The man who started it all
UCLA's Scates laid groundwork during 50-year career
LOS ANGELES – Fifty years.
Fifty years as the head men’s volleyball coach at UCLA.
It’s almost staggering when you consider what Al Scates has done in his career. Starting the program. Heck, basically kick-starting NCAA men’s volleyball. The 19 NCAA national championships. The blue curtain. Hundreds and hundreds of players, including 27 future Olympians.
“Every single one of us played for Al,” says UCLA women’s coach Michael Sealy, who was a senior on the 1993 UCLA title team. “There’s not one person that’s ever gone through UCLA volleyball who didn’t have Al as head coach.”
It may never happen again in any sport anywhere. After 50 years, Scates, 72, calls it a career at the end of this season.
“He’s a unique guy, no question. He’s set records I can’t ever imagine being broken,” says Hugh McCutcheon, now the U.S. women’s Olympic coach and former U.S. men’s coach. “I can’t imagine coaching somewhere for 50 seasons and having whatever he’s at, 1,200-plus wins.
“It’s an incredible career and it’ll be unmatched.”
It’s not lost on anyone in volleyball, especially not Scates, who seems to be taking all of it in stride.
“It’s nice,” Scates says with a smile. “Everywhere we go there’s something being done. It’s nice.”
Hawaii gave him an inscribed warrior’s club that has shark’s teeth imbedded along the outside.
Pepperdine presented Scates with a painting of the sun setting over the ocean. He laughed hard when he said that the frame “cost me 500 bucks.”
Southern Cal not only gave him a framed USC jersey with the number 50, but brought back many former Trojans including those from the 1980 team that beat UCLA in the national championship match.
“That was a nice touch,” he said with another laugh. But Scates posed for pictures with them and said he really enjoyed it. UCLA won the match. And USC didn’t even know it, because it was just trying to commemorate 50 years, but 50 was actually the number Scates wore when he played at UCLA in the 1960s.
This farewell tour across the college volleyball world has been made even nicer since Scates’ current team is ranked No. 1 and headed for what many think could be an appearance in the 2012 NCAA NC Men’s Volleyball Championships May 3-5 at, of all places, in the Galen Center on the campus of USC.
The Trojans, ranked fourth, would love to not only get to play on its home court, but face UCLA that week.
“He is responsible for so much of our sport’s development that we will never be able to fathom what he did to promote our game,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “He is the best in-game tactician there ever was.”
Scates’ overall record is 1,233-284. The only coach who could come close in volleyball is Penn State women’s coach Russ Rose. In 33 years, Rose has won five NCAA titles and compiled a record of 1,058-172.
“I look at the 19 national championships and shake my head,” Rose says. “I can understand 50 years at UCLA because they don’t have winter. Al is in a great location.
“But the number of great players who have played at UCLA and the bond they all have for each other and the university is the greatest contribution he has made to the sport. That’s his lasting legacy.”
The branches reach far
Volleyball aficionado Alfred Agcaoili lives in Hawaii and may be the biggest Al Scates fan. He has written extensively about him and recently put together the Al Scates coaching tree, which shows the incredible influence Scates has had on the game. You could start anywhere, but the best player Scates ever had – most say the best player there ever was -- Karch Kiraly, is McCutcheon’s assistant on the 2012 U.S. women’s team.
In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation alone, the league in which the Bruins compete, there are two head coaches who played for Scates.
|SEE THE TREE|
|• See Alfred Agacoli's rendition of the Scates coaching tree by clicking here|
John Speraw, a member of the 1995 UCLA title team who was an assistant to McCutcheon in 2008, has won two NCAA titles at UC-Irvine (2007, ‘09) and his Anteaters are currently ranked third.
There are many people in volleyball who think Speraw will be Scates’ successor. And just as many are rooting for Irvine to face UCLA in the NCAA championships in May.
Jeff Campbell played one season at UCLA before transferring to Cal State Northridge, where he’s had a successful 15-year run as coach. And next year, California Baptist, coached by another former Bruin, Allan Vince, joins the MPSF.
Retired UCLA women’s coach Andy Banachowski, like Scates a member of the AVCA Hall of Fame, played for Scates in the 1960s.
The club volleyball world and high school ranks are filled with former Scates players. Down the hall from his office, his first-year volunteer coach is another former Bruin, Sinjin Smith [1979 NCAA title], one of the best beach players ever.
Former player Tim Kelly, who now runs international volleyball tours, joked that there were too many stories to recount just one.
“But you realize that it’s 50 years of the same thing,” Kelly says from his home in Nicaragua. “Him getting the best guys in the gym, having the best coaches around him, knowing everything himself, as well, and everyone having a good time. Work hard and then you can play hard.”
