Assistant men's coach David Kniffin
Assistant men's coach David Kniffin directs his players during training for the upcoming UCI International Volleyball Tournament, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

In 1999, David Kniffin stood in the vastness of Aldrich Park and found himself strangely at peace amid the bustle of academia. It made a profound impression on the high school senior from just outside Chico, Calif., who was scouting various colleges.

It would be several years, though, before he returned to UC Irvine. A
volleyball standout, Kniffin was first recruited by Loyola Marymount
University, but when its volleyball program was cut, he went to Pierce
College in Woodland Hills. Eventually, he was recruited by UCI, where he
played his junior and senior years. And since coming back, he’s been
making his own impression.

Now, as men’s volleyball assistant coach, Kniffin ’03 is helping bring the vastness of the world to campus via the UC Irvine International Volleyball Tournament, the only one of its kind in the U.S. The idea was born when the men’s volleyball team traveled to Argentina in 2008 to play in an international competition.

Kniffin recalls: “We went down there and basically got beat every time we stepped on the court. We were competing against some of the best players in the world. We learned a lot from that challenge; it was invaluable.

“On the trip back, we started to think about how we could create a similar experience at UCI. Would it be beneficial to the team, to the university, to the community? The answer was clearly ‘yes’ on all counts.”

Last year, at the inaugural tournament, UCI hosted the Argentine team that had invited the Anteaters, as well as others from around the world. “It was great,” says Kniffin. “We found out we could pull it off. So this year, it’s evolving.”

The second annual event, on Oct. 5-10, will feature professional teams from Argentina, Brazil, China and Korea competing in a true round-robin — in which everyone plays everyone.

But the tournament, Kniffin says, “transcends sport.” It involves collaboration with various UCI departments, as well as the local community, coinciding with the Irvine Global Village Festival on Oct. 2. A UCI- and U.S. Youth Volleyball League-sponsored volleyball clinic Oct. 9 will let kids 7 to 15 learn skills, gain free admission to the matches and get a feel for the campus.

“The community connection is really key for me,” says Kniffin, who lives in Irvine with his wife, Lydia, and 1-year-old daughter, Summer. “We want these foreign teams to be embraced by the city of Irvine and the University of California.

“We’re able to do something at UCI that no other institution in America can: We have an opportunity, with an event like this, to bridge the gaps between athletics and academia and among the diverse communities off and on campus.”

It’s also a chance to bring together the best in pro volleyball to help train the UCI men’s team, which has already won two NCAA championships. “There was a point when winning was enough,” says Kniffin. “Now it’s time to move beyond that.”

Head coach John Speraw coached Kniffin as an undergrad and says, “Even then, I was aware that David was the kind of person I would want on my staff.” Kniffin holds the Anteaters’ single-season record for most assists and is currently fourth in career assists; as a senior, he ranked third nationally and led UCI to its first No. 1 placement.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy, Kniffin played volleyball professionally in Spain for two years with the 2006 championship team CAI Voleibol Teruel. But when an assistant coach position became available at UCI that year, Speraw gave him a call.

Besides Kniffin’s offensive knowledge as a setter, Speraw says, “David’s international experience is extremely important. He’s very comfortable communicating with people from different cultures and is global in his thinking.”

Kniffin, who exudes a calm but excited energy, is modest and quick to point to others’ successes, contributions and accolades. Though a powerhouse, he doesn’t seek attention. “I’m not a big spotlight guy,” he says. “I’m more plow horse than show horse.”

Speraw values Kniffin’s modesty: “He’s totally selfless. Everything he does is to help the team get better — not only as players but as people.”

Kniffin is also improving lives off the court. He’s involved in a sustainable housing project in Nicaragua called Casa Llanta, or “Tire House.” Its goal is to demonstrate an alternative way of building homes and educate local community members in how to use solar panels, capture rainwater and recycle waste.

Giving back drives Kniffin, as do relationships, and coaching at UCI nurtures both. “Seeing the exchange of ideas and how the different attitudes and personalities all come together — how each one of them ultimately serves a purpose on the team — is what sticks with me the most,” he says.

“We have something incredibly special here. Former Chancellor Ralph Cicerone used to refer to UCI as the sleeping giant. And I really think that we’re just on the cusp of understanding what an exceptional place UCI is — on all fronts.”