Take a guess how much retiring UCLA men’s volleyball coach Al Scates was paid for his first season on the job in Westwood 50 years ago?
Not a red cent.
Scates, then in his early 20s, declined a payday in order to maintain his amateur eligibility and play in the 1964 Summer Olympics.
“Our coach, Dr. Glen Egstrom took a sabbatical to do some research in Japan,” Scates recalls like it happened yesterday. “The job at UCLA was open and it was suggested I apply. I said I didn’t want to receive a salary and a big factor in that is I wanted to play in the Olympics. When the athletic director learned I would work for free he hired me on the spot and was very enthusiastic about it!”
These days, Scates, 73, is getting paid for what he loves to do. And he’s earned every cent of his salary and then some over the five decades he’s held court at UCLA. Under his direction, UCLA has won a record 19 NCAA titles and 1,236 matches.
When Scates retires at the end of this season as the longest currently tenured coach in NCAA Division I athletics, no amount of money will ever be able to quantify the impact he’s had on men’s volleyball and the sport in general and the way he’s touched so many peoples’ lives over the years.
“Trying to [separate] Coach Scates from volleyball is like trying to imagine ‘The Godfather’ without Marlon Brando. It can’t be done,” said former UCLA standout Jeff Nygaard, now an assistant coach for the USC men’s team. “His tenure and influence has shaped the game in ways that are innumerable. Most everything I know about the game stems from my time in the gym at UCLA under Al’s coaching. His program was my launching pad for a lifelong career in volleyball—from playing for a few decades to hanging up the uniform for a coaching position.”
You’ll get that same type of response from countless other people that were influenced by Scates as either a player or coach over the years—just substitute the name of the person talking.
“Al’s fingerprints are over the whole sport,” said former UCLA star, beach legend, and current U.S. women’s national team assistant coach Karch Kiraly. “He’s made a great impact. He’s helped spawn so many successful players and effective coaches.”
Kiraly marvels at several aspects of Scates’ coaching prowess. His marveling lasted several minutes in response to a single question.
“He seemed to study and pick apart and prepare for opponents at a level that people were not familiar with,” he said. “I don’t know what other coaches did in that era, but I was often astounded at the level of detail and study. He was the best-prepared coach and had the best prepared teams. It was a great lesson for me in preparation as a player and as a coach now in the more recent past.”
Kiraly also is impressed with how Scates adapted to the many changes in the sport over the span of 50 years.
“He has seen so much come and go and he’s had to adapt,” Kiraly said. “He’s gone from sideout scoring to rally scoring, from a 6-2 offense to a 5-1 offense, from no libero to a libero. Before there were no jump serves and now you have a lot of aggressive jump spin-servers. He’s gone through all those changes through the years and he still coaches and battles for championships. I am in awe of what he has put together.”
Kiraly’s thoughts turn to Scates’ in-game management—something he’s widely lauded for.
“Another thing that always struck me was his poise to think clearly in the moment, especially in the chaos of battle,” Kiraly said. “You would watch him and he would ooze poise and confidence. Maybe he hid it well inside? But outside he presented a demeanor that was infectious to his athletes. We always had contests to see who could do the best Al Scates timeout chuckle. He would call timeout and do this chuckle and then say, ‘Boys, this is exactly what we are going to do next. We’re going to pass the ball here and run this play and get a sideout and then we’ll serve tough and block at this angle and good things will happen.’ And very often, good things happened.”
Fellow beach great Sinjin Smith, a senior when Kiraly was a freshman at UCLA, added that Scates also knew how to get the maximum from his players whether they were future Olympians or not. Smith is a volunteer assistant coach on Scates’ staff this season.
“Al has a sense about people and how to get the best out of them when he needs it,” Smith said. “Al seemed to always know who was the right person to play at the right time. He was never afraid to bring someone off the bench to play at a critical time even if they hadn’t played for a long time. Al exudes a certain confidence that is contagious with his players. There was never a time that you didn’t feel like you could win a game or match when playing for Al. He seemed to know what other teams were going to do, sometimes before they knew.”
Fellow men’s coaching great Marv Dunphy from Pepperdine has gone up against Scates many times over the years.
“For years, I felt that to win a national championship at Pepperdine, we either had to knock Al’s team out on the way to the finals or in the finals,” Dunphy said. “In Al Scates, men’s volleyball has had the most successful coach in NCAA athletics.”
Dunphy added that success boils down to Scates’ adaptability to his roster.
“Al knew how to coach talent,” he said. “Not all coaches do. His teams seldom beat themselves.”
Smith, one of 78 All-Americans to play under Scates (Scates also has coached nine NCAA Players of the Year), recalls an incident his freshman year at UCLA that has stuck with him throughout the years.
