Rain pelted John Volek on Tuesday morning as he hustled across the university grounds, meeting and greeting folks. Nothing could dampen his mood.
The “Big Cat” is back.
Volek – whose nickname fits his energy, people skills and drive – has returned to Sacramento State as the interim athletic director.
The move, in the works for weeks, became official Tuesday when Sac State President Robert Nelsen introduced the former Hornets football coach to the school’s coaches and administrators. All talked openly about goals and expectations.
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Bill Macriss, Sac State’s athletic director since March 2015 and a longtime campus figure in numerous roles, has been reassigned within the department. He will work with Volek as the executive associate athletics director for operations and facilities as the Hornets continue to look into facility upgrades, including a basketball arena.
Sac State has hired a search firm as it seeks a permanent athletic director.
“Very excited and proud to be back here,” Volek said. “Dr. Nelsen has a vision, and he asked me to come in on an interim basis to help as we go through a transition phase in looking for a permanent athletic director, and I’ll do my best. I’ll be here for the coaches, the student-athletes, faculty and alumni.”
Nelsen said Volek “walks the walk.”
“It’s a great move for us,” Nelsen said. “He sees the larger picture of what Sac State can be, what our destiny should be.”
Volek’s association with Sac State began in 1995, when the Hornets hired the Fresno City College coach to lead their program. The Placer High School graduate said then and now it was a dream come true to return to his native region. He coached the Hornets for eight seasons, directing some of the most prolific offenses in college football.
But Volek couldn’t elevate the Hornets into a consistent contender in the Big Sky Conference, and he often wondered later if he could help Sac State as an administrator. In recent seasons, Volek was always the man of the people when he attended Hornets games as a guest in a suite, shaking hands with scores of former players, boosters and alumni, many shouting, “Hey, Big Cat.”
After coaching at Sac State, Volek promised his wife of 43 years, Vicki, he wouldn’t coach again. He soon landed behind a desk, serving as dean of physical education and athletics at Sierra College from 2003 to 2011. Volek, who played football for the Wolverines in the mid-1960s, won several state and national awards for his work at Sierra, where he had a reputation for treating women’s and men’s programs and coaches equally. He was instrumental in facility upgrades at Sierra and overseeing programs that won championships across the board in women’s and men’s competition.
Following his retirement from Sierra, the Voleks traveled around the world and attended several regional sporting events involving their grandchildren, including Calvin Brownholtz of Jesuit and Chris Volek of El Dorado, both 2016 Sacramento Bee All-Metro football first-team selections.
Volek returned to Sac State because he couldn’t turn down Nelsen, and because many of his former players became teachers and coaches and expressed fondness for the university. Volek also has Vicki’s blessing. She and their daughter Heather Brownholtz joined Volek on Tuesday for the meet-and-greet sessions.
“I need to set an example that we all fall down in life, and you can’t crawl into a hole. You bounce back,” Volek said. “Vicki’s a Hornet again with me, and we can commit to three months of this. I had the great opportunity at Sierra College, and to have this opportunity to help again at Sac State is the right thing to do. I’ll jump right in. I hope to remain long term as a consultant or something to help Dr. Nelsen with his vision.
“We want to do well. We want to win. We have some of the best student-athletes in California right here in our own backyard. My goal is to get people to come out and watch our teams, to get the alumni back here, to experience Sac State.”