Legendary UCLA men's volleyball coach Al Scates shoots for 20th ring (cont.)
Scates' playing days for the Bruins ended in '63, but he kept working at the game and was named an alternate for the 1964 Olympics, the first Games to include volleyball. He didn't get called up for the trip to Tokyo, but in '65 he captained the U.S. team while at the same time coaching UCLA to its first USVBA championship. In the summer of '65, while in Mexico City representing the U.S., he caught wind that a few months later the Japanese men's and women's teams (the latter had won gold at the '64 Games) were scheduled to have a layover of several days in L.A. on their way home from a tournament in Brazil. Scates talked Morgan into allowing the first-ever volleyball matches in Pauley Pavilion, a triple-header featuring UCLA versus USC and the U.S. men's and women's teams taking on Japan. Scates then spent months promoting the event. "I drove from Hermosa Beach to Malibu nailing posters to telephone polls," he says. "I'd write stories longhand for the Herald-Examiner -- Sue would type them up and then I'd hand-deliver them to Bud Furrillo, the sports editor."
On Dec. 17, 1965, Scates coached UCLA to a resounding win over the Trojans then suited up for the U.S., which defeated Japan for the first time. But the real victory was at the gate. "Back then the biggest crowd I'd ever heard of for a volleyball match was a couple of hundred people," says Scates. "We brought in 5,000 -- paid. Afterward J.D. Morgan found me on the floor and said, 'I will personally see to it that volleyball is made an NCAA sport.' Luckily he had that kind of power."
While Morgan was working behind the scenes, Scates was reinventing the game. UCLA had won another USVBA title in 1967, and by then as many as 100 undergrads were trying out for Scates's team. In '68 he uncovered Toshi Toyoda, who was only 5-6 but had wizardly setting skills. "In those, all anybody did was high, slow, predictable sets to the outside," Scates says. "Toshi allowed us to do some new things." UCLA began running quick sets to its inside hitters and sophisticated combination sets in which two hitters were sent to the same area, overwhelming the one opposing blocker. "The guys we were playing against were awestruck," says Ed Machado, a Bruins setter from '68 to '71. "Our system was light years ahead of what any other team was running."
In 1970, Morgan finally came through on his promise, and volleyball was given the NCAA stamp of approval. With Toyoda serving as a graduate assistant and mentor to Machado, the Bruins went 24-1 and took the national championship. Scates would win four more rings in the next five years. He had simultaneously birthed an NCAA sport and its first dynasty.
In 1975 Wooden retired from coaching, and he eventually settled in an office next door to Scates's. They talked almost every day, often about baseball, a shared passion. Scates was privy to Wooden's mischievous sense of humor: "He loved to leave me messages pretending to be a disgruntled alumnus. He'd say, 'It was nice to finally see the team play up to its potential at the end of the year -- how do you explain the poor results in the first half?' Then he would laugh and hang up. He'd always ask me later in the day, 'Did you get my message?' The really funny thing is that we would have just gone like 32-2 and won another championship."
Wooden generously shared his coaching philosophy; he once gave a special lecture to one of Scates's middle school physical education classes. In the early '70s Scates began giving back to his game, conducting clinics for auditoriums full of high school coaches from Medford, Ore., to Madison, Wis., to Mobile, Ala. In '78 the coaching clinics were folded into a larger operation called the Al Scates Summer Camp, an annual barnstorming tour that hit Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio, New York and Southern California. Scates trucked in his own nets and balls, along with three or four dozen instructors, usually his current or recently graduated players. "Generations of players all over the country learned the game because of Al," says Harasymowycz, who attended his first camp as a 12-year-old in Buffalo. "Coach singlehandedly turned Buffalo into a volleyball town. Now it's a recruiting hot spot."
Scates advocated for the sport in other ways. NCAA volleyball's first three Final Fours came by way of at-large bids, and all the teams were from Southern California. "That was good for us," Scates says, "but it made it impossible to grow the sport." In 1972, as chair of the NCAA volleyball committee, he reorganized the Final Four so one team would automatically qualify out of the Midwest and one from the East, a system that endures. This has led to the rise of powerful programs such Penn State and Ohio State, which have taken rings off of Scates' fingers.
He has also had a profound effect on U.S. Olympic volleyball despite personal disappointment. (A two-time alternate who never got a call-up, he coached the 1972 national team but failed to make it to Munich when the U.S. lost a qualifier to Poland 15-13 in the fifth set.) In '72, Scates pushed through an NCAA volleyball bylaw to ensure that the college rules mirrored Olympics', to better prepare future national-team members. "Al instilled in us the dream that we could take the national team to new heights," says Kiraly, who led the U.S.' 1984 and '88 gold medal winners. Four other Bruins were key contributors on those teams. Fred Sturm ('76) coached the U.S. team to a bronze medal in 1992, and four years later Kiraly won gold in beach volleyball.