“After the nervousness of becoming part of the legendary program had gone away and I felt like I was really part of the program, I was an integral part of the first 12 players that would train against each other on the first court. During one practice, Al noticed I didn’t go for a ball and said, ‘Smith, go over to the brown squad (that was located behind the blue curtain).’
“It was devastating for me to be demoted and sent down to the second 12 who were all fighting to come over to the main court. It took me about a week of trying 110 percent to make it back to the main court. It was a lesson I took with me for the rest of my career. It was always that way with Al. A few words was all it took for him to get his point across. I don’t know if Al ever needed a sit-down conversation to get the most out of his guys. It was always very clear what he wanted out of everyone on the team.”
Current UCLA women’s coach Mike Sealy, who directed the Bruins to the 2011 NCAA title, played for Scates and was an assistant coach on the men’s staff prior to taking the reins of the University of Hawaii women’s program and then the UCLA women. Sealy appreciated the even-keel manner in which Scates conducted business both on and off the court.
“Al is always great at just being himself,” Sealy said. “He lets people learn from their own mistakes. It’s up to you to challenge yourself to be great. He didn’t force things down your throat. He was not afraid to let you fall down and scrape your knee and then get back up before you saw the person you were going to become. He gave a lot of confidence to the players that played for him. Sports are enough of an emotional rollercoaster to begin with. Al never added his own drama into that.”
UCLA senior Thomas Amberg appreciates the way Scates never beats around the bush.
“Al always lets me know my shortcomings. I appreciate his decisive honesty, I’ll call it that,” he said. “He lets you know what he wants and when he wants it. He’s not shy about being specific in that nature.”
The Coaching Tree
Sealy is one of many former Scates’ players that have gone on to become successful coaches.
“Andy Banachowski was a player of his and he only went on to coach the women at UCLA for 43 years,” deadpans Kiraly. “The list of his players that have become coaches goes on and on and on. It’s impressive.”
Current UC San Diego women’s coach Ricci Luyties is one of those success stories. In addition to starting for Scates at UCLA, Luyties went on to enjoy more spoils on the beach.
“I take many of the principles and philosophies that Al taught me as a player and use them in my coaching today,” he said. “I’m still involved in volleyball and I would directly relate that to Al Scates making my early experiences in the sport and everything that went along with it during my collegiate career fantastic. Al has been the top coach in the sport since I can remember. In my playing days, every player wanted to play for him and always believed he would teach what it takes to win championships. He adapted to every change in the sport throughout the years and transcended many of the systems used to advance the sport to today’s level.”
Brian Rofer also played for Scates and has been his top assistant for the past 22 years. He’s convinced Scates could have had the same success if he was coaching football, basketball or badminton.
“It wouldn’t make a different what sport he had come into,” Rofer says. “Al found his niche coaching volleyball. He loves what he does. He has the passion and an innate ability to draw out the competitive nature of his players. He found his niche in life. Can’t we all be that lucky? It would be wonderful because we would all be very successful. Al has never looked at coaching as getting up to go to work.”
Rofer has had the opportunity over the years to coach elsewhere, yet has always chosen to remain with Scates.
“I’ve had opportunities to go the same places some of the other assistant coaches here have gone,” Rofer stated. “But why leave a storied program and why stop working with the person I consider the greatest volleyball coach ever? I played for him starting when I was 18 and I learned his coaching philosophy working with him all these years. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from the best.”
JT Wenger played for Al Scates and later was an assistant coach on the UCLA men’s staff. He recently left to join the women’s volleyball staff at the University of Colorado. Wenger relayed this story about how Scates gives players every opportunity to succeed.
“Coach Scates has a reputation for being very distant from his players,” Wenger said. “I think that this has been developed because he is, deep inside, a big softy. He knows that taking the personal relationships out of coaching is the best way to remain objective when putting together the best lineup. Through the years, however, when a disgruntled player has come into the office with the intention of getting more of an opportunity, Coach Scates will almost always give it to him. The amazing thing about this is that there will be no preconceived notion as to how the athlete will fare. Quite simply, if he plays well, he stays on the first court, if he does not, he returns back to the second court. Coach Scates simply wants to put the best players on the court in order to be successful.”
A Culture of Success
Sinjin Smith admits that when he was still playing he was upset he won “only” two NCAA titles at UCLA.
“I had fully expected after our victory my freshman year, that we would win all four years,” he explained. “It was only after I had graduated did I really realize how difficult of a task that really is. Nevertheless, when you are part of Al’s program, you believe you can win every time you step on the court.”
Luyties added, “We always believed we were going to win every match we played. As a coach, I loved the fact that we competed every day for our positions and he created an atmosphere that demanded you keep improving.”