And then there’s Sealy, whose office is now next to Scates’. This past December, the former UCLA star and assistant to Scates capped his third season as the UCLA women’s coach with the Bruins’ first NCAA crown since 1991. For Sealy, he had truly come full circle.
When he was in high school, he served as a line judge at college matches in the area, especially at UCLA. That had to stop when he agreed to accept Scates’ offer to be a Bruin. Although he knew the then-legendary coach, it wasn’t like he settled into a comfort zone at UCLA.
“He’s bigger than life,” Sealy says, thinking back to arriving on campus in 1989. “It’s not a big secret that he’s not super tight with his players in a chummy-chum, buddy-buddy fashion. It’s pretty daunting. Talking to Al was always nerve-wracking. You were talking to a demi-god.”
But there was a lot to learn.
“His biggest strength is my biggest weakness, at least early on my first two years [coaching] here. The composure. Sometimes my emotions get the best of me in some ways. I get a little bit too up and down emotionally,” Sealy said.
“The thing that blows me away is that no matter how heated the match gets or how big the stakes are, Al is always as calm as could be. During timeouts, during the match, after the match.”
Sealy said that was something he tried to emulate during his team’s run last fall. He also employs coaching strategies he learned from Scates.
“His pre-game preparation was amazing. We do a lot of matchups here and I learned the matchups from Al. It’s the way you write up your scouting report and you can do it six different ways depending on the six possible places you can start. So I really spend a lot of time and energy into the matchups and analyze each possible rotational matchup.”
To prove the point, Sealy displayed sheet after sheet that UCLA used in preparation for the NCAA title match last December against Illinois. It’s no different from the sheets he prepared when he was Scates’ assistant coach.
“It becomes a chess game,” Sealy said.
When UCLA won the crown last December in San Antonio, an ecstatic Scates was on hand, although Sealy joked after that he thinks his old coach’s first comments to him were questioning some sub or strategy.
“It was wonderful,” Scates beams. “I got there early. I watched him to do his dance before the finals with the girls. He was loose, they were loose. It was good to see him like that.”
'We had to grow the sport'
Scates just beams when he tells this story. But to set it up, you have to understand all that he did to help promote volleyball way back when, from giving free clinics to high school programs – “We had to grow the sport. I knew eventually it would help the colleges” – to ensuring that the so-called national semifinals would include teams from all over.
“In the beginning there was no high school boys volleyball, no club volleyball teams, no girls sports at all, there were no college women’s teams. The only thing there was college men’s teams,” Scates says.
“We’re all conscious of what made men’s volleyball successful in this country and there’s no question Al played a big role in that,” Olympic coach McCutcheon says.
“I’ll tell you what I’m proud of, too, is founding the Southern California Volleyball Association in 1963,” Scates says. “And we played in 1964. Before that volleyball was only played at YMCAs on Saturdays. So the college teams would go play open teams on Saturdays. We didn’t play against each other except when we had the all-Cal tournament.”
What evolved is today’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation college conference, which gets one team into the NCAA championships.
When Scates was head of the NCAA tournament committee in the early 1970s, “I made a rule that there had to be one team from the East, one team from the Midwest, one team from the West and one at-large team and the rule’s been followed ever since. So that guaranteed, as it turned out, a spot for Penn State every year.”
He laughed at that.
“But on the other hand, it spurred an interest in the high schools in Pennsylvania and New York and Ohio. Ohio State is good – they won last year – but if we only took the best teams, in the ‘70s we just would have taken four Southern California teams and the sport would not have grown. In the East, there are all those Division III teams and now they have their own championships and I’m proud of that.”
That’s not lost on even his fiercest competitors.
“He was always very open to helping out,” says USC’s Ferguson. “When I was a young club coach, I was able to come into his gym whenever I wanted and watch them practice and learn about what was going on.
“He was very good to me throughout my formative years as a coach. … Al’s been really gracious to me, even since I’ve been here. I think he realizes I have the utmost respect for him.”
That was grassroots. It was a volleyball event at the highest level, in December 1964, that may have changed everything.
“This is the most important thing,” Scates says, and then he tells the story.
“I was playing on the U.S. volleyball team in Mexico City and the director of our zone, Dr. Ruben Acosta, was at the match. He told me the Brazilian national team was hosting the gold-medalist 1964 Japanese women and the bronze-medalist Japanese men in Brazil and on the way back they had to land at LAX.”
So as soon as he could, Scates went to longtime legendary UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan and told him, “We can put a tripleheader volleyball match in Pauley Pavillion and it won’t cost a thing.”
