Los Alamitos, CA—The U.S. Water Polo national teams will have an edge from now on that they’ve never had before…full-time coaches. In an announcement
handed down on Sunday (Jan. 14), USWP named Ratko Rudic and Guy Baker head coaches of the men’s and women’s national teams, respectively. Both coaches
will dually serve as National Program Directors, overseeing the development of the sport at every level.
Made possible by a grant from the United States Olympic Committee, the U.S. hires full-time coaches for the first time in program history. This will allow the U.S. to begin to catch up to overseas programs that have highly professional, highly paid staffs.
“In the last quadrennium our coaches have split time between school and club programs that gave them little time to breathe,” said U.S. Water Polo Executive Director, Bruce Wigo. “Our national coach and athlete pipeline suffered as our best coaches had little time for developmental programs, such as our Junior and Youth Teams.”
With both coaches handed the responsibility of enhancing the sport from top to bottom, Wigo believes that U.S. Water Polo might finally be able to rise
to the next level.
“Now, with full-time coaches, their experience and talents can be shared,” he said. “In addition to having the objective to winning gold medals in
Athens, we have an ambitious plan to nationalize our great sport. Rather than just having responsibility for our Olympic team, our head coaches will be responsible for developing the sport at all levels. This will also assure continued international excellence for the U.S.” Rudic and Baker boast two of the best resumes in the sport. On the men’s side of the coin, water polo living legend Ratko Rudic will
take the reins as men’s national team head coach and program director. Rudic is one of the sport’s more reputable coaches, with a proven track record of
success. In his coaching career, Rudic has been party to four Olympic medals with two different countries, three of them gold. A Rudic-guided Yugoslavia
sowed up consecutive golds in 1984 and 1988 before his departure to Italy in 1992, where he wasted no time getting back to the medal stand. At the ’92 Games, remarkably, Rudic coached his team to gold…for the third time in a row. The Italians came back again in 1996 to win a bronze, but finished fifth in Sydney last summer. As a player, Rudic has been draped in both gold and silver (1968, 1980), winning each with the Yugoslavian national team. Just in case you weren’t keeping count, that’s six total medal runs that have wound up successful for Rudic.
Rudic’s task, however, will not be an easy one. He inherits a squad that finished sixth in Sydney, but has not enjoyed a medal since its silvery finishes in 1984 and 1988. Other problems include geographic isolation, limited funding for the national team and the most problematic, player availability. The player availability issue has been identified as the major
obstacle for our men's team coaches leading up to Sydney. Nearly half of the 2000 Olympic team members play professionally in Europe and are unavailable
for practice and competition until the end of the professional season in June. Most of the other 2004 candidates are still in college where they have
academic demands and are otherwise hindered by NCAA playing restrictions.
Still other players have full-time employment which restricts their availability to practice and travel with the team. But Rudic is undaunted.
"There are two very important reasons why I wanted to coach the USA," said Rudic. "First, I believe that the USA has the talent and athletes capable
of winning the gold medal. Second, the USA is the strongest nation in the world. It is important for the sport of water polo that the USA team be
successful. Yes, there are difficulties, but solutions can and must be found."
Baker, the first coach to guide a U.S. women’s team through the Olympic bracket, came home from Sydney last October after having led Team USA to the
silver medal. Baker, who was named as the national team head coach in 1998, was also honored as the USWP Coach of the Year. In 2000, “Baker’s Dozen” made it to the championship game of every major tournament in which it participated and took home first place at last July’s Holiday Cup. Before Baker’s arrival, the women’s national team was ranked No. 8 in the world and was not expected to medal in Australia.
Baker, 39, will be leaving his position at UCLA, where has coached since 1991. During his time in the Bruin blue and gold, Baker has led his teams to
seven national titles, four on the men’s and three on women’s side.
Recently, Baker, aside co-head coach Adam Krikorian, led the Bruin men to their second title in as many years at the NCAA Championships.
“I’m pleased that things have worked out the way they have,” said Baker. “This will give me a chance to do more with our women’s teams, giving us
more of an edge in international play and making our programs stronger at every level.”