The 2019 season will mark the last in the legendary 38-year career of Garth Pischke. During that time, he’s helped build the Bisons men’s volleyball program into one of the top programs in the country. Pischke has led the University of Manitoba to the national championship tournament 27 times, winning nine gold, nine silver and five bronze medals.

In reminiscing about his career, one thing is for sure: Pischke still has the same passion and love for the game that he had close to four decades ago when he started as bench boss for the Bisons.

“I sat in with him for video the other day for the UBC game and he’s still got the same fire and the same passion and the same mannerisms that he had when he was with the national team and even before that when I was here 25 years ago,” notes Scott Koskie, a Bisons alum from 1989-95. Koskie, a setter, won two national titles with Pischke and also had him as his coach for Team Canada.

“That’s carried into a lot of the guys and is a result of what Garth put into us, that we still love the game, kind of like how he’s still doing it because he still loves the game. That hasn’t waivered.”

Pischke – an elite middle blocker who was in grade 12 when he made Canada’s Olympic team for the first time in 1976 – still vividly remembers big time wins and losses from the early days of his UM coaching career.

"I started as the young little punk on the [Olympic] team and when I finished in 1984, I was the dad of the team. I went through the whole gamut of dealing with different ages and different relationships and learning about different people." - Garth Pischke

The Bisons 1980 national title, for example was Pischke’s first as head coach of the herd a mere two years after being a key member of the squad’s inaugural championship.

It was an exciting time in his life. He had been named league MVP in the United States’ International Volleyball Association the year before and was four years away from representing Canada on the Olympic stage for the second time – all while leading a young team of Bisons as their coach.

“Starting to play at an international level so young, I really learned how to adapt to people of different ages throughout my career,” he says.

“I started as the young little punk on the [Olympic] team and when I finished in 1984, I was the dad of the team. I went through the whole gamut of dealing with different ages and different relationships and learning about different people. From a psychological standpoint I had a ton of experience with that.”

One of the key relationships Pischke formed was with Tom Graham, a teammate of his from the ’78 national championship team who was also on the roster for the 1980 triumph. The pair were roommates and best friends and would later go on to be the best man at each other’s respective weddings.

Having tasted defeat in the ’79 championship at the hands of the Saskatchewan Huskies, they, along with athletes such as impact setter Al Eadie – were hungry for redemption, which led them to the 1980 victory against the green dogs in Saskatchewan’s home gym.

“We couldn’t wait to play that match because we lost in five the year before in McMaster and it was painful. We should’ve won that game. We had beaten them any time we’d played them that year and we almost got a little too cocky in that game and ended up losing a close one,” recalls Pischke. The victory marked the first of three national titles in the 80’s for the Bisons, as well as a dominant run which saw UM reach the finals in 11 of the next 12 seasons.

Underdog stories

Interestingly, some of the championship triumphs that have stood out the most over the years for Pischke involve seasons where his squad wasn’t the top seed.

That held true in 1996 when every match involved an unforgettable win by the underdog Bisons.

First up was a round one win over Calgary, in the Dinos’ gym. That was followed by a semi-final upset of Laval – who had the player of the year that season in Francois Bilodeau.

The two teams had developed a stellar rivalry over the years but the Rouge et Or had the momentum that year, until Bilodeau literally and figuratively crossed the line after blocking a Bisons attack, firing up a roster that included outside hitter Jules Martens, who was as passionate and consistent as they come.

“[Bilodeau] walked up and stepped over the line and put a little x where the [blocked] ball landed. That was the end of it, we just went absolutely nuts and beat them in the semi. [Martens] wanted to win,and really went after teams and wouldn’t back down from anybody,” reminisces Pischke.

“You know the old story of let sleeping dogs lie. They had us, but Bilodeau doing that just fired us up. [Laval] were that fiery type of team and it was really fun to beat them because of that. You could see the pain in their faces.”

The finals saw Manitoba go toe-to-toe with No. 1 ranked Alberta, where Pischke – a student of the game studied his opponents rigorously and came up with a unique approach to help bring in the victory.

“We came up with this strategy to just serve their left sides short to try and tire them out. It didn’t work so well in the first two sets, but eventually the guys started to get tired and they started making mistakes and we ended up winning in five. That was pretty neat and we were a young team, just before I went to [coach] the national team.”

From 1996-2000 Pischke served as head coach of Canada’s men’s national team. Under his leadership, the program improved their national ranking from 21 to ten, recording memorable wins over such world-class teams such as Brazil and Cuba.

Pischke was also at the helm when Canada secured bronze at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, featuring local talents on the roster, Scott Koskie and Jules Martens.

Pischke’s response when asked about the experience of winning on home soil is another example of his humble and inspiring attitude.

“The Pan Am Games was huge. It was really a lot of fun because of the contribution from guys I coached at university, Jules being one of them and Scott another. You have to figure out who you’ve got and what you can do and then build everything around what you can do. I think by doing that we developed a confidence,” he says.

“Just to be able to do that at home and to be able to play as well as we did was really one of the highlights of my national team coaching career. Hopefully it had something to do with my coaching and trying to keep guys positive and believing in themselves.”

“When you’re on the same team together, him as a coach and me as a player, you spend so many hours together so your bond can only strengthen. It’s definitely contributed to the relationship that we have now." - Dane Pischke

Medaling with son Dane

Later in his UM coaching career, Pischke had the unique experience of coaching his son Dane, a Bisons alum from 2008-13 who also went on to rep the maple leaf.

“Dane was a very special kid. It’s so hard for a father to coach his son and even more so for a son to play for a father, given everything I had accomplished up until that point in time. I really don’t know how he did it, because it was really difficult.

He had to take a back seat all the time. There’s no way I could put him on a pedestal like I would with a Jules Martens or a Ken Krahn or a Scott Koskie, because the backlash would’ve been way too much for him and would’ve driven him from the game. I just had to keep the reigns back.”

The pair enjoyed a special moment at nationals in 2012, taking home bronze. Dane – a versatile right side hitter who was also a stellar blocker and defender – was outstanding the whole year and capped things off with a tournament all-star nod.

“He was the guy that carried us through a lot of matches when we were in trouble,” Garth says.

“I remember the quarterfinal game at nationals. We should’ve lost that to Western, but Dane was just phenomenal and refused to give up. We ended up giving him every ball down the stretch and he was hitting against a three-man block.”

Added Dane: “When you’re on the same team together, him as a coach and me as a player, you spend so many hours together so your bond can only strengthen. It’s definitely contributed to the relationship that we have now.

The bond that we currently have is as strong as it has ever been and I’m very grateful for that.”

In advance of the 2020 U SPORTS Men's Volleyball Championship, hosted by the University of Manitoba from March 13-15, 2020, we're shining the spotlight on some of the greatest figures in program history.


Trevor Hagan, Getty Images, Jeff Miller