Scates had already made a deal with USA Volleyball, which agreed to house the Japanese teams in a Los Angeles hotel for one night and feed them.
“So J.D. Morgan agreed. We signed a contract with USA Volleyball, they signed a contract probably with the Japanese and we kept the gate receipts. Now, I had no help in promoting this.”
Morgan got him the athletic program’s season-ticket mailing list. And Scates made posters promoting the event.
“I took them down to Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, and nailed them to telephone poles,” Scates says.
The now defunct newspaper, the Herald-Examiner, agreed to run stories.
“My wife would type articles up and I would take them in.”
He recalls that more than 5,000 volleyball fans filled the UCLA arena that night to watch the UCLA men beat USC and the Japanese women beat the U.S. women. One UCLA player, U.S. Olympian Ernie Suwara, played in the first match for the Bruins and then in the third match against the Japanese. Scates, of course, played for the U.S. men.
“We beat the Japanese for the first time in the history of the competition between the two teams. J.D. Morgan, our athletic director, comes up to me after and says, ‘I have never seen a volleyball match before. This is terrific.’ And he’s looking up at all the people who paid money to see this and says, ‘I’m going to make volleyball an NCAA sport.’
“He was chairman of the NCAA basketball committee who negotiated with the networks for the TV money. So he was a powerful guy. So he made volleyball an NCAA sport in 1970. And at that time we started playing real rules. No graduate students, same rules as basketball.”
Speaking of basketball, UCLA coach John Wooden, whom Scates said he became friends with and got to know very well after Wooden retired, would give the volleyball team hand-me down basketball jerseys to wear as uniforms.
An isolator – and a motivator
The blue curtain is almost as entrenched in the lore of men’s volleyball as Scates.
McCutcheon, a New Zealander who played at BYU, which is in the MPSF, offers this about UCLA volleyball:
|1965||24-2||USVBA National Champions|
|1967||23-3||USVBA National Champions|
|1988||28-10||First Round, Regionals|
|1999||20-7||First Round, Regionals|
|2002||25-7||First Round, Regionals|
|2007||19-11||First Round, Regionals|
|2008||17-14||First Round, Regionals|
|2009||14-16||First Round, Regionals|
|2010||16-14||First Round, Regionals|
|2011||16-15||First Round, Regionals|
|1,233-284||21 national titles|
|* Records through March 4, 2012|
“I think they have a great sense of what it is to compete. That environment, with the famous blue curtain, and all the rest of it, that’s very much a galvanizing environment that facilitated the development of their competitive psyche. The Bruins I knew, knew how to compete and knew how to battle and all had strong volleyball IQs and knew how to play.”
Ah, the blue curtain.
“I never once played on the other side of the blue curtain, but I had to coach there,” Sealy says. “It sucks. It’s a necessary evil. You’re in Double-A ball or the farm club and you’re trying work your way up. It’s not easy and it’s tough on the ego and you hear the competition going on, you hear the battles.”
Scates didn’t intend for it to become the monster it did. It started with practicality.
“Back when I was a player at UCLA we practiced at night,” Scates says. “The gym was taken over by varsity basketball from 3-5 and then freshman basketball from 5-7 and then from 7-9 you had men’s wrestling, men’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics. A curtain separated the three sports. We were center court. We had a curtain on either side, a big blue curtain. The curtain on the east side is where the gymnasts were. A lot of our volleyballs went over to the gymnasts’ side. Not too many went over to the wrestlers’ side. They got upset, whereas the gymnasts didn’t seem to mind.”
Speraw told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, “I spent a whole year there and I never wanted to go back. It's really tough practicing there, but I do have fond memories from that year. That's where you learn.”
Scates, who apologizes for rambling through a story but always gets back on point, was amused at the attention given the blue curtain.
“I used the blue curtains to separate my teams. But my first team in 1963 I only had eight people on it and I played on it. I was taking education courses. I was teaching full-time, working the playground from 3-5, coaching volleyball and going to night school.”
“And that allowed me to play on the team. It was not an NCAA team.”
He laughed again and he got close to the framed photo of that group and reached out his index finger.
“I had three lawyers. A third-year law student, a second-year law student, I think he was a first-year law student. The rest were four undergraduates. And we took second. We went to the USA collegiate men’s volleyball championships. And we were beat by the best coach in men’s volleyball, who coached at Santa Monica [junior college]. His name was Lt. Colonel Burt DeGroot, retired. He was really a good coach. Anyway, I finally beat him in 1965.”
DeGroot, one of the founding fathers of SoCal volleyball, died last May.
