Though thinner and presumably healthier, the Big Cat is back, and how cool is that? John Volek is loud and loving and caring and compassionate. He can diet all he wants, but he still fills up a room. He coached Sacramento State’s most entertaining football teams and enjoyed even greater success as athletic director at Sierra College, primarily by squeezing arms while shaking hands and sharing words.
No, the only thing that isn’t so cool about Volek’s return last week as the Hornets interim athletic director is the suggestion that this is only a temporary position.
That interim tag has to go. University President Robert Nelsen should toss that term into the nearest recycle bin. The best man for the job is right here in his own backyard, invigorated and rested, and perhaps a little restless five years into retirement. With a little coaxing – maybe a lot of coaxing – Volek might even be persuaded to ditch the sweats and jeans for suits and ties.
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“I don’t know about that,” he insisted, with a laugh. “We didn’t even know each other until about a month ago. I’m sure President Nelsen will find someone really good to fill the position on a permanent basis. I just hope that, regardless of who comes in, I can stay involved in some capacity. You know how I feel about Sac State.”
The beauty of Volek? He will tell you all about it. He will give his heart and soul and put some sting back into the Hornets. Though previous athletic director Terry Wanless oversaw construction of the Wellness Center and improvements in the football stadium, and his successor, Bill Macriss, is respected for his tireless work ethic and is mastery of administrative tasks, neither possesses the booming voice and outsized personality of Volek.
The Big Cat is simply impossible to ignore, and despite the university’s large enrollment, lovely, leafy urban campus, and immense alumni base within the area, Hornets athletics are pretty much ignored. The overriding issues are consistent and interwoven: a distant relationship between the university and its graduates – and one of every 20 graduates is a Sacramento-area resident – and the absence of an on-site events center for basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, concerts and graduations, among other things.
Mens’ basketball coach Brian Katz often cites rival UC Davis’ ability to attract prominent speakers – he repeatedly mentions Bill Clinton’s multiple visits – to the Mondavi Center and the Pavilion, and notes the limitations of Sac State’s cozy but woefully inadequate Nest.
“We need to maintain what we have, which includes terrific track and field facilities, the Broad Center, the erector set of a football stadium that is finally getting a new elevator,” said Volek, “but we need that events center and we’re going to need some help from the community. That’s where we start. I mean, Sac State is our Division I university. If you look at our leaders, our teachers, our nurses, our CEOs, our police officers and firefighters, so many of them are Sac State grads. But where are they? We have not done enough to keep them connected to our school. That’s what I want to change. I will be out in the community constantly. I promise you that.”
Volek, who supervised a remodel of the athletic facilities and construction of a 1,500-seat football stadium during his eight seasons as AD at Sierra College (2003-11), was a one-man speaking tour in his previous life as the Hornets football coach (1995-2003). Rotary clubs. Kiwanis clubs. Boys and Girls clubs. Name a club, make a call and Volek was available.
Seated at a desk Friday in his sparsely decorated office, the longtime Carmichael resident pointed to notes scribbled on a paper calendar. The dates are filling quickly. He has plans, both large and small. Besides the aforementioned gatherings, Volek intends to contact City Council members, county supervisors, Kings executives and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
Besides generating enthusiasm and revenue for Hornets athletics, the Placer County native seems almost consumed by two of Steinberg’s frequently targeted social issues: the lack of mental health treatment facilities and the homeless crisis, the latter of which is acutely visible on the American River Bike Trail that hugs the campus.
Suddenly, he leans back in his chair, in one of his famously chatty moods, and begins to think out loud. He wants badly to brainstorm with Steinberg. Can his Hornets athletes help? Any chance of working with the homeless on the neighboring bike trail? What about the city and the university devising a pilot program that would engage students and athletes and “make a difference”?
“This is the capital of California, for crying out loud,” Volek adds. “We need to get everybody in a room and find some solutions.”
The benefits of his abbreviated retirement, he said, included the chance to spend time with his children and grandchildren, but also to travel extensively and experience other cultures. That was a first. Alaska. Turkey. Mexico. Several Caribbean cruises. Volek and his wife, Vicki, developed a particular affinity for Florence, Italy.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where I start to feel guilty, thinking I should be traveling to Florence before it’s too late,” he said. “But when President Nelsen approached me a month ago, and we talked, it just felt right. He spoke about a vision, and I heard what he was saying. The (Hornets) coaches can’t believe that he comes to almost all their games. He shows up and knows every player’s name. I am just really impressed.”
As Volek walked out toward the parking lot, two hours into the conversation, he was just getting started. Recalling a conversation that occurred in his old football office almost two decades ago, he became more animated with each word.
“Everybody laughed at me when I said we could become Florida State. OK, but why not? When is Sacramento going to realize this is their Division I university that plays D-I teams with D-I athletes? It kills me to go to other communities and see their events centers, to feel the energy between the city and the college teams.
“We need to engage more. We need to get more high school kids on campus, recruit local players more aggressively, get the coaches coming back, bring back Ricky Ray and Charles Roberts. If you don’t continue to engage with your graduates and your community, they will forget who you are. While I’m here – for however long that is – I am going to do whatever I can to bring us back together. I promise you that.”