Legendary UCLA men's volleyball coach Al Scates shoots for 20th ring
Scates, 71, is retiring after season and Bruins want to send him out on top
Coach built UCLA into national power and made college volleyball national sport
Scates was close to late John Wooden and became the wizard of men's volleyball
One day last month Al Scates, the UCLA volleyball coach, was sitting in his den rhapsodizing about a favorite subject: his national championship rings. "I rotate them depending on how I feel," said Scates, 71. From a drawer in his cluttered desk -- a Coltrane CD, photos of a golf trip to Scotland -- he pulled out a pair. "This one, the 2000, is a little big, so it's good for flying, when my finger swells." He strolled to his bookcase, where rings lined up on a shelf, a glittering history of his 50 years as the Bruins' coach. "Look at '72," he said, plucking it from a velvet case. "It's so small now, it makes a nice pinkie ring."
After taking inventory at his home in Tarzana, Scates accounted for a dozen national championship rings. That's two more than the haul of another UCLA legend, John Wooden, but not even close to Scates's total. His 19 titles are the second-most ever among college coaches, trailing only the 20 of North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance. Whither the missing bling? "Through the years a lot of my ball boys invited me to their bar mitzvahs," Scates said, "and I didn't feel like looking for a gift, so I'd give them a ring. I wasn't worried, because I knew I'd keep winning more of them."
Scates' confidence -- "as strong as cologne," says John Speraw, a former Bruins player and assistant coach -- has rubbed off on this year's squad, a largely unheralded bunch that has spent much of this season atop the polls. The Bruins' 22-7 record has pushed Scates's career mark to 1,239-289 (.812), which includes undefeated seasons in 1979, '82 and '84. This is his final year of coaching, and as the Bruins begin postseason play on Saturday, their mandate is to get Scates one last ring, giving him one for every finger and toe.
"There's a ton of pressure," says senior setter Kyle Caldwell. "We want to do it for Coach, we want to do it for ourselves, but we also want to do it for all the guys who came before us and built this program."
Scates is not only the sport's most prolific winner but also a pioneer who has shaped the way the game is played, a missionary who has spread it to unlikely places and a steward who has helped write the rule book. This season's farewell tour has been a chance for the volleyball community to pay its respects, and at every UCLA road game Scates has been feted with standing ovations and gifts from the host school. "This is my seventh year coaching against him, and I think I'm finally comfortable enough to walk up and begin a conversation," says UC San Diego coach Kevin Ring, 41. "I'm not sure any coach at any school in any sport has ever embodied winning the way Al does."
Scates wears his stature comfortably. After home matches he lingers to chat with fans and alumni, and he is solicitous of the most junior Daily Bruin staffer. He could once fill a gym with his hollering, but now he spends most of the time muttering salty asides to his lieutenants. ("Thank god he isn't miked," says assistant Brian Rofer, '80.) Mike Sealy ('93) compares Scates to the Godfather, but a new titanium left knee has left him with a bowlegged amble that evokes John Wayne. When he stands up to quietly address his team or chat with the linesman, every eye in the gym follows him. "Sometimes I think people stop breathing," says sophomore outside hitter Gonzalo Quiroga, who came from Argentina to play for Scates. "Of course everyone knows what he has done. But the respect also comes because we can see he is still burning to help us win."
Players and assistants have grown accustomed to receiving e-mails from Scates at 4:30 a.m., when he is already watching film. This year, for the first time, he is meeting with his staff after every match, no matter how late it goes. Following last month's sweep of UC San Diego at the John Wooden Center, Scates repaired to his small office, whose walls are covered with photos of his championship teams, one of which included a half-dozen Olympians. Crowding around were Rofer, fellow assistant Greg Harasymowycz and unpaid volunteer assistant Sinjin Smith ('79). (Smith and Karch Kiraly, '82, are the Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton of college volleyball.) During the half-hour meeting it was clear that nothing had escaped Scates's notice: not the angle of a player's arm-swing, not the position of fingers on the block, not the height of the toss on a jump serve.
Scates noted the preparations for the arrival of a visiting team two days later: "Do all the usual things -- deflate the balls and raise the net four inches." He has a deep laugh that seems to emanate from his toes, and by the time he gets it out he appears to be gasping for breath. After recovering from his own joke, Scates adjourned the meeting at close to 10 p.m. Later he ended the night with a celebratory glass of the Brazilian spirit cachaça, a new postmatch tradition that is his one acknowledgment that the end is near.
Scates came to volleyball, and coaching, mostly by accident. Growing up in Los Angeles, he did not plan to go to college, which made his high school romance with Sue Zetterstrom highly unlikely. "She was a soc, active in the student government," he says. "The guys in her group were very preppy in their white bucks. I was in the car club, wearing dirty Levi's and a greasy duck tail." Scates's father was a dispatcher for Douglas Aircraft, and after graduating from high school, Al spent a summer driving a tractor at the plant. He was so miserable he resolved to find a different kind of job. He matriculated at Santa Monica College and lucked into a position with the parks and recreation department in Culver City, coaching baseball, basketball and flag football. "I loved it right away, and to my surprise I was pretty good at it," he says. His passion intensified as his teams quickly won county championships.
Scates had been a standout jock. His dream was to play basketball for Wooden, even though he was a 6-foot-2 1/2 center. He switched to football at Santa Monica, playing tight end. Like a lot of Southern California kids he had goofed around with a volleyball on the beach, but he had never been part of an organized team. During his freshman year his football coach formed a volleyball squad and talked Scates into trying out. "He cut me after about five minutes," Scates says. After a spasm of laughter subsides, he adds, "I wasn't very good. But that motivated me to learn the game."
That education came at Santa Monica's State Beach, where the best players gathered on weekends for games of two-on-two. The most coveted court was near the parking lot; if you lost there it might be two hours before you got another chance. "One day this guy roars up in a convertible and hops out with an entourage of pretty girls in bikinis," says Scates. "Someone from the team I'm playing against steps off the court to let him have his spot. I couldn't believe that. The first serve this guy hits to me is a moon ball that goes so high I lose it in the sun. The ball falls at my feet for an ace. Then he hits this spinning jump serve that freezes me completely. Another ace. I'm like, Who the hell is this guy?" It was Gene Selznick, the self-styled King of the Beach. Scates picked up the game's nuances by observing and competing against Selznick and another member of beach royalty, Ron Von Hagen. "There was no instruction back then," he says. "The only way to learn was to watch the best players."
In 1959, Scates transferred to UCLA to play volleyball, practicing at night in the musty Men's Gym, where his teams still gather. By then he had married Sue, so he kept his day job coaching youth sports. After earning a degree in physical education in 1961, Scates began working toward a masters, which extended his eligibility. When the Bruins' coach, Dr. Glen Egstrom, resigned in the fall of '62 he recommended that his observant outside hitter take over as player-coach. Scates went before athletic director J.D. Morgan to apply. "I introduced myself and explained how much I wanted the job, and he barely looked up," says Scates. "Finally I said I couldn't accept any money because I wanted to try out for the Olympics in 1964. At that point ol' J.D. jumped out of his chair and started pumping my arm and said, 'Congratulations, son, you're hired!' " Scates got a $100 stipend for equipment; that ran out before he had purchased uniforms, so he borrowed old basketball jerseys from Wooden.
Back then volleyball was not sanctioned by the NCAA, so Scates led his first team to the final of the U.S. Volleyball Association tournament. In 1963, frustrated by the difficulty of scheduling matches, Scates founded the sport's first collegiate conference, the Southern California Volleyball Association, installing himself as commissioner and beginning a decadelong run as benevolent dictator. (The SCVA would morph into today's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.)