Passages: Bill Barnett, Former Olympic Men’s Water Polo Coach, Passes Away at 76

Bill Barnett celebrating the 2008 CIF Division I Championship with Lauren Jarvey. LA Times

Bill Barnett, who for five decades coached boys and girls water polo at Newport Harbor High School, and who led the U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, has passed away at the age of 76.

According to Dan Albano in The Orange County Register, the venerated coach who steered the Sailors to 15 California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section titles—10 with the boys and five with the girls—died peacefully at his Laguna Beach home on Monday after receiving hospice care for acute leukemia.

[Legendary Newport Harbor water polo coach Bill Barnett dies at 76]

Renowned for his work with hundreds of high school athletes, it is perhaps Barnett’s tenure with U.S. Olympians that many polo observers will remember best. In 1988 he led the Americans into the Seoul Olympics, determined to capture gold for their country for first time since polo was an exhibition sport at the St. Louis Games in 1904. That squad, captained by Terry Schroeder, included veterans from the 1984 squad who fell just short of the top podium spot due to goal differential: Peter and Jody Campbell, Douglas Kimbell, Kevin Robertson and goalie Craig Wilson.


Jamsil Indoor Swimming Pool in South Korea Photo during the 1988 Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Sophia Chiang

Add in James Bergeson, Greg Boyer, Jeffrey Campbell, Christopher Duplanty, Michael Evans, Douglas Kimbell, Edward Klass, Alan Mouchawar and the Yanks were in the mix for gold for a second-straight Olympics, as Barnett steered Team USA to a finals match-up with Yugoslavia, the reigning Olympic champs. Gold was not in the cards for Barnett’s bunch as they dropped a 9-7 decision in overtime.

Four years later, the core of the 1988 squad, including its coach, traveled to Barcelona for a third crack at an Olympic title, but the Americans again fell short, losing to Spain in the semifinals, then dropped the bronze medal match to the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union.

Despite the missed opportunities, Barnett is regarded as one of the finest polo coaches America ever produced. He is one of only two coaches in U.S. Olympic polo history—the other is the legendary Monte Nitzkowski—to lead the American men to top-four finishes in back-to-back Games. For his efforts with USA Water Polo, and due to his distinguished career with Newport Harbor, where from 1966 to 2015 he produced multiple DI athletes as well as Olympians, in 2000 Barnett was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame.


Bill Barnett coaching Newport Harbor High School. Photo Courtesy: Richard Forster

USAWP also saw fit to name an annual award for him: the Bill Barnett Distinguished Men’s Coaching Award.

Among the many male and female high school water polo athletes he sent on to success are Olympians James Bergeson, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Eric Lindroth and Kevin Robertson.

Following are select quotes from former players, fellow coaches and colleagues of Barnett.

– Terry Schroeder, U.S. Olympian (player in 1984, 1988, 1992; coach in 2008, 2012); played for Barnett in 1988 and 1992

I am deeply saddened by the passing of Coach Barnett. I had the opportunity to play for Coach Barnett over the course of two Olympic Games between 1985 and 1992. He was a coach and a mentor. He was passionate about the sport of water polo and that permeated all of us that played for him.

I learned a great deal from Coach Barnett about the game and about life itself. As a coach, I often utilize many strategies, drills and methods from Coach.  Through the years as a Coach at Pepperdine, I have had the opportunity to coach many athletes that were coached in high school by Coach Barnett.


Terry Schroeder. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

These players were always among the most fundamentally sound athletes coming out of high school. USA Water Polo and the world of water polo has lost one of its greats!

– Bruce Wigo, head of US Water Polo during Barnett’s tenure as head coach of the U.S. Men’s Team

Bill was the Head Olympic Coach of the US team when I joined USWP as executive director in 1991. I always found him and his right hand gal, Barbara Kalbus, to be willing to do anything to everything possible that would help the athletes and promote the sport from the age group to the Olympic level.

