RCW: #OneTeam - Laura "Bird" Kuhn
The NCAA’s volleyball Final Four has covered the gamut of emotions for Jayhawk associate head coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn, but through the annual reminder the college volleyball community and anyone she meets is introduced to her late father, Jim, without even knowing it.
Q: How did your nickname “Bird” start?
A: It started when I was little, ever since I was born. I always had bird legs – long, skinny legs with no calf muscles. When I was born, I was a month premature. It was always “Laura Lu” and then “Lulu Bird” and then “Bird” just stuck. When I went on my visit to Georgia Tech I wasn’t really comfortable telling people my name was “Bird.” In high school by my teachers and everyone called me “Bird,” but to transition in that next phase (I didn’t really bring it to everyone’s attention). On my visit, my dad kept calling me “Bird” and everyone was like “Why does he keep calling her ‘Bird?'” Then it just stuck. Then in college, no one knew my real name – my academic advisors, no one. Stuff would come out and they would ask, “Who is Laura Kuhn?” They did not use my first name.
Q: Even in high school, the teachers called you “Bird?”
A: Some of them that weren’t into athletics didn’t, but they would hear everyone else calling me “Bird” and it would just catch on. It was a small school so it just kind of happened.
Q: Did sports play a big part in your life growing up?
A: Yes, when I was little my sister and I played soccer, we did gymnastics, and I ran track in junior high. Basketball and volleyball ended up being my main focus. During my freshman year of high school, I was actually playing AAU basketball and club volleyball. Which is crazy to think now, because I don’t think it would be possible anymore.
Q: It sounds like during your sophomore year of high school you decided to specialize in volleyball. What gave it the edge over basketball?
A: My sister and I both played volleyball and basketball and she had already decided she was going to play volleyball. I was my dad’s last hope of having a daughter to play basketball because I love it, but I loved volleyball. (My sister and I) despised basketball because our dad was the coach (haha). I loved volleyball, it was fun. When I made that decision going into my sophomore year, I still played basketball for my high school and loved it too.
Q: As a multi-sport athlete, do you like that trait in your recruits?
A: Yes, it is rare to find college coaches who want athletes to play other sports. Many of our players competed in other sports. I believe it keeps you well-rounded and makes you a balanced athlete. Otherwise you run the risk of getting burnt out so easily.
Q: How was your dad involved at the high school?
A: He coached (girls’ basketball at the high school) for years before my sister and I even got there. He coached us throughout high school. He was obviously a big reason why I played AAU basketball. He was all into it. He was just a diehard when it came to competing. My parents came to everything when I was at Georgia Tech. They both have strong personalities,. He was 100 percent coach.
Q: With your dad as the coach, you probably spent a lot of time in the gym, right?
A: I was a gym rat. That is a huge reason why I am wired the way I am to this day. It is the same with (Tayler) Soucie and Cassie (Wait). We talk about it all the time. Their dads were their coaches. You can see certain dynamics in the personalities and how they grew up in that environment. They are the coach’s daughter and you are supposed to be able to separate that when you go home, but you don’t. I think it makes you tougher, impacts your character. You hear sometimes, “Oh it’s the coach’s daughter, they’re going to be babied.” It was the exact opposite of that. It was extremely opposite.
Q: Was it fairly common in your house for the dinner table to turn into a chalk talk?
A: Yes, until my mom made a rule that we weren’t allowed to talk about basketball at home anymore. My senior year (my dad and I) didn’t even speak. That wasn’t because I wasn’t coachable. I was always very respectful. Coach Ritzler, his assistant, I’m still super close to him to this day and he always says, “You never said anything, but there was a look you could give and it would just make his blood pressure go through the roof.” He would kick me out of the gym or make us all run and I wouldn’t say anything. It was never disrespectful. We still laugh about instances to this day.
Q: When did the light go on for you regarding stepping in your father’s shoes and entering the world of coaching?
A: I never thought I was going to be a coach. I started coaching club after I graduated college. I don’t even know if it crossed my mind. I was a business major and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. Maybe my junior year of college it crossed my mind. Bond (Shymansky), my coach at Georgia Tech, he put my name out there. It was my second year coaching club, I was working for Delta Credit Union and I just wanted to stay in Atlanta. He gave my name out to a couple schools, I got called and didn’t know anything about it. I ended up interviewing at Appalachian State and started there. I bawled my eyes out the whole ride leaving Atlanta, but it has proved to be the right path. I wasn’t dreaming about being a coach or achieving all these goals. If anything, I didn’t want to be a head coach when I started coaching.
Q: When you were playing at Georgia Tech, did you see yourself as a “coach on the floor?”
A: No, actually. We talk about the dynamics of the team and I was more of the glue player. I was the comedy relief. We had a big senior class, there were five of us. All of us had a different role. Our senior gift was each of our personalities and what we brought. I was always kind of the glue. I believe it with any team and chemistry, it is the intangibles – being a human and understanding individuals. Now I also have this intense side that is from the way I have been trained and my upbringing. It is a mix of my experiences.
