From the Vault: Pepperdine’s Schroeder Talks NCAA Water Polo, 2016 US Olympic Men, MPSF & GCC Split

Pepperdine's Terry Schroeder is one of the greatest polo players—and coached—in U.S. history. Photo Courtesy: Pepperdine Athletics

Editor’s Note: This interview is from 2015—when the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation still included Long Beach State, Pacific, Pepperdine, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine, and the SoCal Invitational was yet to be renamed for the MPSF. Terry Schroeder is perhaps the most successful water polo player and coach in U.S. history, and his interview on the deck of Pepperdine’s Runnels Memorial Pool came at a pivotal moment in American polo: the launch of a men’s bracket for the Golden Coast Conference and the run up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Reproduced courtesy of the Collegiate Water Polo Association. 

MALIBU, CA. Dr. Terry Schroeder, Pepperdine’s legendary head coach and arguably the most successful men’s water polo player and coach in US Olympic history, spoke with New York City based water polo journalist Michael Randazzo during the 2015 SoCal Invitational tournament, October 10 – 11 in California.

Schroeder, who as a player led the US to silver medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and another silver as a coach in the 2008 Olympics, is the winningest coach (370-256) in Pepperdine men’s water polo history and one of American water polo’s most respected strategists. Now in his 23rd season at the Waves, a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, in 1997 Schroeder led the Waves to a 25-3 record and an NCAA Men’s Water Polo championship.

As a Pepperdine student-athlete, he earned All-American honors in 1977, 1978 and 1980 and is the school’s leader in goals scored in a career (392) and a season (138 in 1978). The Waves finished fourth at the NCAA Championships three times with Schroeder, who graduated in 1981.

What memories do you have of the SoCal Invitational as a player and as a coach?

This is always one of the big, mid-season tournaments and historically it was always held down in Irvine. Over the last 10 – 12 years they’ve rotated who hosts SoCal; USC has hosted, UCLA has hosted. This is our first time to host it, which is awesome. It’s a very prestigious, high-level tournament.

As a player it was always one of those first, big tests against all the big teams. It used to be the first one of the year and then they flip-flopped NorCal and SoCal because they figured out finally that maybe it’s better to go up there [Palo Alto] earlier when the weather’s better.

Polo in Paradise: Runnels Memorial Pool. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

I remember as a player being excited about that opportunity to measure where your teams is at that point in the season. Although it’s early, there’s a chance to play some of the big boys and set the tone for the season.

Historically, the teams that win these tournaments [NorCal and SoCal] — are the teams that make NCAAs and compete for the national championship. We’ve battled for that a few times; our history here at Pepperdine is that we’ve won the national championship once, in ’97 when I was coaching.

I feel very blessed to have played here and to have coached here for so many years. It’s a home away from home for me, a great place. It’s a great family atmosphere, good people — that’s what I love most about Pepperdine: the people.

You returned to Pepperdine after coaching the US Men’s National Team at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Having played in a couple of Olympics, part of my life goal was to coach the Olympic team. When that opportunity came along it was something that I jumped at. It was a wonderful chapter in my life to be the Olympic coach and to have a chance to coach two Olympic teams.


Schroeder in 2008. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Deep down, this is what I appreciate even more: coaching at the college level and having an opportunity to influence kids in that range of life between 18 and 22, You see them really grow up; it’s like having 25 sons — I have two daughters. You get calls sometimes in the middle of the night —they do some dumb things, they’re college kids — but there’s a great joy for me in seeing them change and become men. Hopefully water polo is something that teaches them a lot of good life lessons along the way. The goal is to be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I would love to see more than anything else.

How had the sport at the college level changed during your seven-year absence?

The college game went from 30 meters to 25 meters but I don’t know that it changed a whole lot. The tendency over the last 10 to 15 years has been on grabbing and holding. I don’t like that. I think it slows the game down and neutralizes the best players. Everybody talks about wanting to get more flow, more action. I hope that water polo can find it’s way back to that. It’s one of the greatest team sports there is. Everybody has to work together to be successful.

