[EDITOR’S NOTE: With UCLA coach Al Scates retiring at the end of the 2012 season, Off the Block is encouraging members of the volleyball community to send us their recollections and thoughts about what the Hall of Fame coach has meant to the sport. Below is an article written by Alfred Agcaoili]
For all the national championship banners that adorn the rafters of venerable Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA, it can be said that one of its noteworthy alums made quite a contribution.
With the distinction of UCLA becoming the first school to win 100 NCAA national championships, one-quarter of them can be traced back to one man: Al Scates.
A devoted UCLA Bruin for the greater part of his life, Scates, 72, enters his 50th and final season as head men’s volleyball coach where he has amassed an extraordinary track record in a decorated coaching career that most coaches in any sport would dream of.
Scates announced his retirement in May 2011. He is set to retire following the completion of the 2012 NCAA men’s volleyball season.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Scates, the all-time winningest college volleyball coach and one of the greatest coaches in sports history.
To say that Al Scates knows how to coach volleyball is to say that Joe DiMaggio knew how to hit a baseball. Enshrined in four different halls of fame, his passion, vision and profound leadership has been the driving force as the architect of a historic intercollegiate men’s volleyball program that set a high standard in American sports history, legitimizing volleyball as an NCAA sport. He is considered a foremost pioneer and authority with volleyball increasing in national attention due in part to his unwavering dedication and contributions dating back to when Elvis married Priscilla.
What’s more, Scates has achieved greatness and is in great company with basketball coaching legends Pat Summit, Tennessee; Dean Smith, North Carolina; legendary football coach Knute Rockne, Notre Dame and fellow volleyball coaching greats Marv Dunphy, Pepperdine; Russ Rose, Penn State; and Dave Shoji, Hawai`i, to name a few, to coach their entire storied careers at the same academic institution.
Encouraged by Dr. Glen Egstrom, his volleyball coach at UCLA, to apply for the head coaching position while he was out of the country conducting research for the school’s Department of Kinesiology, Scates jumped at the opportunity. Outgoing athletic director Wilbur Johns hired Scates to coach the 1962-63 UCLA team.
When he initially met with Johns at his office, the athletic director paid no mind to the young aspiring coach. Not until Scates pointed out to Johns that he couldn’t accept any money in order to maintain his amateur status from his desire to play for the 1964 USA Men’s Volleyball Olympic team did he get his attention.
“Congratulations, son! You’re hired!” recalls Scates with a big grin.
Johns didn’t know at the time that he would be the person ultimately responsible to sign off on the hiring of who would become one of the game’s greatest legends.
Even legends have mentors. Scates, appropriately referred to as ‘The New Wizard of Westwood,’ became close personal friends with The Grand Wizard, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who gave Scates his team’s basketball jerseys because of the paltry $100 annual budget allocated to the men’s volleyball program during the 1960’s.
“We made due with the basketball jerseys Coach Wooden gave us,” Scates fondly remembers, who is the first active coach to be inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame. It became a signature look for what would help his teams earn five of the first six NCAA national titles until Wooden retired in 1975. Scates’ Bruins would sport the basketball jersey look for many years thereafter before volleyball sponsors provided his program its apparel and equipment needs in the following decade.
How apropos that Scates would match Wooden’s 10 NCAA titles in 1983 then surpass his mentor the following season on the Bruins’ home court at Pauley, guiding them to title No. 11 in an Olympic year. The first-ever Olympic gold medal in volleyball for the United States was achieved by a USA team that featured several of Scates’ Bruins – Karch Kiraly, Steve Salmons and Dave Saunders – led by legendary coaches Doug Beal, Bill Neville and Tony Crabb. Kiraly would celebrate a second consecutive gold medal in 1988 with fellow Bruins Doug Partie, Dave Saunders and Ricci Luyties as his teammates.
It is no small wonder that when any team or opposing coach defeats an Al Scates-coached team, the feeling is equivalent to winning the gold medal. He expects to win every season, exuding a confidence that has resonated with his Mighty Bruins over the span of five decades, equally felt by opposing teams and coaching counterparts. Scates has a great dexterity to build teams and to get them to perform when it counts the most evidenced by his men’s volleyball program that is steeped in excellence.
UCLA’s 19 all-time NCAA crowns still dominate as does Scates’ career coaching victories of more than 1,200 wins, amazingly all at his alma mater. No other collegiate coach in any sport can claim this. Any professional coach would dream to have their team in the championship match every year. Scates has led his team to The Promised Land a staggering 25 times of the 40 NCAA men’s volleyball national championships and has remained relevant beyond winning. His impact endures, spanning multiple generations, and will continue long after he leaves the sidelines to enjoy time with his family and a round or two of golf.
“The main thing to realize, especially for someone of my generation, was that going to UCLA and playing for Al meant that you were guaranteed to win a championship, and you knew you were in the best gym in the country,” said Tim Kelly, who at 6-foot-10 played middle blocker on the ’93 NCAA title team and is currently the owner of Bring It Promotions. “It was that simple: If he wanted you, you were set. You had to rise to the top of your class to make the team, but you were in the gym with the best players in the nation, and you were wrapped up in a tradition from the moment you set foot in the men’s gym. And if you wanted to move forward to the (USA Men’s Volleyball National Team) or pro ranks overseas, the path was lit for you by being part of the Bruin machine.”