"Al's fingerprints are on a lot of Olympic medals," says Kiraly, who also led the U.S. to the '86 world championship. "From the grassroots to the college game to the international level, the impact he has had over five decades is mind-boggling."
Scates has coached 52 first-team All-Americas and seven players of the year, but the stat he seems most proud of is that four of his former players have won national championships as coaches. (Two others lost the title game.) Two dozen Scates disciples are coaching at the high school, club, college or national level, spreading the UCLA way. Of course, the UCLA way means something different to each of them.
"I believe the secret to his success is the competitiveness he builds into every practice," says Reed Sunahara ('86), who recently stepped down after 12 seasons as Cincinnati's coach.
As a boy Scates earned a quarter from his father for prevailing in a fistfight against the neighborhood bully, and he cultivates bare-knuckle toughness. The Men's Gym is bisected by a blue curtain that stretches from floor to ceiling. On one side are the first- and second-team players in a daily scrap for survival. "Al has a long history of benching All-Americas if they're getting outplayed in practice," says Sunahara. On the other side is what is derisively called the Bronze Medal Court, with 18 or so players desperate to get noticed. Scates rarely ventures over there, leaving it to his assistants to monitor the progress of the understudies. "The only way to move up to the first court is for a player to dominate every drill," says Harasymowycz. "The intensity and level of competition over there is absolutely ferocious."
John Speraw was a longtime UCLA assistant and has won two national titles in the past four seasons coaching UC Irvine, which used to be a perennial doormat. He believes Scates' defining trait is his preparation, which is built on the analysis of sophisticated statistics, many of which he invented. In the hours before a match Scates likes to be left alone to pore over the matchups, and he is constantly tweaking his lineup in search of the slightest edge. "The game plans are precise, the practices are efficient, the evaluation of talent is always spot-on," says Speraw. "Al's got that laugh and he's a fun-loving character, but beneath all that he is an obsessive preparer."
Kiraly, an assistant coach for the U.S. women's team, identifies yet another reason for Scates' success: "He's the best there's ever been as a tactician and with game management." This rep dates to at least the 1974 national championship game, when an undersized UCLA team took on powerhouse UC Santa Barbara. The Bruins were getting creamed in the fifth set when Scates summoned little-used Sabin Perkins to serve, despite a broken finger. He nailed three aces in a run of six straight points, and Scates stole another ring.
Bruins of more recent vintage like to replay the '98 national title game, against Penn State, in which UCLA again trailed in the fifth set. Scates benched Ben Moselle, a fifth-year senior and returning All-America, in favor of true freshman Mark Williams, who had not played a minute in the match. Williams led the comeback victory. "I've been a head coach for 10 years now, and I still don't have the courage to make a move like that," says Speraw. "But Al has always been utterly fearless."
For all the knowledge and attitude that Scates brings to the gym, many of his former players credit UCLA's success to a clanlike cohesion that Scates creates. Kiraly talks of a "brotherhood," saying, "We believed in each other absolutely, because Al believed in us." When Greg Giovanazzi ('78) died on March 19 after a seizure, Scates called numerous Bruins to give them the sad news and share stories about a colorful character. Days later Scates' voice was still thick with emotion as he discussed his former player and assistant coach.
Scates is also there in happier times. He always tries to make a former player's wedding. "He knows the wives, he knows the kids, he knows how your business is doing," says Machado. "If you're coaching he knows the score of your last match. Al simply loves being the patriarch."
A family vibe has been palpable at home matches this year. Rofer's nine-year-old son, Remington, sits on the bench, just as Scates's son, David, and daughters, Tracy and Leslie, did in years past. This season there have often been four generations of Scates's family at the matches, with some combination of his kids and four grandchildren joining his spunky 93-year-old mom. But Scates is trying not to get caught up in the sentiment surrounding his impending retirement. He's a six-time coach of the year and a member of a handful of Halls of Fame, but he says, "This year I'm working harder than I ever have on a team, because I don't get another shot."
Postseason play begins on Saturday, and in a delicious twist, this year's Final Four is hosted by a hated crosstown rival, which in an e-mail Scates refers to as U$C. "We all understand what the ultimate goal is," says Sealy. "It's just that for so long, UCLA volleyball has made the extraordinary seem routine, and maybe none of us appreciated the accomplishments enough at the time. I hope that no matter what happens, Al can take time to reflect and savor all that he has done."
Scates smiles indulgently at such talk. "That's all very nice," he says, "but I want another ring." This one he promises not to give away.