– Is this something that you expect will be addressed by the NCAA Rules Committee?

I think that the NCAA committees have a chance to change those rules and I think us coaches have to be really strong on the input. USA Water Polo is involved with the politics of international water polo and NCAA has tried to follow that as much as possible because they want to grow good athletes for their teams. The international community is stuck in that game, because a lot of the big, strong teams are very successful playing that style.

It’s been really slow; they’ve talked about it for the last 10 years and I have yet to see it go back to more flow, more movement. It’s still grabbing and holding.

I always tell people, if basketball had these same rules, if people where allowed to just hold and grab LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to neutralize them, the games would not be very spectator friendly.

– You mentioned in an interview with Rich Foster on Water Polo Planet that your time playing with the US National team (1980 – 1992) was the “Golden Age of US water polo.” If so, what age are we in now?

We’ve had spurts where we’ve been good. I’ve been fortunate to be part of two of the best [US Olympic teams]; in ’80, ’84 and ’88 [we] were among the best in the world. We saw 20 years between medals in 2008; I was a player in one and a coach in the other and I was blessed to be a part of that.

It’s an amazing feeling to be on a team and you’re playing at that level. You challenge yourself and it’s one thing when you look at one athlete and how he or she has to prepare to get ready for a two week competition every four years. Everything has to go right.


1984 US Olympic Men’s Water Polo Team. Photo Courtesy: Water Polo Legends

But then if you put a team concept into that, where you have to have 13 guys, plus the coaches, plus everything else go right — to even be successful is very cool. I’ve been blessed to be part of this as both a player and a coach.

The new coach, Dejan Udovicic, has a few veterans — he’s got Tony Azevado and Merrill Moses, two great, great players who have been in the last two Olympics, this will be Tony’s fifth Olympics, he’s our captain. John Mann, who played in 2012, is our center.

[Udovicic has] got some good experience but he’s really gone young; he’s got some great young players, and I think the trajectory is going up but whether or not they can get over the hump and compete for a medal in 2016 we’ll have to see. They had a great series against Serbia out here, but then they went overseas and they weren’t able to match that.

I think their players have gained confidence and they’re growing up; if you can keep that group together by 2020 they’ll have a good chance to medal again.

So your expectations for the US team in the 2016 Olympics are…?

I would love to see them win a medal. I have so much respect for some of those guys I was able to coach — Tony, Merrill, John, a few of the other guys — I know all the guys because it’s a small world.

Traditionally, one of the great things about USA is we put all of our emphasis into an Olympic year. We don’t have as many guys playing professionally and a lot of the guys are playing in college but once they really put their focus on playing [for the] national team they’re gonna take another jump. I think there’s a good possibility that they’ll come close to [medaling]; I’m not quite sure if they’re ready or not.

I don’t know if I’d expect it but I’d love to see it.

Because it is an Olympic year water polo will be getting a lot more attention.

It’s interesting because as a player and a coach I have different perspectives. In 2008, everything went right; the magic happened and we went from ninth to second in the world. In 2012 we had much higher expectations and we probably peaked a little bit early and ended up coming in eighth.

We didn’t play at our best those two weeks. It was disappointing for sure but still a pretty incredible experience.

There’s little things: the chemistry — in 2012 we were getting a little bit older and weren’t healthy, 100% going in and it didn’t all happen.


Schroeder and Adam Wright at 2018 Cutino Awards. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

You coached Adam Wright, currently the UCLA coach, on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.

Adam was great. He’s another coach in the water. He’s a super smart player and obviously a super smart, successful coach. He’s a true student of the game; he spent a lot of time studying film, breaking the other team down.

He’s a great passer and a great set-up guy, that’s why he makes such a great teammate. He knows where people like the ball and he usually puts it right on the spot. He also scored some huge goals for us in 2008.