Volleyball Pioneer and Icon
Scates’ work in volleyball throughout his decorated career has been groundbreaking. His path to greatness began at Westchester High School in Los Angeles where he played basketball and baseball. He then attended Santa Monica College where he played football prior to transferring to UCLA. Scates attended volleyball tryouts at the recommendation of his football coach who wanted to form a team. He cut him in the first five minutes. Determined to learn how to play volleyball, on weekends he would head to the beach courts where he met Ron Von Hagen, who would enjoy a Hall of Fame career and become close personal friends with Scates, and beach volleyball legend Gene Selznick.
To support his family, Scates taught physical education full-time in the Santa Monica School District from 1962-65 then for 32 years in the Beverly Hills School District from 1965-1997. Scates was part-time at UCLA from 1962-77 and became full-time in 1978.
Scates was way ahead of his time and contributed greatly to a sport that gained popularity around the world. The United States is a big country but, ironically, has a very small population in boys volleyball compared to countries such as Russia and Brazil. Over the years, there has been fantastic work done at the collegiate level which has increased in participation in the sport nationally. More boys are playing volleyball now, and that number has increased exponentially for boys and girls over time from the great work at all levels of the sport, especially an ambitious grass roots effort at the youth and junior club levels.
The rise of men’s volleyball at the collegiate level and Scates’ achievements provides a glimpse of the impact he has had in volleyball both nationally and internationally.
A collegiate All American and former member of the USA National Team, Scates also coached and advised the USA Men’s National Team program.
An agreement between the NCAA and ABC television network to televise the NCAA Volleyball Championship Final started in the early 1970’s; ABC Wild World of Sports provided national television coverage of the 1974 NCAA title match between UCLA and UC Santa Barbara played at Santa Barbara. The excitement and drama of that match, which UCLA won in five sets, created high television ratings. ABC executives were pleased and prolonged its agreement many times thereafter. Scates would be the guiding light to the first seven out of ten national titles won by the Bruins in the first decade men’s volleyball was sponsored by the NCAA beginning in 1970. UCLA capped the decade with the first undefeated team in the organization’s history with a sparkling 30-0 record.
Scates’ contributions are difficult to measure because of how far reaching they are. He has had an indelible influence on all his student-athletes over five decades; the people who have worked with him as assistant coaches; his work with the USA National team programs with Doug Beal and numerous working groups and committees. In fact, he was a member of the first NCAA Volleyball Committee, serving as chairman in 1971 and ‘72, and completed a five-year term from 1985-90 as chairman of the American Volleyball Coaches Association Men’s Committee. He was re-elected in 2004. Scates has given a lot of himself for the growth and development of volleyball. Perhaps the greatest contribution he has made has been himself and all his efforts for the love of the sport.
He glances at the wall at his Maryland home. His eyes and heart smile. He is grateful. The memories flood his mind. This is great for his spirit after retiring following a decorated coaching career. Affixed to the wall is a framed letter, next to it a shadowbox containing his Olympic bronze medal from his days assisting the USA Women’s Olympic volleyball team. John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success also hangs next to his prized treasure. The letter reads, “To Gio: The Official UCLA Volleyball Historian.”
It is signed ‘Al Scates.’ Affectionately known as “Gio” by friends and colleagues in the volleyball coaching circles and his fellow Bruins, veteran coach Greg Giovanazzi smiles as he reminisces of his days at UCLA. He embraces the nickname given to him by Scates. A soft spoken man with a heart of gold, Giovanazzi credits much of his development as a player and coach to him.
The former University of Michigan women’s volleyball coach speaks glowingly of his former boss and lifelong friend. He is honored to do so.
“Al was the consummate competitor,” says Giovanazzi, whose brilliant coaching career was interrupted due to persistent migraines that forced him to seek medical care in Baltimore.
He maintains a zest for life and credits his dear friend Al Scates for the amazing life he has lived through volleyball, the lifelong friendships made and fond memories he has had over the years.
Giovanazzi served dutifully under Scates for 7 years, one of many noteworthy assistant coaches in the UCLA men’s volleyball program. He then assisted Hall of Fame UCLA women’s head coach Andy Banachowski, another Scates protégé, before becoming the top assistant to Dr. Terry Liskevych with the USA Women’s National Team that qualified for the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games in 1992. Every single assistant served with the same pride and professionalism as its iconic head coach, each hand-picked by Scates. “A big key to developing a championship team is to hire outstanding assistant coaches who are willing to work hard,” advises Scates. And all his assistant coaches for the past five decades have done just that.
Scates primarily hired from within, as he believes that many of his former players who transitioned into the coaching profession possess the best understanding to help the student-athletes on the current roster of what it will take to excel in his program.
One of the assistant coaches Scates is most proud of is Denny Cline. A former starter on three NCAA championship teams, Cline was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002. He served as Scates’ chief lieutenant from 1977 to 1980 then from 1982 to 1986, helping the Bruins to a total of seven NCAA championships over 12 years, four of them as an assistant coach including the only three undefeated men’s volleyball teams in NCAA history in 1979, ’82 and ’84. Cline left the sidelines in 1986, graduating among the top in his class at the prestigious Berkley Boalt Law School. A successful entertainment attorney in Los Angeles for over 20 years, Scates considers him as “one of the best assistants” he has had during his entire tenure in Westwood. The two remain close personal friends.
