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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.

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Al Scates.

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.

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Nick Vogel '12 plays with alumni (l-r) David Brown '79 and John Zajec '72.

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.

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The veterans: (back row, l-r) Jerry Hyde '63, M.S. '67, Brian Rofer '82, Denny Cline '77, Zajec, Greg Giovanazzi '81, Tom Stillwell '98, J.T. Wenger '04, Paul Nihipali Jr. '97; (front row) Peter Ashley '77, Associate Athletic Director Michael Sondheimer '77, David Brown '79, Scates, Smith, Court Young '00.

Lineage and Legacy

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John Zajec '72

Sue and Al Scates celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary in January, a momentous event that stirred lots of memories. "Our home life was like any other married couple's—raising three children (Tracy, 49; David, 44; and Leslie, 39) and tending to their needs was a full-time job for me," Sue says. "We hope to travel after he retires. It will be fun to see him relax and not concentrate on the next practice or match.

"As for dedicating his life to the sport he loves at UCLA, I can only say that I am proud of his accomplishments and of the endearing commentaries about his career. The time flew by, and all his former players have a place in our hearts."

Two of those former players are current First Assistant Coach Brian Rofer '82 and new Volunteer Assistant Coach Sinjin Smith. This marks Rofer's 22nd year working alongside Scates—highly unusual, given that most first assistant coaches eventually leave to take head coaching jobs elsewhere. "I've been extremely fortunate to have spent my career as a player and as a coach alongside one of the greatest coaches in sport, and the single greatest collegiate volleyball coach of our time," Rofer says.

Over the years, in fact, Scates has hired dozens of former players to be his assistant coaches, and many have gone on to their own coaching success. These include Reed Sunahara '89, Dave Nichols '79, Ricci Luyties '85, Fred Sturm, John Speraw '95, Jeff Nygaard '95, J.T. Wenger '04 and Mike Sealy '96, the current coach of the 2011 NCAA champion UCLA women's team.

Andy Banachowski '68 was a two-time All-American under Scates, winning USVBA national championships in 1965 and 1967 and serving as Scates' assistant coach from 1972 to '77 while achieving his own impressive success as head coach of the UCLA women's volleyball team from 1965 to 2009.

As a young coach, Scates "was energetic and full of fun," Banachowski recalls. "He was still playing himself and enjoyed challenging the players. He taught by example and brought out the competitiveness in everyone."

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Sinjin Smith '87

Karch Kiraly, whose teams went 123-5 in the four years he played under Scates, is currently assistant coach for the U.S. women's volleyball team. Having grown up a UC Santa Barbara fan, the 13-year-old Kiraly watched as the Bruins defeated his beloved Gauchos in the national championship game two years in a row (1974 and 1975). After that, he knew where he was headed.

"We had our hearts broken a little bit by the Bruins, by Al and by a core of players who were more fiercely competitive than probably anyone I had ever come across," Kiraly says. "It was stunning to watch these guys, who literally looked like they hated to lose more than any athletes I'd ever seen before."

Denny Cline played three seasons for Scates and was his assistant coach from 1977 to '80 and 1982 to '84. He says it took a stint with the U.S. national team in 1976 for him to realize just how far ahead of the curve his former coach was.

"We went to this pre-Olympic tournament in Moscow with the best teams in the world, and we were clearly outclassed," says Cline, now an attorney in Santa Monica. "But I realized that I knew more about volleyball than did the U.S. coaches. It was like, 'Oh my God, I know more than these guys do because I just spent three years with Coach Scates!' I don't mean it as a slap to those guys, because they were good guys. But Coach Scates was just ahead of everybody at that point."

At matches, Scates is "the absolute master of strategy and coaching during a match," says Greg Giovanazzi '81, another former player who coached both men's and women's volleyball at UCLA after graduating. "He just makes great adjustments. And he's so incredibly positive. I never heard him raise his voice."

But Scates' influence extends beyond his volleyball family. UCLA Men's Water Polo Head Coach Adam Wright '01 says that his daily chats with Scates were a huge help to him as a young coach.

"My first year [2009], we made the NCAA finals and ended up losing," Wright remembers. "So my door was shut for the next three or four days. I'm in there, just working and reviewing the season. And one day, I get a knock on my door. Al knew I was inside, and he said, 'Adam, you can come out. This is nothing to be ashamed of. You took your team all the way to the final game for a chance to win.' That meant a lot, coming from somebody who's done the things he's done."

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The seniors on Scates' current team include (l-r) Nick Vogel, Ryal Jagd, Thomas Amberg, Jack Polales, Kyle Caldwell, Weston Dunlap, Jeremy Casebeer, Tom Hastings.

Looking Back

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

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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