Q: Now that you are on the other side, are there things you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you competed at Georgia Tech?
A: Yes. My very first season of coaching I called Bond. During preseason and I said, “How did you not take my scholarship for not picking up off-blocker tips?” It was the running joke and the easiest play to make. Now when I train I can totally connect with our players because I can be like “I get it … I get it.” But it is the only job you have. As a front row player, when you are not actually blocking you just pull off and you have any tip that might fall in certain defenses. You have such tunnel vision when you are a player and you never really look at the big picture. Now I know as a coach This is what we think about every day. As a player, you are in school and you have a social life. So I have an understanding (as a coach) and I just try to break it down and be more relatable, because sometimes it just takes a while to click.
Q: Unexpectedly, the volleyball coaches’ convention in 2010 in Kansas City connected your family life and your volleyball life forever. What happened?
A: The convention at the end of the year has always pretty much been like our vacation. Its the end of the season, you go to learn, but you are hanging out with everybody and catching up. My best friend and I made this pact when we first got in to coaching that we were always going to go to convention no matter what was going on, because it was so much fun.
When I was leaving Miami (Florida), I put on this old 70s sweater of my dad’s that I love and had my roommate take my picture in it at the airport and sent it to my parents. I said, “I’m heading to Kansas City” (for the convention) and my mom replied, “You are wearing that ugly thing?” So the irony is that I actually took that sweater and had it with me when all that happened (with my dad).
Q: How did you find out about what had happened to your dad?
A: I was at the All-American banquet and my sister texted me and I replied, “I’m at a banquet. I will call you later.” The banquet started and I noticed that Bond got up and left the banquet hall. Two minutes later he walks back in and walks directly toward my table. I felt like I was in college again, like what did I do? Then he took me out to the hallway and said, “You need to call your family right now.” I instantly started crying because I could just see it on his face.
I called my sister and got the shocking news. He just didn’t wake up. My (old) teammates and coaches from GT all came to my (hotel) room and took me to the airport. That was one of those experiences that makes you family for life. It is crazy that it was in Kansas City and now I am here, which is almost why it feels like home. When I flew up here for my interview, I didn’t even think about it and I landed and I thought, “Oh my, this is the airport.” It was three months later. I had never been to Kansas or this campus before and I obviously I am from a big basketball family. On my interview, I got to meet with Coach Self and I had a moment then, because I knew my dad would have loved this. He would be living with me here right now (haha).
Q: Fast forward five years later, you are back at the convention but this time you are coaching a Final Four participant and you are being recognized as the assistant coach of the year. How was that?
A: It was awesome, obviously I always want him to be there … I know he is always with me though.
That banquet was cool. I got emotional because the banquet was on the same day, not the same date, but the same day (when he passed). My mom flew in and Bond, Sally (Polhamus) and Lauren were all there at the table. I got to the banquet late, right from our practice. I knew they were all going to be there and that they were going to take care of my mom, but I didn’t know that they were all going to be at the same table and it made me sad that I didn’t even get to see them or share that special moment.
Q: It sounds like you received an outpouring of support from the volleyball community, how is that group?
A: I think the volleyball world in general is a pretty special, unique group. It is pretty tight-knit and everyone is connected somehow. Even with recruiting – club coaches, college coaches – it is somehow going to overlap. If you don’t treat people right it is going to be an issue.
Q: How are your mom and your siblings doing since your father’s passing?
A: My mom and I are super close, we all are and always have been. I’m so glad she has been a part of everything. We all get our strength from each other. My mom still travels and spends a lot of time at home in Ohio with my sister and her family. We all text or talk every day. If we haven’t heard from each other then we are asking about each other. It has brought our entire family closer. (It) Makes you realize and appreciate time spent together. My family makes me stronger.
Bird and Maggie Anderson celebrate after Kansas ended the fifth set on a 6-0 run and upset USC on its home court to advance to the 2015 Final Four.
Q: Have you had the opportunity to really look back at last year and relish in the fact that you were a part of a Final Four team that only had three losses on the season, all to the two teams that played for the national title?
A: I don’t think I really accepted how cool or how special it was until our team camp this summer. I had never watched our entire highlight video start to finish because I left our banquet early to take a recruit to the airport. I watched it and thought, “That is really cool.” There aren’t a lot of people that can say that they knocked off a No. 1 seed. I was so caught up in that match and with me being me, nothing is ever good enough and we didn’t play consistent in that match, then we came back. I never really accepted it was cool, even at the Final Four. It was a very special experience that all of us will carry with us. Now looking back it was very cool, but it doesn’t change how we will go about things day to day.
Q: Have you also had the opportunity to think about how proud your dad would be?
A: I feel closer to him now than I ever have. I feel like him sometimes and I know that is why I am the way that I am. It surprises me how many people (here at Kansas) didn’t know him, but they tell me they feel like they know him through me. That is the best feeling.