Mike O’Hara, one of volleyball’s all-time greats — both on the court and then after his playing career — died February 1 at 85.
“He was a giant of our sport,” former USA volleyball coach, player and CEO Doug Beal said. “He’s one of the unique icons of our sport as a player, both indoors and on the beach, and as a promoter.”
O’Hara excelled in both indoor and beach volleyball.
“He was a great player,” said beach-great Ron Lang, who was one of O’Hara’s rivals indoors and on the beach. “And great is overused these days, but he was truly a great player.”
O’Hara, who had complications associated with Alzheimer’s, is survived by his wife of 54 years, Arlen O’Hara, children Kelley and Ryan, and grandchildren Spencer, Josie, and Michael.
“He had a lot of fun, had a lot of friends, he sculpted his life,” Arlen said. “He designed it.”
O’Hara’s indoor accomplishments included college championships in 1953 and 1954, playing on three Pan American teams, including gold in 1959 and silver in 1963, and he was a member of the first USA team to qualify for the Olympics in 1964.
O’Hara’s teams won six open division USA volleyball nationals titles, he was named MVP in 1961 and 1963, and he received seven first-team All-American honors.
O’Hara’s beach resume is headlined by winning the first five Manhattan Beach open wins with Mike Bright, a mark that still stands.
“Mike was really strong mentally. He had great desire, he was really hard to beat,” beach great Ron Von Hagen said. “He could really cover the court. They were the first of the big teams, but as the game evolved where they were bigger guys, their mental strengths kept them on top. He’s one of those very few players that were on top both indoors and on the beach.”
O’Hara, nicknamed “the Jumping Jack,” was one of the first players to block on the beach, and certainly one of the most potent hitters.
“He had two talents that set him apart from all the others. He had the will to win, and he was one of the best hitters on the beach,” Lang said. “He could hit from anywhere on the court, and hit it hard.”
After his playing career, O’Hara was a promoter, organizer and broadcaster. He was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 1989 (induction video below), the CBVA beach volleyball Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Southern California indoor volleyball Hall of Fame in 2017.
He always seemed to be in the right place to make significant contributions, working with icons such as Peter Ueberroth for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Mark McCormick, who founded the IMG sports agency, Jerry Buss of the Lakers and Ted Turner of the TNT networks.
O’Hara developed the International Volleyball Association, Team Cup, the International Track Association, and the sport of Wallyball. He assisted with the American Basketball Assocation, where he was on the committee that created the three-point shot, and the World Hockey Association. As the owner/creator of Wallyball, he pioneered rally-scoring, which has since been adopted by the FIVB.
“He was just really passionate about the sport,” Beal said. “He had tremendous creativity, drive, and ideas. In some respects he was probably ahead of his time. He was always thinking of interesting international events and activities for the sport.”
O’Hara was born in Waco, Texas, but moved to California at 7. He grew up on the beach in Santa Monica, attending Santa Monica High School. He was 4-foot-10 in the 10th grade, but grew 17 inches in 18 months, reaching his full height of 6-4. He attended Santa Monica City College before transferring to UCLA, where he took up volleyball.
In 1953, O’Hara and his Delta Tau Delta buddies won the intramural championships at UCLA. They talked the athletic director into allowing them to represent UCLA in the national collegiate volleyball championships in Omaha, Nebraska.
After winning the championships, the team piled back into the car, roping the championship trophy to the roof of the car, and talked the UCLA athletic director into making volleyball a varsity sport upon their return, initiating a volleyball program that has won 19 championships.
He met Arlen on the beach in 1961.
“I was watching the tournament at Corona, sitting on my towel, and during the match, the ball rolled over to where I was sitting. I picked the ball up, and threw it back to the guy, and our eyes met, and that was the beginning of our 55 years together,” said Arlen, noting that they married 18 months later in 1963.
He was remarkably efficient as a beach player.
“He had an unbelievable percentage of first- and second-place finishes (77 percent per BVBinfo.com) in the tournaments he played in, I think he was first or second just about every tournament he played in,” Von Hagen said. “He had a great record.”
Lang played two events with O’Hara.
“He taught me one thing” Lang said, “You can out-think your opponent.”
O’Hara’s volleyball playing days ended in his late 60s, but he was still able to fuel his competitive fires while competing on the senior 70s and 80s tennis circuits.
Perhaps the biggest of O’Hara’s passions was the Olympics.
“He loved the Olympics,” Arlen said. “He had friends all over the world from all kinds of different sports. And he loved volleyball, indoors and out.”
O’Hara attended every Olympics from 1964 to 2012. In the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 he worked for Ueberroth as director of international television, selling the TV rights abroad. He also consulted in various capacities for the Calgary, Seoul, and Barcelona Games.
As a broadcaster, O’Hara worked multiple summer Olympics games, as well as the Goodwill Games.
“I think sometimes he either intimidated or scared people because he thought of volleyball as a more mainstream sport,” Beal said. “I think a lot of the time we limit the sport ourselves in the way we think about it, by thinking small.
“I really appreciated his creativity. I really enjoyed the interactions we had. Every time I saw him, he would always have two or three big projects either active or in his mind. He was an aggressive and creative thinker about the sport, and I always loved that.”
O’Hara’s son, Ryan, who played at Pacific Palisades High and Stanford, remembers the passion his father had for the game.
“I was 6 years old and he was 42 and our goal was to bump the ball back and forth a hundred times. It took several days, but we finally did, and we were so excited. It was awesome, it was a huge accomplishment,” Ryan recalled. “It was the first time that I fell in love with volleyball because I could see that I was getting better. It was a great moment for us.”