis who was the main character in Fifth Down, another of the books on Rothermel’s list. He was the football coach at St. Helena High School in Napa that won 45 games in a row. He had his team choose the positions they played as well as voted on the starting lineup the day before each game. The book had a profound effect on me and I had George come up and guest in my classes at Pacific. We became good friends and he taught me a lot about life and coaching.
Q—What has been the most important part of getting your various projects off the ground?
LISKEVYCH—I like doing things with people and the relationships I’ve had with staff and players at my different positions has been key to those successes. Whether it’s one of my teams, the AVCA or The Art of Coaching, it’s never just me. The people around me have helped me and made me better.
A great example is with The Art of Coaching. The three of us who originated the idea—John Dunning, Russ Rose and myself—could hardly be more dissimilar in terms of coaching and personality style. But we have all been successful and were able to fuse our methods and approaches to create a product that was better than any of us could probably have done independently.
Q—How has coaching, specifically volleyball, changed the most in your professional life?
LISKEVYCH—It has become a good way to earn a living, especially at the college and junior club level. Two of the very best junior clubs are here in San Diego County—Wave Volleyball in Del Mar and Coast in Sorrento Valley—there are several full-time positions in both of those clubs. That’s a big change from where things were not that long ago.
The internet has changed the way we get and process information. That was ultimately why we created an online educational platform for coaches. When I started coaching most offices didn’t even have computers.
Also, the smartphone, that was first introduced by Apple in 2007, has become a ubiquitous tool for consuming and sharing all of our communication. Total Sports and Art of Coaching are working very hard to continue expanding into this space.