The UC Irvine coach, John Speraw, watched Dan McDonnell’s serve hit the floor for a walk-off ace last May 5. Time seemed to stop for a second inside USC’s Galen Center, everyone stunned at the sudden ending.
And then it was bedlam as the Anteaters celebrated their school’s third NCAA championship in six years.
Finally, Speraw, upon whom so much focus had been placed the previous year, had a decision to make.
“I’m standing out of the court and I literally looked around and I was watching my guys celebrate with the trophy and there were 10,000 people there, probably the greatest environment,” Speraw said.
“And I was like, I’m done with college volleyball. It’s never going to get better. I’m going to walk away right now. At that moment I really felt I was going to take the national team.”
Quick scene setter: The 2012 season was the last for Al Scates, who had announced the year before his plan to retire in 2012, after 50 years as the only head coach UCLA ever had. From the get-go, most observers thought Speraw’s path was clearcut. He could remain at Irvine and probably be the 2016 U.S. Men’s Olympic coach, or return to his alma mater to replace the legend who coached him and gave him his first volleyball job.
For Speraw, however, the path didn’t seem so clear. “At the final four I had no idea,” Speraw said. “I still hadn’t received any firm offers from anybody. So I didn’t even know what we were talking about. Everybody just assumed that it was going to be based on merit. I had some good opportunities and I wanted to see everything.”
Perhaps, but his future team was well aware of what was possibly unfolding.
“We all knew of John’s legacy and impact at Irvine,” said UCLA’s Robart Page, a 7-foot junior outside hitter. “The thing that was cool was that I’d never heard a bad word about him as John Speraw the coach or John Speraw the person. So it was one of those things where our entire team was hoping and praying for him to come here.”
“I was confident that UCLA was going to hire the best guy,” said UCLA junior middle blocker Spencer Rowe. “I just put myself into the weight program and worked as hard as I could, because I knew UCLA was going to figure it out and get us the best guy for the job. And I think they did.”
Of course, you know by now that Speraw ended up taking the UCLA job. Why?
“I’d have to say that Dan Guerrero and Glenn Toth are good recruiters,” Speraw said with a laugh about the UCLA athletic director (Guerrero) and his right-hand man. “I’m a recruiter and I know good recruiting and Dan is a good recruiter.”
Not that he went straight from winning the title to UCLA. Speraw, who had also served as an assistant in 2008 when the U.S. won the men’s Olympic gold medal in Beijing, was off to Florence with the national team as it prepared for the 2012 games in London. Finally, Speraw was introduced as UCLA’s second head coach ever in a news conference on June 5. He took over the program whose coach he had actually sent into retirement on April 21 when Irvine knocked the Bruins out of the MPSF tournament.
“Brutal. Probably the hardest, most emotional match I’ve ever coached,” Speraw said. “I did not want to be the guy to put an end to his career. That was not what I wanted.”
Regardless, the loss created an opening at UCLA for the first time in half a century and the big elephant was loose in the room.
“Al had announced his retirement a year in advance. All that stuff hung over everybody for a whole year,” Speraw said, admitting that 2012 was tough in many ways. “It affected the players, it affected recruiting at both places. I thought we did remarkably well at UC Irvine, considering.”
The reaction at Irvine was mixed. As in any program, some were glad for a new coach, others sad to see the old one leave.“I don’t know if I ever told [the UCI players] this or not, but I was making a 20-year decision,” Speraw said. “If I was making a three- or four-year decision, I would have stayed. I had to make a decision for the long run.”
So far the change in coaches hasn’t hurt Irvine. At this writing, the Anteaters were ranked second nationally in both the AVCA and Volleyball magazine polls and have been No. 1 at various points throughout the season. And UCLA came in at No. 5 having lost both its matches versus Irvine this season in five. Another regular-season match was scheduled for March 30 and it’s seemingly inevitable that the two teams will meet in the MPSF tournament.
Clearly, Speraw inherited a good group at UCLA, a far cry from what he found at Irvine when he started that job in 2002. “They were terrible. They’d only made the playoffs once in school history,” said Speraw, who said he took the job simply because “it was a head-coaching opportunity.”
He made the most of it, of course, which is something Speraw has done through out his career. Some of his competitors snidely refer to him as “The Golden Child,” but the truth is the 41-year-old has led a charmed volleyball life. He’s from Arcadia, Calif., where as a tall kid he played some basketball. But volleyball?
The 6-foot-5 Speraw got involved in the sport thanks to the urging of a friend, and it turned out he was pretty good. He won a state title on a team in which four others also ended up playing college volleyball at a high level.
“Once I got into it I really loved it,” Speraw recalled. “I finally found a sport that I really enjoyed…[But] like anything in life it had a lot to do with luck. I was born in a city that randomly happened to have a really good volleyball coach, Chuck Freberg.
“The real break for me was there was a local club team called L’Abri,” Speraw said, crediting coaches Ron Kohler and Jim Strickland for his development.
“Ron fully funded that club, so I got to play club volleyball for free for three years, and that’s probably the only way I would have gotten to play. My parents did not know anything about the sport and had no way to financially support that.”
At the end of high school, Speraw narrowed the recruiting process down to Stanford and UCLA, ultimately going to play for Scates. Not that he got any financial support to do so. Even today UCLA has just 4.5 scholarships. So Speraw studied microbiology and genetics and worked at a hospital.
After graduation Speraw was considering medical school, but delayed taking the MCAT. Scates, he said, called him and asked him to start doing stats for the team.
