The women’s water polo team won its fifth national championship in program history on Sunday, adding to the impressive — yet largely unnoticed — dynasty that is water polo at USC.
When you think of dynasties in Trojan athletics, you immediately think of football — the Pete Carroll era, the success under John McKay and John Robinson — or maybe baseball and Rod Dedeaux’s 11 national championships in a 45-year tenure.
But flying under the radar is water polo — a sport that barely registers on the casual USC fan’s radar — and Jovan Vavic, the head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams, who has amassed more national championships than any coach in USC history, but could walk straight down Trousdale and go unrecognized.
His resume features 14 national championships (five women’s, nine men’s) and 22 Coach of the Year awards (12 National Coach of the Year honors and 10 MPSF Coach of the Year awards). His winning percentage is above .700 with both the men and the women’s teams. On the men’s side, he has appeared in 11 consecutive national championships, and from 2008 to 2013, his team won it all. Every year. Six years in a row.
Vavic is essentially the John Wooden of water polo, and it’s no secret why. He demands the best from his players and never expects anything less. Observe him during a game and he is intimidating, to say the least, with his booming voice barking orders at his players and yelling at the referees.
And he never stops coaching. In a game in late March, as the women’s water polo team was ahead by five goals against Cal in the season finale and a minute away from clinching a perfect 21-0 regular season, Vavic barked at his team to press or pressure the opponent. They didn’t, and he called a timeout to light up his players.
“Why didn’t you press?” he yelled loud enough for everyone present at Uytengsu Aquatics Center to hear.
Mind you, this was in the final minute of the final regular season game that was well out of reach for the opponent. It was the equivalent of a basketball coach telling his or her team to stage a full court press with a 20-point lead in the final 30 seconds. But that’s just the way Vavic is.
“He just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing,” junior attacker Stephania Haralabidis said after the 11-6 win over Cal. “He’s a perfectionist. That’s good. If we have a 5-goal lead, we start relaxing.”
And relaxation is not an option for Vavic, at least in the pool. Take a look at this excerpt from a feature on Vavic in Los Angeles Magazine:
“This is, after all, the man who lines up players along the outdoor pool deck and laces into them as they stand shivering. Who kicked a container filled with medicine balls so hard, he broke a toe. Who angrily drew a circle on a whiteboard, explaining that it was the empty dessert plate of a player he then blasted for being too slow.”
Vavic has a strong “tough love” approach that is demanding but has earned the respect of his players.
“Him screaming at us makes us go like this,” Haralabidis said, throwing her hands in the air. “It helps a lot.”
Two months later, Haralabidis would find out how much it helped. She scored the game-winning goal to win the national championship for USC, delivering a left-handed strike from the right side into the back of the net with six seconds remaining to give the Trojans an 8-7 win over Stanford and capping off a 26-0 season for the Women of Troy.
Vavic is, in many ways, the perfect water polo coach. Water polo is not a sport for the weary, a fact that I was quickly introduced to when covering the men’s beat last season. The water might make it appear like a graceful, agile sport, but make no mistake: it is physical, fast-paced and demanding. Treading water for 32 minutes is hard enough without worrying about the holding, strangling and shoving — and that’s just what happens above the surface. I’ve heard of players purposely growing their toenails out, and let’s just say it’s not because they have regular pedicure appointments.
A tough sport calls for a tough leader, and for more than two decades Vavic has continuously found the right formula to lead his teams to the top, year upon year. The championship win on Sunday — Vavic’s ninth in nine seasons — further cements his legacy as an all-time legendary coach in USC history.
Amidst the coaching carousel that has embroiled the football team in recent seasons, it is refreshing to see that at least one program at USC has a coach with all the job security in the world, coaching two teams and delivering winners on a regular basis. Maybe it’s time for Trojan fans to start paying attention to him and his sport.
Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Wednesdays.