His current assistant coach, Brian Rofer, has enjoyed a 35 year friendship with Scates having played for him from 1978-80. He recognizes his friend and mentor as “the single most influential person in my career and one of a handful of truly influential people in the development of who I am as a person.” Rofer, a member of the historic undefeated UCLA team that won the 1979 NCAA title, has assisted Scates for the past 21 years. The life lessons he has learned from the legend: Always prepare and be prepared; Investment of self and the willingness to invest in one’s self must be inherent in an individual if they truly desire to succeed; Put forth your best effort and compete EVERY DAY; Always look like you are winning – ALWAYS; No matter what the score or your record, keep playing, keep competing, keep coaching, keep teaching; and the single most important team rule: Do not do anything to embarrass yourself, the program or the University.
Being a part of Scates’ coaching staff was equivalent to an accelerated graduate class. And while he embraced challenges and always loved to compete, Scates also knew how to have fun. Back in the day, he didn’t require much sleep, running 10 camps across the country in 7 different states during the summer beginning in 1978. They would feature as many as 360 participants per camp.
On occasion, Giovanazzi and Scates would sneak away to compete in a set or two of tennis during breaks. “Al and I had these running tennis battles at every summer camp and he always brought his A-Game,” says Giovanazzi.
At one of his last camps of the summer in Pittsburgh, Kansas, Scates issued a challenge to Giovanazzi: the summer tennis championship was on the line. Giovanazzi roundly accepted. “It was on!” laughs Giovanazzi, not one to turn down a challenge. Scates had deposited the quarter.
As Giovanazzi and the rest of the camp staff was in the gym finishing up the evening session, Scates walked around the school campus looking for an outdoor tennis court. “He comes into the gym with a huge grin and tells me that he found a court for us to play on,” says Giovanazzi. As it turns out, the court had no lights, cracks in the pavement and an old chain link fence.
“It was the worst court in town,” laughed Giovanazzi. “He had psyched me out with ‘home court advantage.’ He beat me badly.” Scates won the match between the two and with it bragging rights as the summer champion in tennis. Needless to say, Scates’ competitive instincts presented itself yet again, only this time away from the volleyball court.
The proof is in the pudding. Scates’ teams were mentally tough. And, they executed. The Mighty Bruins were an extension of their coach, known among his many players as the ultimate competitor. Scates knew how to win, mainly because of his innate competitive instincts. This competitiveness continues to this day. Assistant coach Greg Harasymowycz recalls a moment during his second year coaching with UCLA under the legend. He was on the second court behind the blue curtain when Scates called him over to work with the athletes on the first court. His task: coach the second team on the first court. The criteria were “win by two, game to 15 points.”
Scates would be coaching the first team. The directive to Harasymowycz: coach the second team as if it was Game 5 of the National Championship match.
Confidently, the assistant coach acknowledged that he would do as expected and set out to win the game. When the game started, he did as he was told by Scates, huddling up his team for quick overview of their opponent’s tendencies and rotations to tactically take advantage of all opportunities to win. In the end, Harasymowycz coached his team to a two point loss, 18-16. After the two teams shook hands and a few parting words for the second team, Scates walked over to his assistant coach. His head was slightly tilted to the right and he squinted as if he wasn’t very pleased. In a questioning tone, he asked, “Did you coach the second team to the best of your ability?” Harasymowycz replied, “Definitely Coach!” immediately going into a technical analysis of what could have been improved. Scates listened to the response without interrupting. When his assistant coach stopped talking, Scates had a facial expression that was unconvinced after having given his explanation serious consideration. There was an awkward three second pause in which neither of the two spoke. Scates then looked directly at Harasymowycz, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head up and down, let out a grunt as if he wasn’t pleased, then turned and walked away. Concerned, the dutiful assistant coach began to replay in his mind what he said and whether his response was appropriate, thinking that perhaps his mentor wasn’t pleased with how he coached the second team. After walking away approximately 20 feet from his assistant coach, Scates turned around and said, “Well, now you’re 0 and 1 against me” letting out a loud laugh as he walked out of the gym.
Regardless of coaching for 49 years, Scates was still as competitive as ever. It will be no different in his 50th year in Westwood.
The Bruin Mystique
Perception is the reality, especially for outsiders who are not privy to the inner workings of the program Scates has built. What many do not understand is that the extraordinary achievements of Scates’ Bruins were the product of hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work and preparation.
“There was always so much mystery around the blue curtain and what really happened in that gym,” says Kelly. “But Al simply had the ability to get all the best players together, surround them with all these wonderful coaches and former players from the greatest program in collegiate history, and then implement a system that allowed guys to battle it out. The competition in the gym at practice every day made matches against other teams during season pretty easy in most cases. We were expected to win and ready to do so.”
He had attracted top talent in a volleyball hotbed in Southern California, selling to prospective student-athletes the opportunity to receive a great education at one of the nation’s best academic institutions and be part of something special beyond winning championships. He did not tolerate resting on laurels and insists the student-athletes follow rule number one: Do not do anything to embarrass the team or the university. Anyone who deviated would no longer be a Bruin, simple as that.
