David Lauderdale

‘He was about doing the right thing’: Lowcountry’s ‘Mister Volleyball’ Al Stern dies

Al Stern with the 2007 Class AAA state championship trophy won by his girls’ team at Bluffton High School.
Al Stern with the 2007 Class AAA state championship trophy won by his girls’ team at Bluffton High School. Submitted

Al Stern was a life-changing coach for hundreds, or thousands, of young Lowcountry women.

And that doesn’t count what they learned from him about his life’s passion — the game of volleyball.

“He also taught life skills,” said Tina Franklin, whose two girls played for him, and who moved up from assistant to head coach at Bluffton High School when Stern retired.

“Mental toughness,” she said. “Accepting life on life’s terms when you are doing the best you can. He believed if you give it your best effort and your best focus, the outcome will follow. He always told his coaches that the wins and losses would take care of themselves, that it’s much more than wins and losses.”

Stern died Friday at age 84. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. He will be buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery.

Stern’s impact on the Lowcountry began in 1996, when he and his wife, Pat, were among the early arrivals at Sun City Hilton Head. He had served 28 years in the Army, followed by 12 years in the private sector with a company that built the National Crime Information Center database.

He served four years on the Beaufort County Board of Education, and he was a leader within Sun City in its early days.

But he’s best known as the father of Lowcountry volleyball.

Stern was an athletic kid from Brooklyn who played baseball at Purdue University. But while serving in the Army in Europe he was introduced to volleyball and never put it down. He was a competitive setter on championship club teams, and as a coach he was running drills as recently as last month.

Stern coached at Hilton Head Island High School when he and coach Chris Gray came up with the Low Country Volleyball Club that now involves about 70 girls on traveling club teams. There was not a club team within 100 miles at the time; now there are clubs in Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah and Bluffton.

He also coached at Hilton Head Preparatory School before creating the program from scratch at Bluffton High School when it opened in 2004. In the fourth of his 11 seasons there, the Bobcats won the state Class AAA title. They were runners-up in 2005 and 2009.

Stern retired at the age of 80, and just last week was named to the Bluffton High School Athletic Hall of Fame, along with Dave Adams, who hired him, and Heaven Harvey who led the 2007 team to the state title.

Some 50 of his girls earned at least partial scholarships to play in college. And some are now coaching the game.

Stern was a competitive coach who set a high bar, but not a brow-beater. And coaches in other sports said they learned from him how to run efficient practices.

Franklin said he taught discipline, teamwork, leadership, accountability, communication skills and the joy of the game.

Maybe that’s why he was considered old-school.

“Quite honestly, I didn’t know any other way to do it,” Stern told the Packet when he retired in 2015.

“I spent 28 years in the military. I was just disciplined to start with. I had to learn a lot about coaching females. Not in terms of competitiveness, but the way girls really want to be part of a team, be inclusive. I think saying, ‘OK, here’s the standards we’re going to live by’ actually helped.”

Elise Silver Simons of Hilton Head, whose daughter plays with the Lowcountry club team and has served on its board, said Stern may have been old-school, but he was always cutting-edge.

“What I admired most about him is he never stopped learning,” she said. “At 84, he would send coaches new drills to try, lead clinics with new skills, and share articles from college coaches to help the girls get better. “

Franklin said he was not only a student of the game, but a student of coaching. He coached coaches as much as players, she said. He was a close friend of the late Vic Bubas, the legendary Duke University basketball coach, when he lived in Sun City.

“He was always analyzing not just different skills, but different coaches and their philosophies and tweaking his own philosophy to encompass what he’d learned,” Franklin said.

And Stern kept tabs on his players throughout their lives, sometimes live-streaming their college matches.

Franklin said he even went in her place to parents’ weekend at her daughter’s college in Tennessee when she was coaching and could not go.

“He had strong moral convictions,” she said. “He was about doing the right thing. His heart, mind and soul were so strong. And by heart I mean his capacity to love.”

(The Low Country Volleyball Club Board of Directors has established the Coach Stern Memorial Scholarship Fund to provide scholarships for local athletes to play travel volleyball with the club and reduce the financial burden of doing so. Low Country Volleyball Club is a 501c3 organization and memorial donations may be made to: Low Country Volleyball Club c/o Elise Simons, 2 Carma Ct, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926.)

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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