On The Record with Bill Cohn of San Diego State Women’s Water Polo

Time to ring in a new season! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

As a new season begins in NCAA men’s varsity water polo, Swimming World spoke with Bill Cohn about the current state of the game. With experience as a player, coach and broadcaster, Cohn—currently an assistant coach with the San Diego State women’s program—has been involved in polo at every level, making him the perfect discussant about a season in which much has changed. This weekend a new men’s program from at Austin College in Sherman, Texas played its first-ever varsity match. In the offseason there were a plethora of coaching changes among the six conferences that will again send teams to the 2018 national championship, to be held at Stanford University from November 29 to December 2.

A two-sport athlete at UCLA in water polo and junior varsity basketball, Cohn enjoyed a post-graduate career playing water polo that spanned nearly a decade, including a silver medal representing the United States in the 1985 Maccabiah Games, and national club competition with the Westwood, Industry Hills, and Sunset Clubs.

Cohn has done play-by-play and color commentary for men’s and women’s NCAA championship webcasts for almost a decade, has been the home announcer for UC San Diego men’s polo the past twenty years and was voice of women’s water polo at San Diego State for a number of years before joining the Aztec coaching staff in 2014.

In 49 years of NCAA men’s tournaments, just five times has a non-Pac-12 team won the title—and none since Pepperdine captured the championship in 1997.

Right! The only ones that I could think of were Santa Barbara, Irvine and Pepperdine. Irvine won it a couple times, and Santa Barbara won it once.

Can you envision a time when Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC’s collective dominance will end?

If you look at the history the [NCAA] championship—when I was playing it was either Cal or Stanford winning most of the time. In the last decade or so it’s been a lot of USC and a lot of UCLA winning the men’s championship. Historically the sport has been played at those schools since the forties and the fifties, so the tradition of water polo at places like Cal, USC, Stanford and UCLA runs pretty deep.

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Bill Cohn. Photo Courtesy: San Diego State University

At that time [polo] was very much a niche sport played primarily in California by California athletes. USA Water Polo has done a great job with their focus on “Polo in every pool,” which has done much to contribute to the growth of the sport outside of California. John Abdou at USA Water Polo has single-handedly taken on the task of approaching universities—Power Five schools that already have swimming and the facilities—about starting to play water polo.

We’re starting to see programs get at on both on the men’s and women’s side. The key to me—with Indiana joining the MPSF—there are schools like Pacific that are in contention right now. [The Tigers were] three minutes away from beating USC in the 2013 final; they had a 2 goal lead but ended up losing in overtime. That was another great example of a non-Pac12 school competing for a championship and nearly winning it. But since then all the participants to the NCAA finals have been one of the Big Four: Cal, Stanford, UCLA or USC.

I could see it happening if John’s successful in getting a Power Five school other than those four to join, whether it’s other Pac-12 schools in Arizona; Arizona State already has a women’s team so they would be a logical addition. The SEC has a tremendous history and strength in swimming and diving; if they were to take up water polo that would be another place to attract athletes and develop programs that would eventually compete for an NCAA title.

I can see it but I don’t see it happening right away. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but if it were to come about  it would be because schools that have the resources—like Michigan or Indiana that enjoy significant budgets and have the facilities already at hand—could attract coaches to run programs there. You’re already seeing coaches moving across country, like Dustin Litvak who’s now taking over at Princeton. He’s an excellent coach, and if they were to hire coaches like him at places outside of California it could certainly happen.

For the third year in a row, a new men’s squad arrives on the scene; on September 1st in Providence, the Kangaroos of Austin College will take the water for the first time, facing host Brown. What does this current uptick in NCAA men’s varsity polo membership signify?

For me it’s too early to tell. I would say it’s encouraging in the sense that there are schools that are looking at adding [polo]. I would also say there is the success of JOs—you see how many good young players there are. Honestly there’s a lot of good high school players who would like to play in college and would like to continue their athletic careers. [But] there aren’t enough spots in college for them to play, particularly on the men’s side with less than fifty programs. There’s over 300 Division I men’s basketball programs and 330 women’s soccer programs. It’s a completely different complexion then when you talk about water polo.

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Austin College water polo game ball. Photo Courtesy: Brown Athletics

The other factors out of our control are: it boils down to athletic directors and what it takes to add a program not only financially but—when they have to look at their report card and they have to stay in compliance with Title IX and match the number of slots on the men’s side with the number of slots on the women’s side. If they play football you know that’s 85 scholarships that would have to be matched on the women’s side. which has caused a sport like beach volleyball to explode in growth the last five years.

– UCLA is a consensus favorite for another men’s title—which will be its fourth in five years. What makes Head Coach Adam Wright’s squad so consistently good?

First of all, I’m not there day-in and day-out, though in my role as an announcer I’ve gotten to call my share of Bruin games at NCAAs. Obviously, I follow the sport so I follow them and I’m a subscriber to the Pac-12 network and I record them and watch them and scout them.

