Al Scates: 50 Years of Bruin Volleyball
By Wendy Soderburg, Photos by Amanda Marsalis
Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM
After 50 years, you'd think it would be hard to choose a favorite or most memorable season. But Scates doesn't hesitate to mention the 2006 UCLA team, which he remembers fondly as "a very mediocre team" featuring a bunch of fifth-year players who had not started before. Plagued by injuries, the Bruins got off to a poor start; by midseason, their record was an unimpressive 12-12. But they kept training hard and finally started to hit their stride, winning the next 14 straight matches and, incredibly, the NCAA championship.
Scates laughs when he recalls what happened next. "So I get back from the NCAAs, and I have this phone message that says, 'Hello, Al. This is a disgruntled alumnus. I've been following you throughout the season, and I'm just glad you finally got down to work and did something right at the end of the year. How could that team lose 12 games like that?' And then he laughed and hung up."
It took only a minute for Scates to realize who the caller was—his good friend, John Wooden. When the legendary basketball coach called back a second time, Scates answered the phone. "Did you get my message, Coach?" Wooden asked. Scates laughed and told him he had. "I knew it was him," Scates says. "He had a great sense of humor, and it wasn't the first time he did that!"
The Final Spike
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Already, the accolades have been pouring in. When the Bruins played longtime rivals Pepperdine and USC on the road in February, Scates was honored with gifts and heartfelt speeches. This season also has taken on special poignancy for the players, who realize they are the last team Scates will ever coach at UCLA.
"I'd like to tell him thank you for being so positive. He's so fun to be around and so positive off the court, and it's provided us with a release of tension," says senior Weston Dunlap, a quick hitter in his fourth season with Scates. Of course, when their season ends in May, Dunlap and his teammates hope to have an early retirement gift for Scates—an unprecedented 20th NCAA national championship.
"Our desire is so much higher this year because we realize what we're going to miss, and what our younger teammates are going to miss, when he's gone," adds Thomas Amberg. "So we want to send him out on the highest note we can."
Of course, once Scates is retired, he won't be content just sipping lemonade on the veranda. "I'd like to do color commentary on men's and women's volleyball for the new Pac-12 sports network," he says. "And I'd like to write another [volleyball] book. I've written five of them and many revisions, and so I have another book in me. And I'd like to travel with my wife to wherever she wants to go."
Above all else, though, the iconic coach admits that he'll miss teaching. "I'll miss interacting with the players and seeing them grow," says Scates. "When players leave this program, they're men; they're able to function in the world."
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