Dettamanti on 50 Years of NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships

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Cal's undefeated 1992 men's water polo team with their NCAA hardware—the Golden Bears' third straight title in one of the sport's greatest runs. Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics

EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s water polo tournament will celebrate its golden anniversary this weekend, with the national championship being held at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center. Looking back at the history of the country’s most prestigious polo tournament, Swimming World contacted Dante Dettamanti, who is among the greatest coaches in the history of the sport.

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With an overall record of 666-209-6 in 32 years leading Occidental, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford, “Coach D”—as he’s now known—enjoyed unparalleled success leading the Cardinal from 1977 – 2001. During a 25-year career on The Farm, Dettamanti’s teams hoisted championship hardware eight times. He is the only coach in NCAA history to win championships in four different decades.

Coincidentally, Dettamanti was on the scene at the very first national championship; while pursuing a master’s degree in exercise physiology, he served as a graduate assistant on the UCLA men’s water polo staff.

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1969 UCLA Bruins, 1st NCAA Champions. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

The very first NCAA water polo final was on November 30, 1969, when Bob Horn’s UCLA men dispatched UC-Berkeley 5-2 to complete an unbeaten campaign (19-0)—the Bruins’ fourth in five years. Anchored by attacker Jim Ferguson (1968 and 1972 Olympian), Torrey Webb at center, and Kevin Craig in goal, the win in the newly created national championship was the culmination of a five-year period where the Bruins went a combined 76-5.

– Dettamanti on five decades of NCAA polo championships:

Considered the “Father of NCAA Water Polo,” Horn’s teams in the 60’s consisted of multiple Olympians—making it entirely appropriate that UCLA won that very first title. In the early years, UCLA and UC Irvine were the powerhouse teams, followed by Cal in the early 70’s, Stanford in the early 80’s. UCLA in the 90’s and now USC in the 21st Century.  

[A Timeline of The NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship]

Southern Cal was always a factor in those early days; but it took thirty years for the first Trojan national championship in 1998. Since 2002, USC, UCLA and Cal have continued to win championships. Stanford has remained in the running; but has been without a title since 2002. This year, the host Cardinal are favored as the tournament’s number one seed.

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Bob Horn (right) with the undefeated 1966 Bruins. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

After that first title, the Bruins would enjoy continued success, winning back-to-back titles in 1971 and 1972. However, these would be the last championships of the Bob Horn era. His teams would endure the next 17 years without a title, finishing second a frustrating three times, including a 13-12 loss to Stanford in the 1976 championship match.

UC Irvine took three overtimes to defeat UCLA 7-6 in the 1970 final, one of three UCI titles in the tournament’s first two decades. The Anteaters were coached by the incomparable Ted Newland, who, as a USA National team coach during the Cold War, famously quipped: “I would rather beat UCLA than the Russians.”

Newland-led teams would win in 1982 and 1989, but UC Irvine would also finish second 6 times in those early years, with four-straight title match defeats from 1972 –75, including one-goal losses in 1974 and 1975 to Cal

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The 1989 Anteaters of UC Irvine, NCAA champs. Photo Courtesy: UC Irvine Athletics

The 1972 final was noteworthy because it was the first time in tournament history that the championship was played outside of California. The Armond H. Seidler Natatorium at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque hosted the eight-team field, which was the norm until the NCAA forced the tournament to contract to four teams from 1994 to 2012.

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Ted Newland. Photo Courtesy: UC Irvine Athletics

There have been five other non-California venues in the tournament’s fifty years: Providence, RI (Brown University) in 1977; Indianapolis, IN (Indiana University) in 1989; Fort Lauderdale, FL at the International Swimming Hall of Fame Aquatics Complex in 1997; Lewisburg, PA (Bucknell University) in 2005; and Princeton, NJ (Princeton University) in 2009.

1973 saw the first championship by Cal, which has won more titles (14) than any other program; legendary head coach Pete Cutino was the coach for those early Golden Bear squads. The 1973 champs were powered by Peter Schnugg, named National Player of the Year (he’s also uncle to current U.S. Women’s Senior National Team member Maggie Steffens). By capturing titles in 1974 and 1975, Cal also became the first three-peat winner.

The Cardinal, 1976 winners, were led by Art Lambert, two-time U.S. Men’s Olympic coach in 1968 and 1972, who in three seasons produced 55 wins and one national championship–setting a high bar of success for Dettamanti, who succeeded him in 1977. After leading UC Santa Barbara to NCAA appearances in 1974 and 1976—including a one-goal semifinal loss to 1976 NCAA champs Stanford—he jumped ship to The Farm.