“At the time the computer programs hadn’t been integrated yet. Al was so innovative with statistical analysis. He was so ahead of the time. He was innovative in so many ways that people don’t recognize.”
It was 1996 and Speraw suddenly started paying attention to the coaching side of things.
The next year, Scates got him on staff for the World University Games. After that, Speraw was added to the staff at UCLA – as a volunteer coach. Finally, after five years in college and two as an unpaid assistant, in 1998 he was hired as a full-time assistant.
“If I had gotten married young and had kids I couldn’t have grinded it out for so long,” said Speraw, still single. “I was coaching club, still working at the hospital, just making ends meet.”
In 2002, the Irvine job opened up. The new athletic director at UCLA was Guerrero, who had just left Irvine. Thanks to Guerrero’s connections, Speraw got a late interview at UCI and, ultimately, the job.
“I had an opportunity at UC Irvine to develop my own system, style, and reputation,” he said.
Speraw was the 2006 AVCA National Coach of the Year. The Anteaters won NCAA crowns in 2007, 2009, and 2012.
“Unbelievable run,” Speraw said. “Unbelievable.”
He credited good recruiting and developing players and, oddly enough, finishing 9-20 his third year there.
“That was the best year for me in my development and in my understanding of what we needed to do to win,” he said, adding that such a season makes “you start thinking more philosophically.”
At Irvine, Speraw developed what he calls value-driven success, which is supported by four pillars: family, respect, responsibility, and effort.
“He’s an incredible coach,” said UCLA’s Page. “It was interesting because our team has bought into what he says, so he came into a team that was ready to learn and accept what he does.”
One thing Speraw did was do away with Scates’s famous—or infamous—blue curtain. It was a divider in the program. Once placed behind it you were more or less banished until Scates beckoned you back. The blue curtain also allowed him to keep large numbers, sometimes as many as 40 players on the team.
“I spent a whole year [behind the curtain],” Speraw said with a smile, “when Jeff Nygaard [now an assistant at USC], Erik Sullivan [whose first year as an assistant at Texas resulted in the 2012 NCAA women’s title], Kevin Wong and myself all redshirted. Turned out to be an unbelievable group and we’re still close friends.”
Speraw wanted a smaller team, one with which he could be closer in touch. The curtain still exists but has not come down on the Bruins since he took over.
“It’s a very different style,” said Page, who spent all of 2012 behind the blue curtain. From the get-go Page noticed Speraw’s different approach to evaluating players.
“Al Scates was more into statistics. [Speraw] looks more at the team as a whole and less individually and lets you play a lot more free and lets you make mistakes. He looks a lot more at what you do positively than what you do negatively.”
Teammate Rowe agreed.
“Coach Speraw has created more of a family atmosphere. He’s an excellent coach and really allows me to play free. He really supports me as a player, not just what’s on the stat sheet but all the other things, the attributes that make me who I am.”
The last UCLA championship came in 2006, which happened to be the year before Irvine went on its roll. So it’s not hard to imagine the new guy wanting to make changes.
“It’s hard for it not to be Al’s program. The guy was here 50 years and built everything and was such an unbelievable legend in the game,” Speraw said. “I’m quite OK with it being Al’s program. He was an incredible mentor [and coach] for me. I just think that I owe him a lot and ultimately I’m a Bruin.
“I played here, I worked here, I loved it here. I still love it here and I re-connected with that feeling when I came on campus for my interview and knew that this was the place for me.
“And whether it’s Al’s program or my program, ultimately this is going to be the UCLA program and I’m going to do my part to make it the best program in the United States.”
In theory, considering budget alone, you would think Speraw could eventually make that happen at a place that boasts a nation-best 108 NCAA championships, 19 in men’s volleyball alone.
“This institution, from an athletic culture point of view, is spectacular. You look at all those championship trophies and realize who’s played here in every sport. Obviously the resources, the brand-new Pauley Pavilion, the locker rooms, the weight rooms, the support staffs, the budgets, there are just so many things that make it more attractive for staff and recruits.”
That time last May, standing on the USC court celebrating a national title seems so long ago. No more questions about staying or going, being the Olympic coach* or going back to UCLA.
Or having to replace a legend.
“I’ve said this repeatedly, that I’m different than Al. I’ve talked to Al about this, so there’s nothing he hasn’t heard. I think there was a point when I was an assistant coach here thinking of being the head coach, not ever knowing if I’d ever have that opportunity, when I realized I couldn’t be Al Scates.
“His mind works in different ways, he’s more analytical than [I am], he’s had too much experience that I can’t replicate. His personality is different than mine.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re not good friends. We’re just different people.
“I think you have to be who you are and you have to be authentic with your leadership and you can’t do that by trying to be somebody else.”
*Since this story was written for the print version of Volleyball, John Speraw has accepted an offer to be the men's national team head coach in addition to his position at UCLA.
Speraw played middle for UCLA, winning two national championships.
After volunteer coaching since graduating from UCLA, Scates hired Speraw as a full-time assistant coach at UCLA.
UC Irvine chose Speraw as their new head coach.
The AVCA, MPSF, and VBM all named Speraw Coach of the Year.
UCI won its first national championship, making Speraw the only person in collegiate men’s volleyball history to win the title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
Speraw served as the assistant coach for the U.S. Men’s National Team at the Beijing Olympics where they won gold.
UCI won its second national championship title.
UCI won the national title for the third time in six years under Speraw’s leadership.
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero announced that Speraw would take over the volleyball program after Scates’ retirement.
Speraw went to the London Olympics with the U.S. Men’s National Team where Italy eliminated them in the quarterfinals.
Originally published in May 2013