Scates was not a tyrannical dictator nor was he a drill sergeant. Rather, he created an environment where talent flourished and kept everyone – players and coaches in the gym – focused. Many describe him as supremely confident. He was a disciplined task master who did not say much during practice sessions apart from providing clear instructions on what the primary focus would be, then directing players on the three courts separated by curtain partitions to follow directives and execute at a proficient level with the goal of a national championship always in mind. He constantly pored over stats and tracked wins and losses by writing them down on his notecards. He often kept practices energized by moving players around on the same court or up and down among the practice courts separated by the legendary blue curtain, which kept the atmosphere intense, focused and purposeful. He expected precision and execution. Working hard was not a choice; it was a requirement.
In Bill Walsh-like fashion, Scates was clearly light years ahead of his peers. He did things decades ago that coaches are doing now, such as keeping detailed statistics and points scored by rotation; tracking wins and losses in drills; designing practices that replicate real game situations and training players how to compete within the framework of the team concept; and devising systems that highlighted strengths while suppressing weaknesses of his personnel. Scates was always contemporary in his approach, refining blocking and hitting techniques – two of his signature strong points – looking for nuances and adding new wrinkles to install in his desired playing system, anything to get an edge.
Rules were simple: go to class and be committed to your academics; come to practice on time and work hard; work for each other, because nobody gets anywhere in life by themselves; and make sure all your actions are consistent with your goals. He treated incoming freshmen the same as veterans in the program: as men. They were expected to fall in line and would always be held accountable. And he was very consistent, which contributed greatly to his legendary status.
A vivid image of Scates’ wizardry by his players in the early years took the form of a briefcase and white cloth bag. On the cover of the briefcase was a bumper sticker that read: Statistics is the best substitute for judgment.
“I’ve never seen a bumper sticker like that,” says Fred Sturm, who won three NCAA titles under Scates as a player and became an assistant coach following his playing days at UCLA. “Al had this white cloth bag with handles, the kind you see the Brinks truck people use when transporting cash to and from a bank,” says Sturm, sharing his story from Denmark where he currently serves as Head Men’s Volleyball Coach to the Danish Senior National Team.
“In it he had clipboards and stat sheets; he had a million different statistics. That was part of his traveling equipment. When we played matches, he had that with him. He’d pass out stat sheets and had some of us and his staff take statistics, then he’d collect them afterwards, summarize and analyze them. No other coach was doing what he was doing at the time. He was clearly way ahead of his time and had no peer.”
University of Hawai`i matches are televised locally throughout the state, leading the nation in home attendance for years. Longtime Hawai`i sportscaster John Fink was acquainted with Scates, and often chatted with him when UCLA visited Hawai`i for their annual conference battles. Scates kept a small notebook in his hands as he coached, glancing at it from time to time. Being somewhat naïve,
Fink asked the more experienced Chris McLachlin, who did color commentary, if he knew what Scates kept in his book. McLachlin responded, “Oh, it’s a big secret. He keeps it close to himself.” His comment added to the mystique of the legendary coach. Never one to be shy, Fink meandered over to Scates during team warm ups prior to the match in preparation for the TV coverage and introduced himself. Still curious, he asked Scates what was in his notebook. “Oh, it’s schemes and charts of the other team,” said Scates, who was very warm and welcoming. He proceeded to open it up and showed Fink diagrams and tendencies he had compiled on their opponent. “It was not a big deal to Al,” recalls Fink, who once played golf with Scates in the islands on one of his customary trips there. “He wasn’t hiding anything. He was a wily, competitive, strategic coach, but he had no voodoo or magic. He just had great players and made them greater as a unit.”
While the KHNL TV general manager, who doubled as a play-by-play commentator with McLachlin on UH volleyball statewide broadcasts, had heard that Scates could be distant and curmudgeonly, Fink always experienced an open and pleasant coach who was not afraid to let him access into his brilliant mind. Scates appreciated the TV coverage of men’s volleyball in Hawai`i and was fascinated with the 10,225 fans that packed the Stan Sheriff Center when UCLA was in town. Back in Westwood, his program would draw just 3,000 people to UCLA home matches in a market of over 15-million in the Greater Los Angeles area where his program won championships year after year in a volleyball hotbed.
Ultimate Player’s Coach
Scates maintained a healthy distance between himself and his players, partly to stay focused on the task of winning the national championship. This was a mindset every year. In his mind, his players had enough friends and he wasn’t going to be one of them – at least while they were still in the program playing for him. The task of keeping a pulse of the players and, inherently, the de facto sounding board was delegated to his assistant coaches.
“His mind was always thinking about how to beat his opponents,” says Cline. “But he wasn’t mean-spirited about it to any of us when I played for him and definitely not to any of the players we coached together when I assisted him all those years. He was just focused on the task at hand. Having been around him for many years, he created an environment where everyone was going to compete. There were no favorites; the best players were going to get a shot at helping the team to win.”
It is noteworthy that Scates was ultimately responsible of who was going to play, so he kept that distance for a reason.
“He was very consistent and a genius,” says Cline.
