Two station wagons roll up. A dozen tall, sun-bronzed and mop-haired young men emerge toting duffel bags lettered UCLA VOLLEYBALL. Their mode of transportation is not as regal as that of the well-heeled basketball team, but in a few more years Al Scates' squads may have won more NCAA championships than the 10 titles John Wooden collected.
Since 1970, when volleyball became an NCAA sport, UCLA has spiked, blocked and served its way to five titles, winning every year except 1973, and it is sure to be the favorite late this month when Ball State hosts the championship in Muncie, Ind. Technically, the Bruins must first qualify in the District 8 playoffs at home in Pauley Pavilion the week before, but that should be a snap.
Despite his success, the 6'2½" Scates shares a narrow, cramped office in back-to-back discomfort with gymnastics coach Art Shurlock. Scates has no recruiting budget, yet he manages to land top prospects simply by calling them up. "I must have a monster telephone bill," he says.
A soft-spoken man, Scates does not complain, but says with a wry smile, "Once J.D. [athletic director Morgan] doubles my salary, we'll be in great shape." That's a joke. Not that Scates feels coaching should be a full-time endeavor. His main job is phys. ed. instructor for the Beverly Hills school district. "I'd leave UCLA before I'd give up teaching," he declares. When a school day ends Scates hops into his 1966 Porsche and drives a few miles west to UCLA, where he spends the next three hours—as well as most Saturdays—with the team.
Scates, 36, lives with his wife Sue and their three children in the San Fernando Valley community of Tarzana. He has written two books on his sport, one appropriately titled Winning Volleyball, which has gone into a second edition. But his knowledge of the game is more than academic. A member of four Bruin teams (1960-63) as a spiker and middle blocker, Scates was named USVBA All-America five times and competed on three U.S. men's national teams (1965-67). In his college days he entered two-man beach tournaments "with anyone who could hit my bad sets." One such was Keith Erickson, the Bruin basketball All-America now with the Phoenix Suns.
Since 1968 the U.S. has failed to qualify a volleyball team for Olympic competition. Scates, who coached the men's national teams in 1969, '71 and '72, doubts that American squads will have international success until more nationwide interest is aroused. "I see volleyball as the coming thing in this country, but support has to come on the grassroots level," he says. "School boards are reluctant to pay a coach and add sports at a time they are trying to cut back."
There is also a regional problem to contend with. "The East needs athletes who are good in basketball but want to play volleyball instead," says Scates. Sounds easy enough, but the idea of such a conversion is anathema to most people east of Los Angeles and north of Santa Barbara, as Scates is well aware.
Pragmatism dominates his coaching style. "I'm different from a lot of coaches," he likes to say. "You can get a player tired in two hours; you don't need three. We have very little practice, so my teams are always fresh at the end of the season." He admits to another reason for short practices: "I don't like them." The Bruins meet two or three times a week for scrimmages and also compete in local tournaments.
Individual team members often work out on their own since Scates does not dictate any formal training schedule. "The whole year was pretty much left up to the individual," says Chris Irvin, a senior member last year who now attends law school. "If a guy wasn't in shape, he knew he wouldn't play. Volleyball is a real student-athlete sport."
Although Scates has a laissez-faire approach, he expects his players to police themselves. "I don't have a mimeographed sheet of my rules," he says. "Most of the time my players decide among themselves what time they should be in the night before a match." Ed Machado, a member of three championship teams and now a rival coach at San Diego State, recalls, "We made our own rules. Al rarely said anything."
The fierce competition among the players to avoid the bench eases Scates' job considerably. "Nobody misses a practice unless he is sick and then we don't want him contaminating everyone," he says. "If a guy misses, he knows he'll be behind and might lose his position. Even if a player is injured he'll attend and shag balls." Fred Sturm, a senior spiker, says, "There's so much competition from the freshmen alone. Everyone goes."
In 1974 Scates fielded a feisty team that was short by volleyball standards—most of its members were under 6'2"—and yet it upset host UC Santa Barbara in five hard-fought games for the NCAA title. It remains his favorite squad and triumph. "That team came the closest of all to reaching its full potential," he says. "Santa Barbara was awesome physically. We looked like a team of pygmies next to them. But they had gotten into a pattern of hitting the ball at the same area. We knew where they were going to hit it and our backcourt guys refused to let it hit the floor."
Twice Scates sent in freshman Sabin Perkins to serve, and despite a broken finger he responded with nine points, including the one that put the Bruins ahead to stay. "I told Sabin to serve as hard as he could, that the ball would either hit the back wall or go in," says Scates, of the strategy that paid off.
Volleyball is not the only interest his players have, and more than a few satisfy a wanderlust by sailing, surfing or driving off before their eligibility is up. Perkins failed to show up his sophomore season; he traveled by van to Mexico, then returned and enrolled at a junior college. "I'd like to get that serve back here," Scates says wistfully.
Last May, Scates had a younger, more serene team in the finals, which were held in Pauley before 8,000. UCSB was again heavily favored, having defeated the Bruins four times during a 30-0 season. Shortly before the match commenced, the Gauchos were led in yoga exercises by their coach.
"When I saw that, I told my assistant Andy Banachowski, 'We've got them,' " says Scates. "They were so tense and wound up. My guys were relaxed and loose." The Bruins swept by their opponent 15-9, 7-15, 15-9, 15-10.
This year's team is youthful also, with only four seniors on the 16-man roster. Scates' prized recruit is 6'7" freshman K.C. Keller, a former Los Angeles area resident who attended high school in Canada. With such returnees as 6'3" Denny Cline, 6'2½" Joe Mica (an all-tournament selection last year as a freshman), 6'3½" Fred Sturm and 6'4½" Mike Gottschall, the Bruins have more size than heretofore.
UCLA employs a two-setter offense, in which sophomores Peter Ashley and David Olbright hang the ball for the taller, high-leaping spikers on their left or right. Normally two power hitters will converge on a set, one for faking purposes. The height of a spiker's jump is crucial to the success of a given play. If he has a poor jump, the opponent's blockers stand a good chance of sending the ball back over the net.
As early as December, Scates began recording how high his players could leap from a stationary position. Joe Mica leads the team with a 43" take-off; therefore, at the top of his jump he can touch 11'3", high enough to spike over almost any block. Scates also keeps statistics on his players' spikings, serves and heights of sets.
"Al has the most organized volleyball program in the country," says Machado, who assisted him in 1973 and '74. "I did everything I could to build the program while I was there. Now I'm trying to figure a way to beat it."
For sure, it's going to take more than the lotus position.