It was a quiet and intimate affair. Perfect for the man at the centre of it all, Bisons men’s volleyball head coach Garth Pischke.
Alumni, media and members of the Manitoba volleyball community packed Lot 88 Steakhouse and Bar for a press conference Thursday Mar. 5, kicking off the final leg of Pischke’s farewell tour.
The Canadian volleyball legend will round out an illustrious career by coaching his club during the 2020 U Sports men’s volleyball national championship.
But as much as the event was about the championship, it was just as much about Pischke, as speakers swapped stories of the winningest coach in North American sports history.
“When we had a chance to host [the national championship] we jumped on it for a variety of reasons,” Bison Sports athletic director Gene Muller said.
“Despite our illustrious history, we had never hosted this event. So, it was a chance for us to host this event at the University of Manitoba.
“I had found out about a year ago that Garth was of the intention of retiring, and I thought this would be a fitting tribute […] to have an event that in some way recognizes him and using the appropriate stage to retire on.”
One of the alumni to speak was Scott Koskie, who spent six years under Pischke’s tutelage with the Bisons, along with four years playing for him with the Canadian national team.
Koskie’s son, Darian Koskie, currently plays under Pischke at the U of M.
“I got to know [Pischke] a lot as a coach and a lot as a person,” the elder Koskie said.
“It was a great experience. I learned a ton […] and everybody asks, ‘What is it about Garth? What does he do? How has he been able to accomplish the things that he’s been able to accomplish?’
“There’s a whole bunch of different things I think you could answer that with, but for myself and the guys that we played with in that era I think it came down to a simple thing […] Garth was the best at what he did.”
To Koskie, Pischke was not only the best coach in Manitoba, or Canada, but in the world. Through his time being coached by Pischke, Koskie said it was impossible not to have his attitude and approach impact your own.
“When you get to hang around with somebody who’s ‘the best’ [for] two and a half hours a day, five days a week, some of those habits eventually rub off,” he said.
“When we were in the gym, Garth would be in there with us, hitting balls with us — sometimes at us — blocking some balls, and doing all those things that the best guys do.”
This dedication to the game helped Koskie and his teammates come together as a group and believe they too could be “the best,” he said. And this continued on to Team Canada, where Pischke took the Canadian club to new heights.
“He took the team from 21st in the world to 10th in the world in a really short period of time,” Koskie said.
“We started to beat teams like Brazil, we started to beat teams like the U.S.A., because of what he brought to us and we won a bronze medal here in Winnipeg in 1999 at the Pan Am Games.”
After Koskie and others were finished sharing their stories, an emotional Pischke stood up to speak. Typically collected and in control, the veteran player and coach’s voice wavered as he spoke.
“Where do you start with all this? It’s been a heck of a long time,” Pischke said.
“I can say, ‘Let’s go back to 1978,’ but I wouldn’t want to bore you with too many details.”
After thanking those in attendance, Pischke told the story of his first years as coach of the Bisons.
“Back when I started [at the U of M] I coached the team [for] a couple years on an honorarium basis — maybe about $2,000 a year,” he said.
“I went to Joyce Fromson, our [athletic director] at the time and I said, ‘You know, I can’t keep doing this anymore, it’s crazy,’ and she said ‘Oh, well let me see what I can do.’”
A deal was struck to have Pischke serve as coach part time for the Bisons as well as part time for the Manitoba Volleyball Association as technical director. A year later, with the roles consistently coming into conflict, Pischke again approached Fromson.
“Joyce was good to talk to because whatever Joyce wanted, Joyce got,” he said.
“She was an incredible, incredible person. They hired me full time and, I used to tell people, ‘If I’m doing this for 20 years, want to hit me over the head or something?’ and then here we are 43 years later.”