Al Scates: 50 Years of Bruin Volleyball
By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Amanda Marsalis
Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM
No athletic program at UCLA has won more victories or titles in the past half-century than Al Scates' Bruin men's volleyball teams. With the legendary coach set to retire in June, players, assistants, and even Scates' rivals pay homage to one of the greatest figures in the sport.
Day at the Beach
Find more from this photo shoot at the Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades in our photo gallery.
In 1965, Al Scates was both a member of the U.S. men's volleyball team and the young coach of UCLA's men's volleyball squad. Scates convinced then-UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan '41 to offer brand-new Pauley Pavilion as a venue for some high-profile matches between the U.S. and Japanese national teams. What happened next is one of Scates' favorite stories, and one that senior Thomas Amberg, a quick hitter on Scates' current squad, knows by heart.
"He tells the story about how the first matches in Pauley Pavilion were the United States men against the Japanese men, the United States women against the Japanese women, and UCLA vs. USC. And he talks about how he played on the U.S. men's national team that beat the Japanese men in Pauley Pavilion, and also that night coached UCLA to beat USC. I've heard the story many times," Amberg says, laughing.
It was the first time the men had defeated the Japanese men's team. Alas, the No. 1-ranked Japanese women crushed the U.S. women that night, although UCLA would eventually win four women's NCAA championships and produce some of the most successful female volleyball players in the world.
Morgan had been skeptical about the event, but once he saw the fans pouring into Pauley, he promised Scates that collegiate men's volleyball—then part of the United States Volleyball Association (USVBA)—would become an NCAA sport. Five years later, it did.
One Last Set
In addition to being the most successful and longest-serving collegiate volleyball coach in the history of the game, Scates '61, M.S. '62 is widely recognized as one of the country's foremost volleyball authorities. So it was a sad day last spring when the UCLA Athletic Department announced that Scates would retire on June 30, 2012, after 50 unparalleled years of service. His 1,200-plus victories have culminated in 19 NCAA national championships, two USVBA national championships and 24 conference titles.
A six-time National Coach of the Year, Scates has coached 52 NCAA All-Americans, 44 U.S. National Team members, 27 Olympians and seven collegiate Players of the Year. Some of the greatest names in U.S. volleyball have flourished under his tutelage, including Karch Kiraly '83, Sinjin Smith '87, Denny Cline '77 and Kirk Kilgour '72.
Simply put, "Al had no peer," says UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero '74. "The formula for his success was obvious: He was a terrific coach who recruited talented student-athletes, including some of the best to have ever played the game at the collegiate level."
Marv Dunphy, now in his 29th season as men's volleyball head coach at Pepperdine University, adds, "Men's volleyball won't be the same without him, and when we go to play UCLA, I'll miss coaching against him. No coach in volleyball will ever match what Al has accomplished. Never."
An Unlikely King of the Court
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Westchester, Calif., Scates hadn't planned on a volleyball career—he wanted to coach football, basketball and baseball at the high school level. He met his future wife, Sue, at Westchester High School and, after graduation, got a job driving a tractor at Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica. It wasn't long, though, before he got the itch to return to school.
It was at Santa Monica College where Scates got his first real introduction to collegiate volleyball. His football coach—who also happened to be the volleyball coach—required all his players to try out for the volleyball team. "I went out for the team, and he cut me within five minutes," Scates recalls. "I'd played on the beach a little bit, but actually, I wasn't very good."
Undeterred, he started going to Santa Monica State Beach, showing up extra early on Saturday and Sunday mornings so that he would be the first one to sign the players list. He watched, learned and played as much as possible, and soon he was one of the best players on the beach. Scates transferred to UCLA and joined the volleyball team in 1959, serving as captain in 1960 and 1961. He married Sue in 1961 and earned two degrees in physical education from UCLA: a B.S. in 1961 and an M.S. in 1962.
Immediately after graduation, Scates found a full-time job teaching physical education in the Santa Monica and, later, Beverly Hills school districts. In 1963, he received a yearly budget of $100 to serve as the part-time men's volleyball coach at UCLA and also formed a volleyball league—the Southern California Volleyball Association—of which he served as commissioner. Two years later, in 1965, he won his first USVBA national championship. By the time Scates was named UCLA's full-time coach in 1978, the dynasty was well under way.