When you look at him he may not look like the prototype big, quick Yugoslavian or Hungarian player but in the water all those things become neutral in a way. The center for sure you’ve got to be big. Adam just did everything he could to help the team win. In the water he’s so competitive. We clashed a few times because he’s kinda fiery and I’m kinda mellow but I was very fortunate to have him.

UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal are always are at the forefront of the collegiate ranks. Do you think this is healthy for the sport?

Pepperdine was the last non Pac-12 team to win the NCAAs, in 1997. That’s how long it’s been. Since that time we’ve moved into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation which hasn’t been the best thing for [UC] Irvine, Santa Barbara, U of P, Long Beach, Pepperdine. Every third or fourth year one of those teams moves in and challenges one of those top teams and makes the NCAAs or falls a little short.

Next year, those five teams plus San Jose State are moving conferences. So we’re playing this year in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation so it counts as our first year together as a conference even though we’re not in our own conference.

Next year we’ll move out — we won’t get an automatic bid then but the following year that [new] conference will have an automatic bid. Because you have six teams that play two years together and get an automatic bid, it does help those six teams to prove every year that we have a better chance to make the NCAAs because all we have to do is win our conference. When we play [in the MPSF], every single game counts at such a high level. Most of the time we’re playing for one of those at-large berths so during the season we can’t afford to play a lot of people. We just can’t give the young kids experience and see who can play and see, going into the final weeks of the season, who your guys are and what kind of depth you have.

Action from 2015 SoCal Invitational. USC versus Pepperdine. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

But now, we’ll have our own conference, so the only thing that really matters is who wins the conference tournament. Now we’ll have more leeway. It’s going to help us with recruiting, it’s going to help us with being able to play guys, give more guys experience.

The Pac-12, they’re not happy with it because it’s going to take away one of their bids but for water polo overall it’s going to be better because there’s going to be a little bit more parity. The Pac-12 schools will be on their own, they’ll be independent now that they don’t have six schools. They’ll be vying for two at-large berths.

The six schools [of the new conference] will be Pepperdine, UC Irvine, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, U of P and San Jose State.

It will be one team now from [that group of] six teams instead of three Pac 12 schools [last year Stanford, UCLA and Stanford filled half of the qualifying spots for the NCAA Final Four].

Turning to the other coast, how does the East become more competitive with the West?

It’s all about the level of competition. Out here every week it’s a hard game and we’re playing so many more difficult matches. If you’re only playing two or three difficult matches for the year it’s hard to come out [West] and compete at the same level. It’s like Orange County High School. There’s so many high schools down there that play at a high level in 50-meter Olympic-sized pools that some of these other areas we sometimes recruit from, these kids just don’t have the same level of experience because they haven’t played as many difficult games.

Would you say that Eastern water polo is generally moving in a positive direction?

I think it’s moving positively, I think it’s just moving really slow. If you look at players like Wolf Wigo who came from back East – there’s been players in the past but it’s just here or there rather than a handful. There’s a few more now and I hope that as we go forward that will continue to grow.

What do you see as your role / your program’s ability to foster this development?

We have our summer camps and we get kids that come out. I encourage those kids to get as much time out here as they can in the summers — whether it’s camp or whether it’s coming out and playing with a club — because that’s where they’re going to get higher levels of play.

The Europeans have this great club system; young kids get to sometimes play with Olympians in the same water and the learning curve’s increased dramatically because you’re in the same pool with these guys and you’re going to see what they can do. If it’s too easy, then you get to college all of the sudden other players are [much more advanced]. The more [players] get challenged earlier the better.

Schools travel east and play pre-season tournaments [but] I don’t know how much that helps. Stanford went there and they beat everybody 20-3, 20-2 so I don’t know how much good that really does right now.

I’m not sure what the answer is to helping that grow except getting kids more experience early on and seeing them go back to their programs with more knowledge and an ability to compete at a higher level.

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