When UC Irvine men's volleyball coach John Speraw approaches the Bren Events Center net at the conclusion of Saturday's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal against UCLA, his steps will lead him toward a fork in the road.
Win or lose, Speraw will shake hands with UCLA Coach Al Scates, a legend who is retiring with 19 NCAA titles and 21 national collegiate crowns to show for his 50 seasons at the Bruins' helm.
And, win or lose, scores will wonder if the handshake will serve as a passing of the torch — the most successful coach in the history of the collegiate game perhaps handing over his program to the coach universally acclaimed as tops in today's profession.
It is difficult to imagine that UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who already poached baseball coach John Savage from UCI, will not offer Speraw a chance to run the program in which he both played and coached.
But whether Speraw will accept such an offer remains less clear.
Before this season, Speraw acknowledged that the prospect of his leaving UCI for UCLA, a notion as old as his 10-season tenure with the Anteaters, was more relevant than ever.
"I'm going to get asked about that a lot, because I've already been asked a lot," Speraw said of a possible return to Westwood, where he was part of two national championships as a player (1993 and 1995) and where he was a member of the coaching staff for seven seasons, including NCAA titles in 1996, 1998 and 2000. "I'm used to it by now."
Speraw said the question typically arises in the living rooms of recruits, dating back to his very first home visit as UCI head man in September of 2002. It was Speraw's preseason desire that the question of his future would not become a distraction to the run at the 2012 national crown made by both schools.
"It's flattering to be considered," Speraw said. "It was flattering the first time and it's still flattering. I thought back then, it was a crazy question. But I guess it's a little less crazy now."
Some might call Speraw crazy for not jumping at the chance to renew his relationship with his alma mater. There is little question that, if faced with the prospect of letters on the coffee table from UCLA and UCI, about the only reason a prospective recruit would pick up the UCI letter first would be his knowledge of Speraw.
Otherwise, the Bruins' national brand, its history in the sport, and its greater abundance of resources, would invariably win the day with recruits, especially if Speraw were sitting on their bench.
Speraw, ever candid, admitted that arguments stating it is easier to win at UCI than UCLA are ill-founded.
"I think everybody outside the volleyball world would say that [choosing UCLA] is a no-brainer," Speraw said in January.
Ever the good soldier, Speraw has long declared his loyalty to UCI. It is both an inexorable choice for a man of such honor, and, frankly, smart business.
Speraw is, many say, comfortable in Orange County, has a house on campus, and has a program in place that won NCAA titles in 2007 and 2009, made an additional Final Four trip in 2006, and has been ranked No. 1 in five different seasons, including 2012.
"I think it is a testament to the [UCI] institution that we were able to sign a good recruiting class in the fall, even with this [possible move] hanging over my head," Speraw said.
With the possible exception of Hall of Fame baseball coach Mike Gillespie, Speraw is the most prominent figure UCI athletics has to offer. His run as an assistant coach on the U.S. men's national team that won Olympic gold in 2008 in Beijing also enhanced his profile both on and off campus.
He would be far less prominent at UCLA, where men's basketball, football and scores of national-championship-caliber programs reside. UCI employees are quick to point this out as an inducement for Speraw to remain at UCI. But a man who does not display any reference to his two NCAA championships in his UCI office, is hardly a man concerned about stroking his own ego.
And while the competitor in Speraw rises eagerly to face the daily challenges of the quaint little athletic program that could, the monolith that is UCLA athletics could help preserve that zealous fighting instinct for the court.
Finally, the elephant in the hallway of Crawford Hall, which houses most of the coaches offices, including Speraw's, is a growing unease about the direction of athletics.
The whispers questioning the brand of leadership provided by Mike Izzi, a somewhat mercurial and largely invisible athletic director who recently had his contract extended through 2016, are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
UCI senior All-American Carson Clark is among those unclear about Speraw's decision.
"It will ultimately come down to what he feels," Clark said. "It's going to be a good and bad decision on both sides. But he's going to be happy wherever he goes. If he stays here, he loves that idea of bringing a team from nothing into what we are today. I could see him staying for that. And at the same time, it has probably always been his dream to go back [to UCLA]. You can't be mad at him if he leaves, because he's had that dream for so long."