I will say there are two things in play. One is a macro thing about UCLA that I know about: you can trace it all back to Coach [John] Wooden and the success that he achieved as the basketball coach there. His Pyramid of Success that he promoted is basically a way of life at UCLA. The tradition of sports excellence at the university is decades old; it goes back to the 30s, 40s and 50s and the number of Olympians that UCLA has produced and the number of national championships. The last one polo produced was number 115 and they’re neck and neck with Stanford for most national championships.

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The secret of Bruin Pride?! Photo Courtesy: The Wooden Effect

National championships are expected there. It’s part of the culture and all the coaches and all the programs there compete not only with the schools they play against but with each other for bragging rights.

When you talk about Adam Wright you talk about a guy that has won at every level. He won in high school, he was an NCAA champion when he played for the Bruins for Guy Baker. He’s an Olympic silver medalist. As an athlete, he’s as good as it gets.

The way that he runs his program, he’s inclusive; every guy on the roster matters, every guy on the roster has a role to play, and he’s fanatical about holding each of them accountable and holding them all to the same standards. He gets them all to buy in, and if you don’t buy in you’re not going to be there. It’s as simple as that.

When they win, he gives credit to every single guy on the roster. If you go back and listen to his press conferences, he talks about the scout team and what they had to do to imitate or emulate their opponents and the work they put in to get the regulars ready to play. He’ll give credit to every single guy in the room. He’s not just going to look at his starters or his best player or the guy that makes All-American or the guys on his team that are part of the U.S. National Team. He values everybody and gives everybody a role. He’s consistent in demanding that, and he works pretty hard. I ran into another coach at UCLA that I knew when I was in school there and that coach told me Coach Wright is consistently the last person to leave the building in the Morgan Center where the coaches have their offices.

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UCLA Coach Adam Wright. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

He works hard and his team works hard and the fact that he includes everybody and he gives everybody a role and makes it very clear what he expects and he’s very consistent in that. That translates to winning. If you go back and look at the first factor that I talked about [and] you look at Coach Wooden and his pyramid of success—he was a big believer in preparation and a big believer in doing the right things at the right time. His definition of success was the satisfaction of knowing you did your best to become the best you’re capable of becoming. That was Coach Wooden’s philosophy and I know that they own that in Adam’s program.

I happen to have that Pyramid of Success up on the wall here in my office. [Wooden is] a great role model to follow from that point of view.

– Going to UCLA, playing basketball for the Bruins, you got to meet the Wizard of Westwood.

I did play basketball and I did get to hear Coach Wooden speak. I didn’t know him personally. I played JV basketball for two years and my first year he came to one of our early season meetings and gave us a talk on the Pyramid of Success. At the end of it he told us how to put on our shoes and socks to make sure we didn’t get blisters. He was a big believer in little things take care of the big things. You’ve got to take care of those small details day-in and day-out. That was something you know we all got pounded into our heads.

– If you’re looking for the country’s most successful college water polo coach he does not reside in Westwood; of course, that would be Jovan Vavic of USC whose men’s teams have gone to an incredible 13-straight NCAA championship matches.

Well to your point about making a bet that they would make it to the NCAA final this year—I’m not allowed to bet but if I were I’d join you on that side of it! Coach Vavic is a brilliant coach. He is unmatched—or very difficult to match—in his intensity [and] his preparation. He’s creative [and] gets his players to buy in. They play hard; they are always a great defensive team; if you go back and look at their goals per game averages, offensively they’ve always been stellar. They average 14 to 15 goals a game. as you look at their regular season stats.

But their defensive stats are what stick out to me. They’re very hard to score on, and if you look at the number of games where they give up more than seven goals in a season you can usually count it on one hand. They’ll play 30 to 35 games depending on tournament schedules and they’re playing a lot of games where they’re holding teams to under five goals.

As an assistant coach, I will tell you that if we hold our opponents to less than five goals, there’s a 90% chance we’re going to win that game. You’re going to win games if you stop people and they do that and they play great team defense and they play together. He identifies great talent and brings them together and gets them to play well together.

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Like father, like son. Marko and Jovan Vavic. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

I got to announce the NCAA final in 2012; it was at USC, it was USC and UCLA and I got to do it on the webcast with Chris Dorst. UCLA took an early lead and SC came back—I think it was 5-2 at one point, UCLA was ahead. This was at [Uytengsu Aquatics Center] so the USC crowd was a little subdued. UCLA had taken the wind out of their sails. USC systematically came back and won it late on the second to last possession of the game.

I interviewed Michael Rosenthal who was one of their senior captains and [asked] what was the key reason the Trojans were able to engineer that comeback. He said: “These guys are all my brothers and we play together.” It’s that kind of unity that I think starts at the top. Coach Vavic does a tremendous job of getting his guys ready to play, believing that they can win and when it’s time to play he turns them loose!

That’s what I see from the outside; I’m not at their practices. I watch a lot of their games but I don’t see them train and I don’t know how he does it. All I know is he’s been in 13 straight championship games and that’s a record that may never be broken.

