Kristin Jackson remembers former Cal Poly volleyball coach Jon Stevenson as a mastermind who took the Mustangs from being one of the worst teams in the country to one of the best.
Kylie Atherstone remembers him as a teacher.
And Chelsea Hayes remembers him as a “pure genius,” who, she said, “knew exactly what to work on each day to get the most out of each player and the team as a whole.”
All three had positive experiences playing under Stevenson’s guidance at Cal Poly. They were also shocked to hear about his death June 24 in Van Nuys. He was 54. Results from an autopsy will be released as late as next month, according to the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office.
Stevenson’s death came nine months after he and the school agreed to a severance package for him to leave Cal Poly. He was removed as the volleyball coach Sept. 1, 2011, before an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by former Cal Poly players became public.
The abrupt divorce ended one of the most successful tenures in school history and exposed a dichotomy between players who raved about the coach’s methods and those who felt bullied and threatened by his actions.
Both factions agreed, however, that Stevenson’s acumen for the sport was undeniable.
“In terms of volleyball, Jon really was a mastermind,” said Jackson, who played for Stevenson at Cal Poly from 2005-07. “He took our team from about 450th rank in the nation to the top 10 in the nation within three years. He knew more about the game than any coach I have known. He loved the game and made it his life. He taught me so much, and I will always remember my experience with him at Cal Poly as one of the best in my life.”
Stevenson, who was a hall of fame pro beach volleyball player, began building his coaching résumé at St. Mary’s after taking the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals. The following year, he went to Cal Poly and guided the Mustangs to a 14-win turnaround season.
“When he left St. Mary’s and went to Cal Poly,” said Atherstone, who eventually became one of the best Mustangs to ever play for the program, “I followed him before even seeing what the school looked like. I knew that if I wanted to be the best athlete possible I needed to be coached by him.”
Atherstone helped lead the Mustangs to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2006-07.
“Jon helped me develop as a volleyball player in so many ways, not just physically,” she said. “Being an athlete isn’t just about being the best physically, but also about being emotionally sound and having the heart to push yourself to the limit. He knew this because of the amazing athlete he was. This is something that I didn’t completely understand until recently.
“He is still teaching me things after all these years.”
When news broke about Stevenson’s death, dozens of people commented on a Facebook post by AVP Pro Beach Volleyball — in which Stevenson was a founding member — regarding the late coach’s legacy. One commentator called Stevenson “a true pioneer,” while others expressed sadness in his death.
Hayes, also a former Atascadero High standout, shared captain duties with Jackson when the Mustangs went to the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
“Jon Stevenson approached every job with his whole heart,” Hayes said. “He had more passion for the game and for passing his knowledge onto his players than any person I’ve ever known. Watching Jon design and run a practice was pure genius.
“He was the best coach I’ve ever had and without him, I wouldn’t be half the player I am today.”