No one argued with the results.
Once a player graduated from the program, Scates became close friends with many of them, checking in occasionally to see how they were doing, offering advice about life or even enjoying a few rounds of golf with them, Scates’ other passion. But Scates would never put himself in a position to fraternize with his players because he did not want the friendship to influence his judgment. He knew that in order to be objective in an authority role, he had to respect his duty and responsibility as the head coach of his program. He couldn’t allow anything to disrupt the task of competing and winning the national championship. They had to attend classes and go about their everyday business as student-athletes. He had film to break down, statistics to analyze and scouting reports to review and discuss with his staff.
Cline recalls a time when he was at a junior volleyball tournament in Kentucky where he had bumped into several Bruin teammates and players from back in his playing and coaching days under Scates. During the mini reunion, a player who had just played in the program and was now coaching, sauntered over to visit briefly.
“So we’re talking, then all of a sudden a former UCLA men’s volleyball player came over to us to say hello,” laughs Cline, whose son was playing in the tournament. “Someone says to this young man, ‘I think Al is here somewhere. Did you go over and say hello to him?’”
The young man responded with a nervous laugh, “No. I’d never do that!” to which Cline asked, “What do you mean you can’t? Your eligibility is up, so you can talk to Al as much you can now.”
According to many of his players and assistant coaches, to say that Al Scates is aloof is not an entirely accurate description. He is not heartless or cold; he is pragmatic, disciplined and direct and keeps a certain distance from his players while they are in the program and always welcomes their friendship after they graduate and leave the program.
Charismatic and tremendously likeable, Scates is never afraid to speak his mind. He is very engaging in a conversation and one of the nicest and most knowledgeable people anyone could ever meet. The paradox is that Scates barely spoke to his players at practices and road trips. He communicated effectively with them, but within the context in his role as a coach and maintained a strict line with his players. Scates never allowed the line to get blurred.
During his playing days at UCLA, Cline was one of two players who were designated drivers of the team vans on road trips. During a road trip to conference rival UC Santa Barbara, Scates rode shot gun in the van Cline drove. Scates did not speak to any of his players during those road trips partly because he busied himself by reviewing statistics or was preoccupied with the game plan for the upcoming match.
UCLA fought a spirited and talented UCSB team, but lost the match. Not one to consider himself a “good loser in a gentlemanly fashion,” Cline was fuming on the drive back to Westwood. To his surprise, Scates invited him into a conversation and asked his thoughts about the match. Cline obliged his coach by going on and on about game adjustments and sideout percentages, among other things. Scates listened without interrupting.
“When I was done sharing my two-cents worth, Al simply nodded his head and went back to reading the stats of the match,” says Cline.
The next match Scates benched him.
“Al wasn’t mean spirited. He is great at using few words to get his point across. I figured out at that point that if I was going to play, I might as well not say anything,” laughs Cline. “I never said a word to him for the next two years and did not sit the bench. Al was brilliant. He got me to focus and perform, a lesson I never forgot.” Cline started those years and helped UCLA to a pair of NCAA titles.
It is very obvious from the onset that once the student-athlete arrives on campus in Westwood, the transition from boy to young adult was a requisite if he were to thrive in Scates’ storied program. It was understood among his student-athletes that they had to conduct themselves in such a way that was honorable and Scates allowed individuals to be authentic. After all, he coached that way and expected the same conduct from his players, which he believed allowed their individual talents to flourish. “No one wanted to be the person who messed up the tradition.
Everyone fell in line. We went to class, practiced, studied and went through the process just like all the previous Bruins,” said Giovanazzi.
Like his mentor John Wooden, Scates had his fair share of characters and loved them all the same, from “Stormin’” Mike Normand, who energized and help lead the ’74 team to an “improbable” NCAA title as underdogs – Normand didn’t believe UCLA was underdogs to the great UC Santa Barbara team that defeated the Bruins four times that season and was heavily favored to win the championship prompting him to say, “What do you mean we were the underdogs? We were destined to win.” – to Garrett Muagututia, who earned three All-America and all-MPSF conference accolades in a Bruin uniform from 2007-‘10.
Muagututia, while very respectful towards Scates throughout his time at UCLA due in part to his Samoan culture of respecting your elders, often would drape his arm over his father-figure coach in a fun-loving way seeming oblivious to his legendary coach’s stature. Scates’ Samoan Hammer was a carefree spirit, always making his teammates smile to lighten up the atmosphere from time to time.
Circus clown or not, Scates expected his players to do what they needed in order to contribute directly to the team’s success and be rewarded for their work.
Scates, the winner of six National Coach of the Year awards, kept things simple for his players: Proficiency, execution, and togetherness.
“He’s really good at not letting things get negative or destructive,” says Sturm.
Scates played no favorites and had no loyalty to any one player. Everyone was treated fair. And he was very consistent so there was very little room for anyone to complain.
For all players entering his program, the transition from high school to college had to be immediate. When a young wide-eyed Peter Ehrman arrived on campus to begin his freshman year having played at high school prep volleyball powerhouse Punahou School in Hawai`i, it was a quick introduction to the UCLA Bruin way and its iconic head coach.
