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Originally published Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 10:03 PM

Jerry Brewer

Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin keeps the focus simple: Improvement

Innovative Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin preaches improvement to his players. "The foundation of our program is improvement, McLaughlin says. "That's the only thing I think about, the only thing I worry about."

Seattle Times staff columnist

Friday

NCAA Tournament opener at Minneapolis, vs. Western Michigan, 2:30 p.m.

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Jim McLaughlin — the most cerebral coach you'll ever meet and possibly the best, too — squints through the glare of an overhead projector as he makes his speech. Because he leaves little to misinterpretation, his remarks have been typed and displayed, and he points at various phrases to make sure his players are following him. He doesn't go off script much, just as he doesn't raise his voice above the lowest audible level.

"This is the deal," he says often for emphasis.

The Washington volleyball players nod as McLaughlin points to and asks the question, "What are we trying to do?"

His answer is succinct: 1. Win. 2. Get better.

Then, the coach presents a long list of things, broken into three categories: Completely Control, Mostly Control and Have No Control. Interestingly, under the Have No Control section, he includes winning.

The unstated message is quite legible. Don't worry about the results. Worry about what's required to get the results you desire.

"Do you want to be champions?" McLaughlin asks, pointing at the projection again. "Then act like it today."

He concludes by calmly saying, "OK, that's enough of my little lecture for the week."

Class — no, team — dismissed.

Spend a half season examining one of Seattle's greatest, and most unlikely, winning teams, and sometimes you don't know whether you're learning about volleyball or physics. This giant is peerless, a creation of superior intellect and talent to go with chemistry, brutal honesty and a disdain for ambiguity.

The Huskies have built an enviable tradition, but they don't live off tradition. In some ways, McLaughlin rebukes the very thing he has created. Why? Because tradition can stunt growth.

His standards are exacting, but they're also exact. He's a statistical guru, having learned in the '90s from former BYU Hall of Fame volleyball coach Dr. Carl McGown. He coaches in a measured, calculated manner, with numbers backing up every teaching point. Just as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll preaches competition, McLaughlin has built his program around one concept — improvement.

"The foundation of our program is improvement," McLaughlin said. "That's the only thing I think about, the only thing I worry about. Our country is so influenced by tradition, but the problem with that is it tends to make you do what you've always done instead of looking at things with a fresh perspective. That's the one thing that distinguishes us. We teach at the highest level."

Follow this program through a transformative 2011 season, and you understand the meaning behind McLaughlin's words.

It's Oct. 9, a Sunday afternoon. McLaughlin is toiling in his office, searching for a solution. Actually, he already knows the answer, but he makes sure it's the right answer.

He looks over his meticulous notes, scrutinizes statistics and reviews game video. He has a tough decision: change or chill?

The Huskies have won 15 of their first 16 matches, but McLaughlin isn't satisfied. His analysis tells him that the team is weak in its fourth, fifth and sixth rotations. He knows that, as the schedule gets more difficult, the Huskies can't mask the problem.

So, after careful inspection, McLaughlin trusts his gut. He decides to change the system of a team with a 15-1 record.

His team is stunned.

"I think, at first, all of us were kind of rejecting the idea because we were 15-1, and we suddenly are making all of these changes," setter Jenni Nogueras said. "At the beginning, we didn't understand why we were doing this."

McLaughlin had a clear explanation. He showed the team its substandard sideout percentages in the fourth, fifth and sixth rotations. That's his ultimate measurement — sideout percentage. When McLaughlin took the Washington job in 2001, he needed to turn around a last-place team. They finished 11-16 in his first season. Since then, they've won at least 20 matches for 10 straight seasons. They've advanced to three Final Fours and won a national title in 2005. Overall, McLaughlin has guided Washington to a 268-76 record in his 11 seasons.

But it all started with the Two-Percent Rule. The concept is simple. McLaughlin's statistical analysis shows that the ordinary team will win 60 percent of the time when serving. His studies show that if you improve one percent in both directions — if your offense improves to 61 percent and your defense limits the opponent to 59 percent — you will win 67 percent of the time.

When he was trying to convince the Huskies that they could be good, this was the simplest thing he could use as motivation. They didn't need to double their wins. They just needed to be two percent better.

Over the years, the standard has increased. When the Huskies won the 2005 national championship, they were at about 71 percent and limiting the opponent to 51 percent. All Huskies teams are measured against that now.