“Anyway, as I began to get more and more players, I started putting the players behind the blue curtain in excess of 12,” Scates continued. “Eventually, in 1967, I got an assistant coach and if we had more than 12 he could coach the other guys. If we had somebody we wanted to develop it was important they didn’t just stand there.”
The blue curtain is legendary for being both an isolator and a motivator.
Reed Sunahara won three NCAA titles as a player at UCLA (1982, ’83 and ‘84) and three as one of Scates’ assistants (1987, ’89, ’93). But his freshman year he was behind the blue curtain.
“I wasn’t good enough,” Sunahara says. “My freshman year was the only time I went there and never again.”
Current senior Ryal Jagd understands.
“I have been behind the blue curtain most of my career here,” Jagd says. “But every so often I get my chance and go up and take advantage.”
These days, the UCLA roster numbers 30. Because of the defensive-specialist libero, 14 players can now compete on the big court.
“We put the court the long way now, so I only use one blue curtain. It’s a safety issue, too, so the balls don’t go under the feet.”
And it still delivers quite a message.
“I don’t see you if you’re behind the blue curtain. You have to fight to come back.”
Even Sinjin Smith, captain of the first undefeated UCLA team in 1979, did it.
“One of those years when he was a starter he was not giving me 100 percent. So I sent him behind the blue curtain for two weeks. When he came back he was the hardest working player we had from then on.”
'He loves every aspect of his life'
Scates is the only volleyball coach Rich Bertolucci has had in his 30 years in the UCLA sports information department.
“He only has one rule and that rule is don’t embarrass the university,” Bertolucci says. “That obviously covers a lot of behaviors, but that encompasses everything.”
They’ve obviously been through a lot together, especially this year when so many are paying attention to year 50.
“Personally, I think every coach in the country has something to learn from Al Scates,” Bertolucci says, “be it coaching or preparation or how to deal with staff members or how to deal with media.”
Former U.S. Olympic assistant coach Greg Giovanazzi started at UCLA as a player in 1976 and then served as Scates’ assistant from 1981 through 1990. He is a former head coach at Michigan, Loyola and Johns Hopkins.
“Al’s enjoyed every day of his life since the day I met him,” Giovanazzi says. “He is just somebody who has made the most of life. That above all I think kind of gets lost in all this. He loves every aspect of his life.”
One thing that’s evident is that Scates maintains a level of separation between him and his players while they are his players.
“I was always a little on edge talking to Al,” admits Sealy, who was his setter.
But, he adds, “Once you graduate the relationship forms.”
“Once a player finishes playing for me, they usually are my friends,” Scates says. “All of them come around at one time or another.”
Kelly, the former middle from the 1990s, says simply, “He’s a great guy. As fun as you can be … Most of the stories you’ve heard are true no matter how far-fetched or crazy.”
One is that Scates forgets his guys’ names or messes them up, but as he interviewed for this story, he would often roll his chair over to the wall on which he has team photos of every one of his teams and point to the picture and talk warmly about a former player.
On the sidelines, he remains calm and confident, at least on the outside.
“I wasn’t calm when I first started coaching,” he says. “I had to go to the emergency hospital. I thought I was getting ulcers. And I was. So I just decided I couldn’t get that excited anymore and I had to look ahead to the next play and think about what was going to happen next and quit blowing up about what just happened. That calmed me down.”
Scates says he has never gotten a red card for expulsion and can’t remember when or if he got a yellow, which is a like a technical foul in basketball.
Not that he can’t get mad.
“I scared the hell out of my setter yesterday,” he says with a laugh. “I have to work at it now. It’s so hard to act angry. But I pulled it off yesterday. Actually, by the time I finished with him I was genuinely angry.”
Sealy said the attitude they got from their coach was invaluable.
“It still just blows me away the confidence he exudes,” Sealy says. “When we were young and dumb, it could have come across as brash and arrogance, but it wasn’t until we won in ’93 that we realized what that confidence means.
“Coming to UCLA back in the day was a guarantee that you were going to win the title. So you walked in with this kind of arrogance like you’d already won it. And not until my senior year, when we threatened with being the first senior class with not winning a title did we realize what the confidence really was.”
UCLA won that title in 1993. And this might be a good time to list all 21, starting with the 1965 and 1967 U.S. Volleyball Association championships. The NCAA crowns: 1970-71-72-74-75-76-79-81-82-83-84-87-89-93-95-96-98-2000-06.
Unlike those first 45 years, when every senior won a title, UCLA has just won once since 2000.
Accordingly, the last one was obviously special. He said the 1972 team wasn’t supposed to win and the 1974 squad was an at-large entry that came out on top.