“It was quite clear from the first second when I entered my first semester in the fall of ‘77 that Al wasn’t going to be my friend or a friend to any of my teammates. He was our coach, pure and simple,” said Ehrman, a long-time successful executive in Honolulu for one of the most prestigious financial services firms in the world. “There was no ambiguity at all. He wasn’t your enemy. He wasn’t going to make your life miserable. But he was never a buddy while we played for him. If a player thought that Al was going to be his good buddy, he was in for a rude awakening.”
Scates was a coach through and through, respecting his responsibility, never wavering from that duty.
“After I graduated (from UCLA), Al and I became good friends. He always checks on his players after they leave the program, but he was never a buddy to all of us. There was always that separation of coach-player. The relationship was totally different after I was done playing for him. We’ve become lifelong friends.”
Scates and his wife, Sue, whom he married in 1961 during semester break his senior year at UCLA, have become dear friends with Ehrman and his wife. They visit with them during annual trips to the islands when UCLA began playing conference matches against the University of Hawai`i beginning in 1979 when UH added men’s volleyball to its athletics program.
An uncanny ability of knowing when to ease up, Scates instinctively knew when to lessen the tension in order to keep his players “mentally fresh” over the course of a season. Back in the early 1980’s, he would schedule a match at BYU-Hawaii on the North Shore of Oahu following conference matches with UH.
After sweeping the Warriors in a two-match series, Scates decided to take the team to the North Shore. There was a big swell, and Scates felt his Bruins would appreciate a bit of paradise in Waimea and Sunset Beach. Following a mini tour, the team got back in the van and headed to BYUH to play their match. “He was as cool as a cucumber,” recalls Ricci Luyties, one of the greatest players in Bruin history and gold medalist on the 1988 USA Men’s Olympic volleyball team, currently head women’s volleyball coach at UC San Diego. “Al was having a great time.” Scates rested the starters and played the rest of the team, which eventually won in three sets. These moments of leadership brilliance by Scates allowed his Bruins to continue their dominance with Luyties, Karch Kiraly, Steve Gulnac, Steve Salmons, Doug Partie, Wally Martin, Rick Amon, Reed Sunahara, Peter Ehrman, Roger Clark, Asbjorn Volstad, Mark Kinnison, Dave Mochalski and Dave Saunders collectively leading the way en route to winning four consecutive NCAA titles from 1981-84.
“Al seems to thrive more on pressure,” says Sinjin Smith, who would become one of the greatest beach volleyball legends of all-time as a beach partner to fellow UCLA Bruin legend Karch Kiraly, both former assistant coaches under Scates. “The more the odds were against him, the more Al would be in his element and he would seem to do his best. He would also know just when to apply pressure to other teams to make them crack. He would make the unexpected substitution that would intentionally throw off the other team’s focus. Knowing Al and the way he works, it makes you smile when you see it happen as a spectator.”
Scates always kept a high pressured environment positive and constructive. “During my years at UCLA, I think that Al did a great job of keeping things in good perspective,” says Sturm, who became the Head Coach for the USA Men’s Volleyball National Team after a successful career at Stanford coaching the women’s and men’s programs. The expectations were always high for his teams every year to be NCAA Champions. And there was always competition for playing roles within the team. Scates believed that it was always important not to allow these pressures and competitive atmosphere around the team become too negative and destructive within the team.
“I think you should work hard and have some fun,” advises Scates to a convention center room full of coaches of all levels from across the country that is eager to hear him speak of his remarkable success. “I like to have fun at every practice. At least laugh and enjoy yourself. Don’t make practice a job. The players should have fun; they should look forward to come to practice.”
The numbers speak for itself as UCLA holds 27 NCAA men’s volleyball records: 48 consecutive victories; 83 consecutive home court victories; 15 consecutive NCAA tournament victories; 47 consecutive winning seasons, 2 three-peats, 1 four-peat, and 3 undefeated seasons – no other program can claim this feat. If there was any “secret” to his success, incorporating an element of fun as Scates advises would have a greater impact to long-term success versus short-term results.
Inspiring Greatness in Others
Throughout his career, Scates has seen many of his former players become successful in life in various professional fields following their playing days in his program: doctors, attorneys, businessmen, television producer, educators, coaches and professional volleyball players, to name a few. He inspired confidence by virtue of his profound leadership abilities with belief in oneself as a powerful emotion. According to Fred Sturm, “Al built teams. He inspired his teams to perform. His teams always got better as the season progressed. It was signature Al Scates. And he knew how to bring the most out of an individual. He was very good at that.”
As a freshman, after the nervousness of becoming a part of the legendary UCLA program had gone away for Sinjin Smith, he got into a comfort zone. Smith was an integral part of the top twelve players that would train against each other on the first court. During one practice, Scates noticed he did not attempt to pursue a ball and said, “Smith, go over to the brown squad” which was located behind the blue curtain. Devastated of being “demoted and sent down to the second twelve who were all fighting to work their way up to the main court,” Smith took one week of giving his best effort before Scates gave him another shot to prove his worth on the first court. “It was always that way with Al. A few words were all it took for him to get his point across,” said Smith. “I don’t know if Al ever needed a sit down conversation to get the most out of his guys. It was very clear what he wanted out of everyone on the team.”
