UCI is Always UCLA’s Coaching Farm Team, But Speraw’s Not Next

UCLA’s legendary Al Scates, who is the men’s volleyball version of John Wooden, has announced that he will be retiring after next season — his 50th year of service with the Bruins.

The face of UCLA volleyball has a ridiculously impressive record that includes 21 national titles (nearly 1/5 of the school’s 106) and a 1,217-282 all-time record. Scates’ legacy includes being the only coach to lead three different teams to undefeated season records, as well as the only coach to record three different three-peats. In addition to what he’s done at UCLA, Scates was huge in terms of growing the very sport of volleyball, playing a direct role in getting volleyball approved as an NCAA sport. Accomplishments aside, how does Scates’ retirement affect UC Irvine? Because our very own men’s volleyball coach, John Speraw, figures to be at the top of the candidate list when UCLA looks for a replacement at the end of the 2012 season.

The conjecture has been around since Speraw first got to UCI — he admits that it was a question that came up on one of his first recruiting trips. And it’s not hard to see why. Speraw was affiliated with the Bruin program for 12 years. He was an assistant coach under Scates from 1998-2002, and before that an All-American middle blocker at UCLA from 1990-1995.

As a head coach, Speraw has gone up against Scates and shown that UCI can do just as well, if not better. Since coming to Irvine, Speraw has brought remarkable success to a men’s volleyball program that had not seen much in its history, winning two national championships in the last five years, becoming the only to win national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach in men’s volleyball history. There is no question that he is one of the best in the sport of volleyball — as an assistant coach for the United States men’s indoor national team, Speraw even brought home an Olympic gold medal from Beijing in 2008.

Thus, the lure of going home and Speraw having experienced so much success at UCI naturally raises speculation of Speraw returning to his old stomping grounds. It is understandable to be wary when you consider UCLA has done it before.

Always seemingly playing the bullying older brother role, UCLA lured away former UCI athletic director and current AD Dan Guerrero after he spent 10 years doing wonders for UCI. The Anteater Recreation Center, the new baseball stadium and Anteater Pool are all products of his spearheading efforts. But in 2002, Guerrero couldn’t resist the offer to return to his alma mater, and now he is doing bigger things as president of the Division I Athletic Directors Association as well as being an influential figure in the recent expansion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to 68 teams. In 2005, UCLA hired away UCI baseball coach John Savage to replace the retiring Gary Adams. Savage in 2004 had just taken UCI to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA baseball tournament. The AD who hired Savage both at UCI and UCLA? Guerrero. Savage has since steadily rebuilt the Bruin baseball program, in 2010 bringing them to the College World Series Finals. The journey to Omaha included defeating UCI’s veteran squad in the Los Angeles regional.

But before ’Eater Nation throws in the towel on Speraw leaving, recognize that the men’s volleyball program is different. Speraw has crafted a legitimate powerhouse at UCI, and he has proven that he can win national championships, and in bunches. The 2006 team had a stellar 20-2 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation record and finished the season with a school-record 21 straight wins. They held the No. 1 national ranking in the nation for eight consecutive weeks, and only had themselves to blame for letting the national title slip away. After winning it all in 2007 and 2009, the 2011 team had a solid shot as well. With the exception of a frustrating inability to beat USC, UCI was playing the best volleyball of any team in the nation down the stretch. The Anteaters beat eventual national champion Ohio St. 3-0 in late March and swept the season series from runner-up UC Santa Barbara.

At UCI, men’s volleyball has an awe factor. Unlike at UCLA, where basketball and football will always reign supreme, Speraw’s bunch has drawn sizable student support and has made volleyball fans out of students who before UCI didn’t know the difference between a side out and a setter. Attention and buzz will only keep growing as the successful years pile up.

Beyond just the win-loss column, Speraw is a great role model, someone who stresses being a well-rounded athlete and playing the game the right way. In terms of strategic preparation, Speraw and his coaching staff don’t just stop at film watching, but also have their players journal and meditate — creative ways to gain the extra advantage. Away from the volleyball court, Speraw is a popular and powerful motivational speaker, author and all-around recognizable ambassador for UCI. A picture of Speraw and Chancellor Michael Drake at the White House after the 2009 team won the championship sits proudly in Drake’s office. UCI would be plain stupid not to do whatever it took to keep Speraw around. And on his part, Speraw is saying all the right things.

“All I’ve ever thought of is what a wonderful opportunity being at UCI is, and that’s all I’m going to continue thinking about,” Speraw said after the Scates announcement was made. “Maybe after two to three years [at UCI], it would have been real easy to go back, but I’ve been here nine, and we’ve won two national championships, and we’ve really built something here.”

Speraw also said that he has no idea in which direction UCLA will go in after Scates. Bruins Assistant Coach Brian Rofer has been with the program for 21 years, and would seem a logical candidate as well. Most importantly though, Speraw emphasized how much UCI has continued to improve in the nine years that he has been here.

John Speraw doesn’t need to go back to UCLA because he has it all here in Irvine. With the continued support of the administration and the student body, UCI men’s volleyball will one day have a legacy and prestige, headed by Speraw, that will rival Scates and our bullying older brother to the north.