“But the most unlikely team we ever had to win a championship was the 2006 team,” Scates says. “We were 12-12 in the middle of the season. And to become an NCAA champion, you have to win six sudden-death matches. You have to play four times in our league [tournament] and then you get to be the champion and get to the NCAA, which is a final four.
“So we’re playing in Pauley Pavilion and I remember Karch was doing the color. And we’re down 0-2 to USC and I used my last timeout in the third game and I said, ‘You know, this is the season. We have got to start winning now. We’re not even going to make the MPSF playoffs, we’ll have absolutely no chance to go to the NCAAs and somehow we came back and won that match and won that game.”
Scates made some unconventional subs that season, some forced by injury, but pulled off all the right moves.
“This team just came together. We were so good at the end I don’t think I got off the bench once against Penn State [in the final]. We beat them 3-0 at Penn State. That was one of my favorite teams.”
'I just needed one good night’s sleep a week'
Fifty years ago the president was John F. Kennedy. You could only score in volleyball when you were serving. There was no cable TV or internet. Coaches didn’t break down video of a match five minutes after it was over. For that matter, the men’s volleyball coach at UCLA wasn’t even a full-time position.
No, Scates was an elementary school teacher for 35 years in Santa Monica and then Beverly Hills until retired in 1997. He had already won 16 NCAA titles.
Actually, he was hired full-time at UCLA in 1978. Morgan, the athletic director, “says to me that I have a full-time job. I told him, ‘Yeah, I have a full-time job because you’re not paying me enough to work here.’
“It was a Catch-22. I was still working full-time here and sleeping four hours a night.
“I would work as a teacher and then come over here, have my assistant warm the team up, come into the office and get my messages, go to the gym and coach till about 6, go home, eat dinner, spend some time with the family, and then I’d look at 16-millimeter film or whatever we had on our next opponent, scouting reports, plan the practice. I mean, I’d get to bed at 2, 3 sometimes. But I could do it then. I just needed one good night’s sleep a week.”
One of the things he did when he retired from the school system was get in a round of early morning golf before heading to campus. But this season, Scates hit the links in late February for the first time since December. He shot 94.
“We’re practicing at 7:30 in the morning. I have a coaches meeting. I swim from 11 to 12 and then I’m on this damn computer the rest of the afternoon.”
He swims for 45 minutes.
“In the women’s gym. I used to clean that pool back in 1959 when I was a student here.”
Happy wife, happy life
Thomas Amberg, a senior from El Cajon near San Diego, when asked about what he’s learned from Scates says, “one of his mottos is ‘Happy wife, happy life.’”
Al and Sue Scates have three children and four grandchildren.
“Sue, the first part of my career, was raising three children, and didn’t get to travel with me at all,” Scates says. “Now she gets to come. Now she gets to enjoy the season with me, which makes it a lot more enjoyable for me.”
Sue, he said, gets to pick where they travel next.
“Places she wants to go. She went to Hawaii this last time, I’ve taken her to Korea and all over Western Europe, but there was a volleyball team with us at the time. I’ll go anywhere she wants to go.”
But first comes the end of this 50th season, one that Scates analyzes by saying, “Every year there are several teams that can win and this year is just like it.”
“We came in as freshmen and did the math in our heads and realized the 50th year was going to be our senior year,” Amberg says. “We could kind of see it coming, but you could never be sure that coach Scates was going to retire in the first place.”
Amberg leads UCLA in blocking and hitting percentage this season as the Bruins have compiled a record of 16-2 overall, 10-1 in the MPSF.
“I’m happy that our senior class has the opportunity to be a part of something so big. If we can ultimately reach our goal and win the title this year that would be an amazing story,” Amberg says.
That’s what everyone seems to be thinking. UCLA might have dominated through 2000, but since then no team has won more than twice.
“This has all the makings of the ultimate storybook sports story,” Kelly says. “If he could somehow beat SC in the final or beat Speraw and Irvine in the final and they actually win in his 50th season, it would be tremendous.”
Fifty years. One last championship run.
“That would be wonderful,” Scates says. “That would be great. I would love to do that. This team would love to do that. That’s their goal. That’s my goal, too.”
Win or lose, it’s been a remarkable run.
“I know this team has given its best effort and that’s all you can ask from a team. I’m giving my best effort, the coaches are working hard,” Scates says.
“I haven’t played golf since December. My normal routine was to play golf [early in the morning] and come to work. That’s been my routine since I retired from school. But this year I decided to practice in the morning. My choices were to go in the morning or the evening, so I gave up golf to go in the morning, because this is a very important year.”
Not just for him, but for all of volleyball. And next season, he’ll play golf every morning he can.