During his junior year, Jeff Nygaard played with the USA National Team during the entire summer then returned to UCLA. At the time, he played a hybrid position where he lined up in the opposite position and would sideout from that position, but any time his team didn’t put the ball away on the first ball sideout, he would switch into the middle blocker position for blocking purposes. At the time he was performing at this position, UCLA had just finished playing in Hawai`i and had lost one of the matches, a match Nygaard and his team believed they shouldn’t have.
At the airport on the way home, Nygaard stewed over all the factors he thought existed. Scates pulled him aside to have a word about the team. Going into this meeting, Nygaard thought that his coach would vindicate his frustrations and see things his way only Scates intended to get his talented player back on track. The coach told Nygaard that he was a spoiled player, that coming from the USA National Team back to UCLA had skewed him and that he needed to pick up his game. Nygaard was more than a little devastated by that discussion and spent the entire plane ride home angry. At practice on Monday, there wasn’t a set in the gym Nygaard didn’t terminate. He went after every ball that was tipped or hit with reckless abandon and not one block attempt was made without his full effort. Once again, Scates found a way to bring out the best in his players and, in the process, made his team the best.
Nygaard helped lead the Bruins to two NCAA titles eventually becoming a three-time Olympian in indoor and beach volleyball. He currently serves as assistant men’s volleyball coach at USC helping the Trojans to the 2011 NCAA Final Four. He was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.
The impact of Scates is recognized from coast to coast. According to Gerald Matacotta, a major force of men’s volleyball, “The footprint of men’s volleyball is not as large as women’s volleyball. But when you have someone that makes that footprint bigger, it helps other coaches, kids and athletic directors to add to it. Al Scates is very important. His persona moves the game. He is the face.”
Matacotta, who was recently inducted as a member of the AVCA Hall of Fame Class of 2011 credits Scates for the approval by the NCAA to have its own Division III Men’s Volleyball national championship tournament. “If you do not have a face in society, you will not move something forward,” says Matacotta, the driving force behind the growth of NCAA Division III men’s volleyball.
“Al has moved men’s volleyball, volleyball in general, to greater heights by increasing people’s awareness of the game whether it is men’s or women’s volleyball. Al’s presence alone moves the game forward.”
Heart of Gold
Scates had a special gift of not only knowing how to coach the game, he taught the game. Teachers teach learning; coaches teach competing. Scates did both masterfully.
“Scates spends a lot of time on stats for his teams and his opponents, but what sets him apart from all other coaches is his sense of what to do and when to do it, which doesn’t come from any piece of paper,” according to Smith. “It comes from knowing and understanding the game as he does and knowing people and their personalities.” Scates doesn’t only know the personalities of his players but also those of other players and their coaches. “At a certain point in the game, Al would tell us exactly what to expect from certain individuals we were playing against and it would come true. That gave all his own players an incredible amount of confidence in him and the team and our ability to win under any circumstances. This is what set his teams apart from others.”
Beyond his gift of bringing out the most in others, Scates inspired others by showing a great amount of care towards his players, coaches and friends. One former player he honors annually is the late Kirk Kilgour. Kilgour, a native of Manhattan Beach, Calif., became a member of the 1972 USA national team after graduating from UCLA helping the Bruins to an 80-5 record and the ’70 and ’71 NCAA titles. In 1976, he led an agility drill with his teammates on his Italian professional men’s team, the first American player to compete in the top level league, and suffered a tragic injury that left him paralyzed. Despite his injury, Kilgour maintained a positive outlook on life and an indomitable spirit. He coached at Pepperdine from 1979-81 from a wheelchair, serving as assistant coach for the Waves on the 1985 NCAA title team. Kilgour passed at age 54, outliving the life expectancy of quadriplegics. Scates named an annual men’s volleyball match at UCLA, going into its 35th year, in honor of his former player who was an integral part of two men’s volleyball championship teams and an inspiration to many.
When Allan Vince arrived to UCLA, his first tournament was during the pre-season in Manitoba, Canada. As the team boarded the plane, Scates looked up from his seat, smiled and invited the freshman to sit next to him for the flight.
“As the new guy on the team, it was so nerve-racking to think that I had to spend the whole flight next to (Coach Scates),” says Vince, interim head men’s volleyball coach at California Baptist University and Director of Formula One Volleyball Club.
During the flight, he shared stories about his career and life experiences. It put him at ease. That memorable flight with Scates meant the world to Vince and is honored to consider him a “friend and great mentor.”
During his freshman year, Tony Ker was hosting a recruit who was considering attending and playing for UCLA the following year. Already two weeks into fall practices, he and Scates were walking back to campus from Jerry’s Deli and Ker had a cough that had persisted for two months. The two were walking next to each other when suddenly Scates turns to Ker and asks, “Tony, what the heck is wrong with you?” He explained to his coach that he had been sick for quite some time. Scates immediately pulled out his cell phone and dialed the Head Athletic Trainer at UCLA. “Dale, I have my starting Libero here and he is sick,” said Scates. Ker, who went on to earn consensus First Team All-America honors four consecutive seasons, doesn’t remember the rest of the dialogue between Scates and the athletic trainer. “I was so ecstatic that I was going to be playing that year,” recalls a gleeful Ker, the operations supervisor and master coach for the Legacy Volleyball Club and its volleyball facility. “It was one of the happiest moments in my life.” Ker would go on to start for the 2006 NCAA title team as a sophomore, set numerous school records and became the all-time digs leader in NCAA history.
