Speraw replacing a legend at UCLA

December 20, 2012

Replacing a legend is not an easy thing to do.

Just ask John Speraw, who was recently tasked with taking over the helm at the most successful men’s volleyball program in the country, replacing UCLA’s renowned head men’s volleyball coach Al Scates.

After 50 seasons and 19 national titles, UCLA's legendary coach decided to retire in April.

Out of 108 national championships in UCLA’s history, Scates and the volleyball program had won more than any other sport, with 19 national championships. That's almost twice more than John Wooden, who won 10.

"I'm confident that John Speraw is the right man to lead UCLA men's volleyball into the next era," Scates said. "He has proven himself to be an outstanding coach both collegiately and internationally. UCLA is privileged to have him."

Speraw decided to return to his alma mater a mere month after winning his third national championship in his 10 years as UC Irvine’s head coach. Speraw is the only individual in men's volleyball history to win an NCAA Championship as a head coach, assistant coach and player.

"The best way to replace Al Scates is not try and be Al Scates," Speraw said. "I just have to be me."

Speraw played for Scates as a middle blocker for the Bruins from 1990-95 and was a member of two national championship teams.

He was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team in 1995 when he had 11 kills and eight blocks in the championship victory over Penn State. Speraw stayed on under the tutelage of Scates and became a volunteer assistant coach with the Bruins before assuming a full-time assistant's position in 1998.

"Playing for Al was great," Speraw said. "I learned a ton about playing the game. Most importantly I think most people consider their experience playing for Al as one where you learn how to compete more than anything. He created an incredibly competitive environment. He recruited some of the best athletes in America to come there and we battled. Because of that battle we won a lot. I really enjoyed my experience playing for Al and playing for UCLA. I just really can't speak highly enough about what my time here was like."

Speraw started his head coaching career at UC Irvine in 2001, taking over for Charlie Brande.  At the time, UCI had only one winning season (1999) since the program began in 1988.

"His influence, especially early on in my coaching career, allowed me - because of his support and who Al Scates was and is - allowed me to get some coaching jobs that I may not have been able to get otherwise.  Being the biggest legend in the game, when he puts a phone call in for you, it’s beneficial and so his support and obviously his mentorship helped me get a quick start, which has really been to my advantage. I feel like I got an early start to coaching and because of my early start in the sport, I got an early start being a head coach. The earlier you start, the more experience you get at a young age and hopefully more success you have."

In Speraw’s first season with the Anteaters, they finished the season as a .500 team and were up and down the next few seasons, but turned a corner in 2006 finishing 27-5. In 2007 they finished 29-5 and won their first ever NCAA final, winning two more in 2009 and 2012.

"They gave me a chance and I will forever be indebted to them for that," Speraw said. "They took a chance on a young, inexperienced coach and those years were an incredibly dynamic, educational experience for me. I developed some incredible friendships and relationships with players and staff that will last forever. Obviously we had great success and I have fond memories of my time there and always will."

The decision to leave was not an easy one. 

"I think it [coaching at UCLA] was probably my dream job at some point," he said. "After I’d been gone though for 10 years, I’d had a great situation at Irvine. It was my home. I had a lot of success and a lot of friends there. We built up a great program. I was in a pretty good spot myself. When the job became available and I started to talk to them about it, the one thing that really struck me was the emotional, nostalgic connection I had with being back on campus.  I hadn't really been back on campus in 10 years.  When I was walking around and thinking about what I wanted to do, I just really remembered all the memories I had there and the experiences and a lot of the same people were still there.

"The type of personality of athlete…the values and the character are almost identical to that of what goes on at Irvine, but the support and resources and athletic culture on campus is so much stronger.  All that plus my experience and time there was too much to pass up…It was something I decided I really wanted to do."

He informed his Irvine team on the Tuesday after their team banquet - celebrating their 2012 championship win over USC.

"We obviously had just won. I had close relationships with all of them. That was the hard part. I had to realize this was a 20 to 30-year decision for me, it wasn’t going to be about the next couple of years. The thing that was best for me for the next 20 to 30 years was to go to UCLA and that became apparent."

Speraw plans to 'create a program that is the finest collegiate volleyball experience in the United States of America' at UCLA.

Speraw and his newly inherited Bruins have already faced his former employer in a fall tournament at USC in October.   The Bruins fell to the defending national champions in three sets (25-15, 25-14, 25-20).

The Bruins will kick off their season with new coach Speraw at the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion against the University of Alberta on Jan. 2.