Penn State men’s coach Mark Pavlik said Scates set the bar to the moon in terms of giving other programs benchmarks to shoot for.
“Any time you try to grow something and establish something, you need a goal to shoot for,” he said. “Al doing what he has done at UCLA, he gave us the goal. Your program wanted to be like his. All of us younger guys have seen Al as this figure with the Bruins. We’ve all seen what he has done and we have all tried to get there with our programs. Al let his passion drive what he did.”
Rofer is fascinated with Scates’ ability to push the motivation button into overdrive.
“There is an intrinsic reward in learning and trying to figure out how he motivates,” he said. “Al holds the last few cards close to the vest in the ways he motivates people. I have yet to figure it out. It’s that last trump card he has to get teams to play at high levels. It something he does and he does it well. He gets the best out of athletes at the right time. I don’t know if that comes naturally or he has a game plan. He has a game plan with everything else he does. He studies, studies, studies and prepares to peak a team. I’ve seen it over and over and over. How does he do it?”
UCLA 6'8" senior middle blocker Weston Dunlap knew he was stepping into a special program the day he first set foot in the gym.
“Going in, I wasn’t even sure if I would make the top team because I knew there was such a level of success going on. It’s such a successful program,” he said. “Coach Scates set the standard. When you get there, you know there are high expectations. This is a guy that basically started men’s volleyball at the collegiate level.”
Many of Scates’ tactics, strategies, and innovations can be seen throughout the sport. Rofer notes Scates was one of the first coaches to embrace the “traveling camp” philosophy.
“Al’s an innovator in this industry,” Rofer said. “Other sports had camps and there were a few volleyball camps around, but he’s one of the only coaches I know that was taking instructional camps across the country. I remember going to New Mexico, Texas, and Ohio where there was no volleyball at the time. He’d bring us as players. Most of the people that showed up were girls. The girls would look at these big volleyball guys and say that guys don’t play volleyball around here. He changed the whole attitude of the country in terms of exposing the sport to boys. He was exposing the sport to other areas in this country that didn’t have volleyball. Al is one of a handful of people in this industry that has really made a difference.”
Rofer recalled a scene he observed in UCLA’s match earlier this season against UC Irvine. Irvine is coached by former UCLA standout John Speraw, who has since directed Irvine to a pair of NCAA titles.
“When Al prepares for a match there is a certain way he does things,” Rofer said. “When coaches that coach with him move on, you can look and see the papers they are holding are similar to what Al does. For instance, there are certain matchups where a red Sharpie is used. I looked over and even John had a sheet with red numbers on it. Al has had a direct influence on a lot of people.”
Scates, who also taught at the university for many years, said the plan never was to coach the UCLA men for 50 years.
“I didn’t really have a plan on how long I wanted to coach,” he said. “I taught until it wasn’t fun anymore and after 35 years that came abruptly. I didn’t enjoy it and I made the decision to retire. The problem here is I still enjoy coaching. But it seems like it’s time. Fifty years is a long time. It’s a good time to go out with this group that has seven seniors that have been here four or five years. I don’t think I have any regrets.”
Scates is looking forward to spending his upcoming free time with his wife Sue, children Tracy, Leslie, and David, and his grandchildren.
“I plan on traveling with my wife,” Scates said. “I’ll travel where she wants to travel to. I did a lot of my traveling when my wife was raising three children. It’s time to go to the places she wants to go. I anticipate I will miss the program and miss coaching, but the good thing is I’ll get to spend more time with my wife, children, and grandchildren. That’s makes it all worthwhile.”
Amberg said Scates’ devotion to his family is one of his greatest attributes.
“I see that commitment to family,” he said. “He talks about his wife and his family a lot. Hopefully one day I will be as good a husband and father as he is.”
Scates notes that he doesn’t plan on leaving the sport completely. He may look into coaching with USA Volleyball and even mentioned having an interest in doing some color commentating on television.
“I wouldn’t have terrible withdrawal that way,” he laughed.
While he will be missed on the sideline, his contributions and influence on the sport will continue to live on.
“Al has been referred to as volleyball’s Wizard of Westwood,” said Ron Shayka, senior associate athletic director at George Mason University and the former chair of the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Committee (he rejoins the committee this fall). “It’s an appropriate comparison with his unprecedented number of wins and national championships at UCLA.
“The men’s game has been significantly impacted by Al’s contributions over the years. When you take into account our national team’s success over the years, I think it’s safe to say Al has positively impacted the game of volleyball around the world. Al’s an original. It’s hard to imagine a coach ever maintaining the combination of competitiveness, passion, and success that Al has done at one school for 50 years.”
Smith concluded: “Al has set the standard for all coaches in any sport.”
Originally published in May 2012