After playing for Scates, John Speraw launched his coaching career under his college coach at UCLA, a member of two NCAA title teams and a ’95 NCAA All-Tournament honoree. Scates recommended Speraw for a position with USA Volleyball in 1997, beginning as Scates’ assistant coach on his staff at the World University Games.
“I owe so much to Al for getting my coaching career off the ground beginning with USA Volleyball then with UC Irvine,” said Speraw, who guided his team to two NCAA titles in ’07 and ‘09 and served on the Olympic gold medal winning USA men’s coaching staff at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. “One of the greatest lessons I learned from Al is that he taught me to have fun with my players and how to interact with them. I do that with my players (at UC Irvine) and have had a lot of success.”
The two remain friends as fellow coaches of schools in the MPSF conference, arguably the best men’s volleyball conference in the country.
With the UCLA women winning the 2011 NCAA title over a great Illinois Fighting Illini team, Scates became the only coach in NCAA history to have three former players and assistant coaches guide their teams as head coaches to NCAA Division I championships, each in men’s and women’s volleyball: John Speraw, UC Irvine men; Andy Banachowski and Mike Sealy, UCLA women.
One of a Kind
In a certain sense, volleyball is losing an irreplaceable personality and coach. Losing an Al Scates is significant to the history, continuity and traditions of the sport. Yet, we all know you cannot coach forever. It is very rare in today’s world for a coach and an athlete to start and end their career in the same institution. This is another part of Scates’ legacy and quality as an individual and as a personality. His connection will always be tied to UCLA, one of the iconic universities in our country.
The heralded coach has received an outpouring of well-wishes regarding his impending retirement following the 2012 NCAA men’s volleyball season. Reaction has been mixed: happiness on a well-deserved retirement following a storied career and sadness to lose one of the sport’s greatest icons.
“I have an appreciation for the way he can balance his coaching work with other things,” says Sturm. “He loves to be with his family and friends and enjoys playing golf. He has other interests besides volleyball. And so it’s nice to know that you don’t have to spend 24 hours a day coaching. It’s not that kind of a job; it’s possible to do a great job coaching and have time for other things. I learned that from Al.”
Being the spouse of a coach can be difficult given the fact that the individual spends more time at their job than they do at home. Scates now can spend more time with his beloved wife Sue and “enjoy the fruits of a long career.” The two plan on doing some traveling together and spend time with their grandchildren.
What is telling of Scates as a person is how a great friend he is to others. And he’s just as engaging a personality as you will ever find. People like being around, working with and listening to him. He is a humble, passionate, energetic, smiling guy. He has time for people. Anyone who has had an opportunity to engage with him over any period all attest to how special he is as close personal friends Alex Popovich and Ivan Marquez, the athletic director at Concordia College in New York, know.
According to Marquez, a memorable moment with his dear friend was “placing his 2006 NCAA Championship watch on his wrist during the celebration fiesta and seeing him hold (grandson) baby Donovan in his arms.”
Whenever he visits Los Angeles, former Rutgers-Newark men’s volleyball coach Alex Popovich gets together with Scates and his wife for dinner. The two also play golf regularly during his visits. Scates takes enormous pride in all of his children and grandchildren and often talk about the latest achievements of his former players, many that have gone on to successful careers both in the volleyball world as well as other endeavors. Scates is proud that his pupils have excelled and carry on the lessons learned at UCLA, a list that includes 71 All-Americans, 52 First-Team All-Americans, 27 Olympians and seven National Player of the Year honorees.
“Without the friendship, insight and access shown to me by Al Scates, I would never have the 35 year plus experience working in the sport of volleyball,” says Mike Sondheimer, associate athletics director at UCLA, a long-time supporter of Scates and the men’s and women’s programs.
“Al is absolutely unique in the world of volleyball, volleyball in the United States, collegiate sports and USA National Team Programs,” says Doug Beal, CEO of USA Volleyball and the 1984 Olympic gold medal winning coach who has worked with Scates for many years. “I don’t think there is anybody that will likely ever have a career that will be approaching what Al has accomplished. He cuts across generations and eras. I admire his on-going passion, commitment and energy as much as his success which has been nothing short of exceptional. He is very special.”
“It is (Al’s) commitment to sharing his passion for the game and educating young coaches that brought me into his circle,” says Penn State women’s coach Russ Rose, who joined Scates as the only NCAA Division I volleyball coaches to win four consecutive national titles in a row. “Al, in my opinion, is a great leader and his confidence was critical to his team’s success during his tenure. It is very rare that a coach can impact a sport in the fashion that Al has. His legacy will always be hanging in Pauley for future coaches and players to admire.”
The United States is blessed with an ever-improving talented group of great coaches. Because of who he was and where he was, Al Scates elevated volleyball to new heights in many meaningful ways. He became a global icon simply by being himself.
The Legacy of Al Scates lives on and will be perpetuated by the people and organizations he has impacted, future generations to come and gifts he has provided to a nation as an American Treasure as his contribution to light up the world.