Dettamanti’s arrival ushered in the golden age of Stanford water polo. After Bay Area rival Cal beat UC Irvine in 1977, it was Stanford’s turn to shine in 1978.

– Dettamanti on those early years with Stanford water polo:

I arrived at Stanford in 1977, placed third to Cal and UCI in the ‘77 NCAAs, then won the NCAAs in ‘78 with three freshmen—future Olympians Jody Campbell, Alan Mouchawar, as well as outstanding goalie John Gansel—and three seniors: Doug Burke (Olympian in ‘84), Tom Angelo and Robby Arnold. Cal had outstanding players in Olympian Kevin Robertson and Carlos Steffens, father of Maggie and Jessica Steffens who played for USA.

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The 1978 Stanford team, NCAA champions. Photo Courtesy: D. Dettamanti

We were losing by three goals when Mouchawar, a freshman, came off the bench and scored three goals to send the game into overtime. In the sudden death 3rd OT period, Burke scored on a counter off a feed from Mouchawar to win the game.

We went on to win in ‘80 and ‘81 with future Olympian Jamie Bergeson, who joined the team in ‘79, then placed second in ‘82 to UC Irvine. That year’s All-Tournament team featured Peter Campbell and future Stanford men’s coach John Vargas from UCI, and future Stanford women’s head coach John Tanner for the Cardinal.

The team that Dettamanti helped assemble at UCSB took the 1979 title over UCLA. Led by New York City native Greg Boyer, John Dobrott and 3-time Olympic goalie Craig Wilson (1984, 1988, 1992)—and coached by Pete Snyder—the Gauchos delivered the school’s first-ever NCAA title.

UCSB’s 11-3 win represented one of the more lopsided defeats in finals history. Only Stanford’s 17-6 demolition of Long Beach State in 1981 and UCLA’s 11-2 win over UC San Diego in 2000 were more one-sided.

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Cal Coach Pete Cutino. Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics

Dettamanti found his home and authored a passionate rivalry with Coach Cutino—who also won eight NCAA titles and for whom the prestigious Peter Cutino Award for the Outstanding Collegiate water polo player is named. During the period from 1976 to 1989—when Cutino and Dettamanti coached at the same time—Stanford won 6 titles and Cal won 5.

But the Cal vs. Stanford rivalry is bigger than these two legendary coaches. From 1973 to 1994 (22 years), either Stanford or Cal, or both were in every NCAA championship game except one; the 1979, match between UCSB and UCLA. Stanford (8) and Cal (11) combined for 19 of the 22 championships contested during that period. The two schools—who now annually hold “The Big Splash” as their regular season-ending contest—have met seven times in the NCAA final, with the Cardinal holding a 4-3 title edge.

Stanford and Cal played the two longest NCAA finals, both going to a third and decisive overtime. The Cardinal topped the Golden Bears 7-6 in 1976 for their first title; in 1992, Cal outlasted Stanford 12-11 to complete its only perfect season (31-0); the final title of one of the most dominant spans of NCAA history. Steve Heaton’s team went a combined 86-2 from 1990 – 1992, capturing three-straight crowns. A pair of Chrises—Humbert and Oeding—powered Cal during that impressive run.

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Cal’s Kirk Everist in 1988. Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics

During the 80s, Cal and Stanford each took four titles, but as the decade ended so did their era of dominance. Guy Baker’s arrival at UCLA in 1991 ushered in new era of prosperity for the Bruins; after losing to Cal in 1991, Baker’s charges won back-to-back titles in 1995-1996 and, with co-coach Adam Krikorian, again in 1999-2000. Stanford racked up back-to-back wins in 1993-1994, but the two most significant events of the decade were a final win by Pepperdine in 1997 under coach and Olympic great Terry Schroeder —the last win by a non-Pac 12 member—and the triumphant rise of the Trojans of USC.

Before 1993, Southern Cal had two appearances in the national title match; both were losses to Cal—10-7 in 1983 and 9-8 (OT) in 1987. Since 1993, the Trojans have appeared more times—18—than any other team; overall USC has 21 finals appearances, trailed by UCLA’s 20; Cal tops them both with 22 appearances. Their record of success (including 1987): nine titles and 12 second place finishes.

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USC’s Jovan Vavic. Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

After whiffing on their first six finals appearances, the Trojans finally broke through in 1998 with a 9-8 double overtime victory against the Cardinal. Jovan Vavic and John Williams—the long-time USC coach—were co-coaches that year but it’s Vavic, who has now become synonymous with Southern Cal’s success.