Bill and Barbara were a great team and now sadly, both are gone. A great loss to Newport Harbor High School and the sport of water polo.

– Terry Sayring, Olympic water polo referee during Barnett’s tenure:

Beyond being a silver medal winning Olympic Coach, Bill Barnet’s great contribution was the number of athletes he developed, both men and women, at the high school level who went on to play Division I and at the Olympic level. He was a hard and demanding coach, with a dry sense of humor, but willing to share his expertise with everyone. He will be missed.

– John Vargas, played for Barnett in the 1992 Olympics:

There are few people who have had such a profound impact on the sport of water polo in the United States then Coach Barnett. He undoubtedly influenced and inspired generations of players and coaches. He was a leader on the pool deck, in the classroom, as well as the community.

I am so fortunate and proud to have been one of the many who played for Coach Barnett, as well as work closely with him while I was the coach of the national team.  I attribute my passion for the game to two people: Coach [Ted] Newland and Coach Barnett. I, like so many people in the world of water polo, feel such a deep loss at his passing. He will be missed, but always remembered.

– Dante Dettamanti, coached with Barnett for three years with the U.S. National team

I coached with Coach Barnett on the USA National team for 3 years, from 1988-91. Excellent coach, very well organized, very detailed, left nothing to chance. He has had success at every level including boys and girls high school water polo at Newport High School.

Probably produced more college players and national team players than any high school coach in the nation. I always recruited his players as I knew that they were very well coached and prepared to play at the next level. He had a successful international career as well, with eight years as the USA National Junior team coach and eight years as the Men’s National team coach.

The only USA coach besides Monte Nitzkowski who produced two top-4 Olympic finishes, silver medal in 1988 and 4th place in 1992. He will be missed in the water polo world.

– Chris Ramsey, CEO, USA Water Polo

Bill Barnett was a giant among American coaches, methodically building a 49-year career in high school and international water polo that made everyone around him better. He coached our men’s Olympic teams at two Games, winning a silver medal in 1988 and also earning a gold medal at the FINA Cup in 1991.


1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Water Polo Team. Photo Courtesy: US Water Polo

Just as importantly, he understood the value of club water polo, and athletes he helped develop on his Newport USAWP club helped stock our men’s and women’s national team program for decades. Bill was a class act, and he will forever occupy a distinguished chapter in USA Water Polo history.

– Bret Bernard, former referee and first NCAA National Coordinator of Officials 

Friends, I am so very sorry to share, for those of you who’ve not yet heard, that we have lost yet another luminary in our Polo Aquatico world. Bill Barnett passed away on Christmas Eve from acute myeloid leukemia.

I am so shocked and saddened. He had such a huge influence on our sport—high school and then nationally [and] internationally as our Men’s Team Coach through several Olympics and who had such a profound impact and influence on all of us‚he allowed me the opportunity to travel with he and our teams. [He] pushed me to become our top international referee… only possible with his support.

I would see him regularly, these later days, around Laguna Beach and on the pool decks, evaluating officials together…and had no idea that he was battling such an illness. But he would never let on, would he?!

Our thoughts and prayers are with you Bill, Marcia and your entire family, and the entire Water Polo world. [S]uch a loss for us all.

1988 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team; lost in the gold medal game to Yugoslavia 9-7

James Bergeson, Greg Boyer, Jeffrey Campbell, Jody Campbell, Peter Campbell, Christopher Duplanty, Michael Evans, Douglas Kimbell, Edward Klass, Alan Mouchawar, Kevin Robertson, Terry Schroeder and Craig Wilson. Head Coach: Bill Barnett.

1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team; lost to Spain 6-4 in the semifinals; finished fourth

Jeff Campbell, Christopher Duplanty, Mike Evans, Kirk Everist, Erich Fischer, Charles Harris, Chris Humbert, Douglas Kimbell, Craig Klass, Alex Rousseau, Terry Schroeder, John Vargas and Craig Wilson. Head Coach: Bill Barnett.

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Malcolm Neely
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