Black Socks Scandal Sartorially challenged Brandon Taliaferro led UCLA to its 18th NCAA championship

May 14, 2000

Black socks with white shoes and shorts is never a good look.
Just check out your uncle Ed. However, UCLA volleyball setter
Brandon Taliaferro discovered a package of black socks in his
locker two years ago and fearlessly began wearing them with his
white sneakers and blue shorts. He stuck with the black all
season, and the Bruins won the national championship. As a
junior last season Taliaferro wanted to prove to himself that it
wasn't the socks, so he wore white, and UCLA had its worst
postseason in 11 years, losing in the first round of the
regional NCAA qualifying tournament. So not surprisingly he was
back in black this season as the Bruins drove toward their 18th
national title in 31 years, which they clinched with a 15-8,
15-10, 17-15 sweep of Ohio State in last Saturday's NCAA final
in Fort Wayne, Ind.

In the light and cheery world of volleyball, Taliaferro can
often be found roaming the dark side. A self-described
"stereotypically mellow California kid" off the court,
Taliaferro is a hypertense type A between the lines. Two weeks
ago, against Pepperdine, he drew a yellow card for running under
the net to protest an out call--on his opening serve of the
match. "I play like the devil with my hair on fire," Taliaferro
says. "A couple of years ago I played with an uncontrolled rage.
I've matured since then into a more controlled rage."

Taliaferro used to stress out so much during matches that he
suffered headaches from grinding his teeth, which prompted him
to start chewing gum. He says that he was thinking of quitting
the game during his sophomore season in order to retain his
sanity. To reduce his anxiety during his junior season he took
up yoga and began studying Taoism, a Chinese philosophy that
advocates simplicity and selflessness. He regularly consults a
book called The Tao of Pooh, which has taught him how to not
sweat the small stuff in the manner of noted Taoist Winnie the
Pooh. When that doesn't work, the dude goes surfing.

With 211 pounds filling out his 6'5" frame, Taliaferro doesn't
have the prototypical volleyball body, and he concedes that he's
among the Bruins' least gifted athletes. Yet he's considered the
best setter in the college game and is UCLA's career leader in
assists and aces. Legendary Bruins coach Al Scates says that in
his 38 years at UCLA he has never had a smarter or more
instinctive setter than Taliaferro. "Brandon's a throwback to
our 1980s guys, like Karch Kiraly," Scates says. "He's unhappy
if he doesn't set a perfect game, and he'll never accept that
that's impossible."

Last summer Taliaferro thought about taking a year off from
school to train with the U.S. team in preparation for the
Olympics, but he returned to Westwood, saying that his decision
hinged in part on the dearth of beaches in Colorado Springs.
Quarterbacking a relatively average UCLA team that was ranked an
unsightly No. 7 in the preseason, Taliaferro pushed the Bruins
to a 9-0 start. Then in early February he began to suffer from
debilitating back spasms, and an MRI revealed a pinched nerve
and four degenerative disks. UCLA lost three of its next five
matches, and Bruins trainer Tony Spino informed Taliaferro that
there was a chance his college career was over. Taliaferro sat
out for 20 days, repeatedly reassuring his teammates, "I'm not
going out this way." Scates nursed Taliaferro through the rest
of the season by forbidding weightlifting and limiting his jump
serves. In deference to his balky back, a mortified Taliaferro
sat in first class on the flight to Indiana while his teammates
rode in coach.

After UCLA defeated Penn State in one of last Thursday's
semifinals, Taliaferro explained his motivation for winning a
second NCAA title. Turns out that on Christmas Day in 1998 he
gave his championship ring from the previous spring to his
mother, Karen, with a note that concluded, "P.S. I will get
another one." Last Saturday, Taliaferro's masterly setting
produced an extraordinary .459 team hitting percentage, and with
UCLA trailing 13-11 in the third game, he produced a pair of
critical aces and then a dig on match point. "Those plays are
what you expect from the great ones," Buckeyes coach Pete Hanson
said afterward. "With the game on the line, Brandon threw his
team on his back and took it home."

After the match it wasn't long before Taliaferro had morphed
back into that mellow California kid, talking wistfully about
surfing as soon as he arrived home, maybe getting into the pro
beach volleyball scene. His hair was extinguished. His battered
gum was in the trash. His black socks were replaced by
flip-flops. His tao was pure Pooh.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DON LIEBIG View to a kill In addition to his 66 assists, Taliaferro helped put Ohio State away with three aces and eight kills. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DON LIEBIG No look pass Buckeye Pieter Olree couldn't bear to watch as he tried to make a block at the net against UCLA.

"With the game on the line Brandon threw his team on his back
and took it home," said the Buckeyes' coach.