– Dettamanti on the 1998 loss to USC, and the beginning of the Trojan dynasty:

First of all, it was a bitter dark and cold night game under the lights at Corona Del Mar that went in overtime. That was back when the 2-point shot rule for goals scored outside 7 meters was in effect. We were leading USC by one goal in the second overtime when we had an ejection at 2-meters. Marko Pintaric (current USC assistant coach) scored a two-point shot on the extra man from 8 meters out to win the game.

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Marko Pintaric

Jovan, who grew up and played water polo in Montenegro, changed the game as the first coach to start recruiting foreign players from the Balkan countries of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro and—in recent years—Australia and Greece. In addition to rule changes favoring center play, the recruitment of foreign players, more than anything else, has changed the game of water polo in the USA.

That match represented a passing of the guard; Stanford would win twice more in 2001—the last ever title for Dettamanti—and 2002, the first title for Vargas, his successor as Cardinal coach. Both teams were led by Tony Azevedo, who would also lead the Cardinal to second place finishes in 2003 and 2004.

– Dettamanti on what made Azevedo, the only four-time Cutino Award winner, so great:

Great shooter, great passer, great driver, great awareness of the game. Probably the greatest to ever play in the USA.

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Tony Azevedo. Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

Led by Vavic, who has won more NCAA hardware (9) than any other coach in men’s water polo history, since 2005, USC has fashioned one of the more remarkable streaks in NCAA water polo history; appearances in 13 straight title games. During this stretch the Trojans have won seven titles; from 2008 – 2013 they won an unprecedented six straight national championships.

Perhaps the most thrilling Trojan win was in 2012, when—hosting the final in their home pool, what was then the McDonald’s Swim Stadium—Kostas Genidounias hit the winner with 40 seconds left to beat arch-rival UCLA and complete a perfect 29-0 season.

The 2013 final saw University of Pacific, powered by three-time Cutino Award winner Balazs Erdelyi, become the first non-Pac 12 finalist since UC San Diego in 2000. The Tigers could not overcome the Trojans, squandering a late lead and losing 12-11 in overtime. The win was the last of UCS’s impressive streak; in 2014 the Bruins won 9-8 over the Trojans and then again in 2015, with a 10-7 victory that completed a perfect (30-0) season.

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UCLA’s Adam Wright sporting some NCAA hardware after 2017 final. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

As the championship’s fifth decade drew to a close, Cal—coached by Kirk Everist, who won titles as a Golden Bear in 1987 and 1988—surprised USC in 2016 for its record-setting 14 title and UCLA captured the 2017 title, the Bruins’ 11th overall. Head Coach Adam Wright has had a hand in five of those titles—two as a player and three as a coach.

– Dettamanti on how much the game has changed in the five decades since that first title match:

Besides the recruitment of foreign players (except for Stanford), the game has changed to more of a static zone oriented game that depends on exclusions at 2-meters and good outside shooting, in comparison to the 70’s and 80’s with more emphasis on driving and counterattack.

The game back then depended on smaller (under 6’) who could drive and maneuver to get a shot off, while in today’s game most of the players are well over six feet tall, and rely on length and strength to shoot from the perimeter and block shots on defense. The center-forward game, has also changed from a player who could shoot and pass to drivers, to the main role today of drawing exclusion fouls. Another big difference in recent years is that the pool length was reduced from 30 meters to 25 meters, again making counterattacks more difficult to execute.

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Dante Dettamanti coaching at Stanford. Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

Going from an eight-team tournament to a four-team tournament changed the whole qualifying system, making it extremely competitive to receive a bid. League championships become essential in the qualifying process, making them more competitive than the actual NCAA championship itself.

The MPSF championship was especially brutal, as it usually consisted of the top eight teams in the country; but only two of those eight were allowed to attend the NCAA Championship.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Noel Murphy

    Dante, Excellent Article that condenses the past 6 decades of College NCAA water polo. Even though I played for Pete at Cal – I have to say that Dante in my book had a great strategy and system.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Noel:

      I had hoped that Coach Dettamanti might chime in (he’s probably mulling his Cardinal’s loss to USC!). Impressive that you played for Pete Cutino; that must have been in the glory years of Cal water polo (though how often is it that the Golden Bears aren’t great?!).

      Thanks for your comments; I’m sure Coach D appreciates your high praise!

      Your correspondent