McLaughlin has a white dry-erase board in his office, and at the top of it are the sideout percentages for all of his teams. Every week, he gives sideout numbers to his team and tells them how much better they need to be. In fact, everything in McLaughlin's program is calculated. Even statistics during practice are charted and displayed for the team. After water breaks, they run to the dry eraser board to see how they're doing. McLaughlin bases playing time on how well his players practice, and he has empirical data to back up all of his decisions.

So, when McLaughlin showed his team that it was weak in rotations four through six, they took notice. Many players didn't like the change at first, but they understood the reasoning.

Like most college volleyball teams, Washington is used to running a 5-1 system. That means they use five hitters and one setter. McLaughlin had the midseason epiphany that the Huskies were best suited to play a 6-2 system. So, they now use six hitters and two setters. When it's time for a setter to rotate to the front row, they substitute in a hitter for the front row and bring in a new setter to play in the back row.

McLaughlin did this so that every rotation would include three hitters on the front row. He did it to utilize the strengths of both his setters, Nogueras and Evan Sanders, a senior transfer from Colorado State. And he did it to compensate for the fact that the Huskies don't have a great back-row hitter this season.

"I'm not afraid to change," McLaughlin said. "The thought was, 'You're 15-1. Why change?' But we weren't getting the best out of this team, and getting the best out of your players should always be the goal. You can't let emotions or anything keep you from developing your team. So, let's put it out there."

The Huskies struggled mightily at first. It didn't help that they switched to a 6-2 system just in time for a trip to Northern California, which is always one of their toughest road trips. California and Stanford, two top-10 teams, beat them. To make matters worse, the Huskies were called for a few substitution violations that weekend as they scrambled to figure out the proper rotations.

They wound up losing five of their first eight matches after making the switch. That included a two-game stint in which they switched back to a 5-1 system because Nogueras went home to Puerto Rico to mourn her father's death.

But the Huskies (23-7) won five of their final six matches, and they're now playing some of their best volleyball at the right time. They open play in the NCAA tournament against Western Michigan on Friday, and McLaughlin believes his team is ready to make a run.

"We're starting to stabilize all rotations," he said. "So, we don't have a weak rotation now. That is the key thing right there."

The entire coaching staff talked last week about this season and wondered, "Did we do the right thing?" The response was unanimous: Yes, the dramatic switch to a 6-2 system did make the Huskies better. Now, the team must prove it.

During a practice last month, the normally low-key McLaughlin raised his voice in practice.

"You know why it's great to play at Washington?" he yelled. "Because we kick (tail). It's fun to kick (tail), and if we believe in what we're doing and improve, we're going to be kicking (tail) at the Final Four."

The transformation has been stunning. It seems that every Husky has been tested this season, and they're all responding appropriately now.

Senior middle blocker Bianca Rowland, the team's most efficient player, struggled before the move to the 6-2 system. Now, she's back to producing at her normal clip, and she made the All-Pac-12 team. Prized freshman outside hitter Krista Vansant is playing her best now. Nogueras and Sanders have learned how to command the team while rotating at setter. Outside hitter Gabbi Parker has gone from reserve to impact player. The players believe in this system now. It's all coming together.

"We love playing here because we know we're going to get better," senior middle blocker Lauren Barfield said. "Jim is just so honest. If you are working your butt off but you're not playing and you're upset, he'll show you why somebody is beating you out. And then he'll tell you exactly what you need to do to improve and tell you to work harder. He'll never B.S. you. He's in your ear. He's not a yeller. He's more like the good angel on your shoulder, telling you the right thing to do."

Sometimes, it feels inane to refer to the 49-year-old McLaughlin as a coach. It's an accurate description, and he dresses like a coach and motivates like a coach and even talks like a coach when warranted. But he's an educator, and that's when he's not out being a scholar. He has an insatiable appetite to learn. So do his players.

"Being here, I've found the love for the game again and just realized what a big part of my life volleyball is," Sanders said. "It's just nice, coming to practice every single day and being excited to practice. Everyone here is always wanting to get better. No one is sick of volleyball. It's just a way of life for us here."

François de la Rochefoucauld, a 17th century French author, once said, "Every great action is extreme."

And so, in the pursuit of greatness, McLaughlin did the extreme. He switched his team's system because, upon close inspection, 15-1 was merely good — and not good enough.

You ask why.

McLaughlin, the most cerebral coach you'll ever meet, always has an answer. He'll do anything to make his team better.

This is the deal.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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