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Sinjin Smith on life and volleyball lessons from Coach Al Scates

January 20, 2012 |  1:02 pm

While writing a story on UCLA men’s volleyball coach Al Scates, who has won 19 NCAA titles and is in his 50th and last season, I heard some wonderful stories and got some great insights from two of his former players, John Speraw and Karch Kiraly.

But deadline arrived before I could include some observations from the legendary Sinjin Smith, who won two NCAA titles while playing for UCLA and was an all-America honoree twice. Smith, whose jersey was retired by UCLA, later went on to team with Kiraly on the beach and became an enthusiastic promoter of beach volleyball.

Smith had some interesting thoughts on Scates that I thought were worth passing along, so here they are.

Incidentally, Scates’ Bruins have four home matches coming up at the John Wooden Center: Friday against Stanford, Saturday against Pacific, Wednesday against Cal State Northridge and Jan. 27 against UC Santa Barbara.

From Sinjin:

Al has set the standard for all coaches in any sport. It will be very difficult for anyone to have the longevity combined with the success that he has had.

If there was one thing that you could say about Al, it was that he knew how to win. Al has won championships with teams that were clearly not as good on paper but he was always able to figure out a way to get the advantage, usually at the end of the season and many times not until the championships.

Al has more success than anyone in the history of collegiate volleyball for several reasons:
• Al has a sense about people and how to get the best out of them when he needs it.
• 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 always commanded the utmost respect from his players.
• His players never wanted to disappoint him.
• Al exudes a certain confidence that was 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.
• Al seemed to know what other teams were going to do, sometimes before they knew.

It is not an accident that so many of Al's former players went on to have success in their volleyball careers and in anything they did.

Some of the things that I learned from Al that stayed with me throughout my career and beyond were: try 100% all the time against all levels of teams, or in other words, respect all your opponents, don’t ever give up no matter how far behind you are. If you should lose, keep your head up, forget the last play and get ready for the next play, encourage your teammates, practice like you play, don’t ever let up, even if you have a lead.

As a freshman, 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 that would train against each other on the first court. During one practice, Al noticed that I didn't go for a ball and said, "Smith, go over to the brown squad," which 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% to make it back to the main court and 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.

When I was a senior on the team [in 1979] Karch came in as a freshman. We had both played quite a bit on the beach at that time and were both pretty good all-around players. Because Karch was the young kid, Al told me to work with Karch as his practice partner.

It worked out very well because there was never a moment when we didn't push each other in every way including during circle drills and even peppering. We went on to set opposite each other which also allowed the both of us to attack in the front row in a 6-2 format and win every match that year including the championships against USC to become the first team ever to go undefeated. I don’t remember any other teams that ran a straight 6-2 offense then or since…. Karch and I would go directly to the beach to play doubles together and would win almost every event we played in. Al knew something.

I was upset that I had only won two championships while at UCLA. I had fully expected after a freshman-year victory that we would win all four years. 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.

I have had the opportunity and pleasure of playing golf with Al many times and I always enjoy the competition aspect when you are with Al. When you are on his team, you always feel that you can win. He always has a strategy even on the golf course. Sometimes a small comment to his opponent at the opportune time seals the deal. When you aren’t on his team, which could be in the same round with a switch after nine holes, he turns on you and won’t give you an inch. All in fun, of course. There are no gimmes when you are playing against him.

Al seems to thrive with more pressure. The more that was at stake and the more the odds were against him, the more Al would be in his element and he would seem to do his best. He would also know just when to apply pressure to other teams to make them crack. He would make the unexpected substitution that would intentionally throw off the other team's focus. Knowing Al and the way he works, it makes you smile when you see it happen as a spectator.

Al spends a lot of time on stats for his teams and his opponents but what makes him different from all other coaches is his sense of what to do and when to do it. That doesn't come from any piece of paper. It comes from knowing and understanding the game as he does and knowing people and their personalities. Not just his own players but other players and their coaches.

At a certain point in the game, Al would tell us exactly what to expect from certain individuals we were playing against and it would come true. That gave his players an incredible amount of confidence in him and the team and our ability to win under any circumstances. This is what set his teams apart from any others.

Thanks to Sinjin, and to Coach Scates.

-- Helene Elliott