There have been some significant coaching changes this past off-season, with Luis Nicolao returning to Navy, MIT and Princeton bringing in a couple of former Bruins in Brett Lathrope and Dustin Litvak, David Kasa taking over the coaching reigns at Whittier and Tom Hyman just named as the LaSalle coach. What advice do you have for coaches newly arrived to NCAA varsity water polo?

Well in the case of Luis, I’ve seen his teams play for years. Princeton comes out to our invitational from time-to-time when he was coaching [there]. He’s an exceptional coach and he’s very seasoned and experienced. I wouldn’t presume to give him any advice; he’s forgotten more about water polo than I probably know! But I will say this: at the end of the day it’s still water polo no matter where you’re coaching, and he’s an exceptional coach with a lot of experience.

He’s returning to his alma mater, so there’s an emotional bond and a great connection for him there. I think he’ll do an outstanding job. It’s kind of a dream job for him to be able to do that.

If you’re talking about a coach like Dusty Litvak, he was a decorated coach in Southern California, both at the high school level at the club level and for USA Water Polo in addition to his duties at UCLA. He knows what it takes to win an NCAA championship—I have no doubt tactically and every other way.

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Dusty Litvak. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

There are players that he coached; a great example is Danny McClintick, who went on to be an All-American for UCLA. Dusty has developed great players, knows how to do it and I have no doubt he’ll be successful The main thing in terms of what would I say to that I would say [to new coaches] is: “Do what you do well and keep doing it!”

The fact that it’s NCAA water polo doesn’t change it’s the same sport that you’ve always been coaching and it’s the same game. Hopefully you’re dealing with a higher level athlete and you’re dealing with a higher level of competition. But at the end of the day you got to play great defense, you’ve got to play together and you’ve got to deal with adversity—that’s what our sport is about.

In the background of the men’s season is preparation by the U.S Men’s Senior National Team for Olympic qualification next spring. Prospects Hannes Daube and Marko Vavic at USC, Ben Hallock at Stanford, Johnnie Hooper at Cal and Alex Wolf at UCLA will be playing this season for their college teams. What impact will their performance this fall have on their Olympic hopes?

When you’re playing on a college team—a lot of guys will tell that it’s a very intense experience. What the National Team prospects will gain from playing a college season is that they’ll benefit from the competition. Any time you compete, it makes you sharper, it makes you better. You get tested, and the level of play at the highest levels of the NCAA—the players that you’re talking about, whether it’s Wolf or Hallock or Marko or Hannes Daube—they will benefit from the intensity of the training and competition.

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Hannes Daube. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

The coaching staff of the U.S. National team was at the Fischer Cup last spring watching those players—and they were on the lookout for other young players they want to add to the roster.

You always want to see how players respond to pressure. And the great thing about the NCAA is it creates pressure. Pressure is what tests athletes; one’s ability to handle pressure regardless of what you’re playing for is a great metric that I’m sure the U.S. National Team staff takes note of. Dejan [Udovicic] is very high on Daube—I’ve talked with him about it—he’s a phenomenal prospect. He’s young and he’s big and he’s strong and he shoots the ball hard. He’s got a lot of skill already. And there are others like him that are on the radar.

Halfway through the quadrennial the prospects for the U.S. team are actually good that we qualify for the Olympics. The NCAA season will be good for these guys; it will be a good test for them to get themselves ready for the next level, which is international competition.

– I’m a big fan of U.S. goalie McQuin Baron who we all hope will lead Team USA to success.

He was high-school classmates of [Courtney Jarvis], one of our senior captains who graduated last spring and I got to meet him. He’s a great young man who deserves to be successful. I think he will rise to the occasion—and get pushed by Alex Wolf, that’s for sure. Between the two of them we’ve a young crop of really good goalies.

United States goalkeeper McQuin Baron blocks a shot by Ecuador during a water polo match at the Pan Am Games in Markham, Ontario, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

McQuin Baron playing for Team USA. Photo Courtesy: Julio Cortez

In my club days, I got to play with Craig Wilson, a four-time Olympian, who at the time was considered one of the best goalies in the world. [Baron and Wolf] are both taller than Craig, who was 6-5; Wolf is 6-7 and Baron is 6-9. They both have a lot of natural length to cover the cage with and they’re getting a lot of reps at a young age. That bodes well [for the U.S.] if they stay in the sport for the next six years—[they’ll be] great goalies to backstop our national team.

In a surprising development, Thomas Dunstan, the one-time great hope of the East who represented the U.S. in the 2016 Olympic Games, is not on the USC roster and apparently no longer playing with the U.S. national team. What are your thoughts about how difficult it is to stay at the top of American polo?

There’s a lot of things that we don’t know—and a myriad of explanations as to why, so I won’t even speculate.

I’ll say this: I know it’s very difficult when you reach the level of being on a national team and playing in the Olympics and playing for arguably one of the most successful college programs in history. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of commitment; there’s a lot of investment and a lot of personal sacrifice that you have to make.

Even though everyone would like to do it, it’s hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. There’s a saying that getting to the top of the mountain is easier than staying on top of the mountain. That’s the dynamic that might be in play here but I don’t know.

Every young person that plays on a college team has to make a tremendous investment, time-wise, emotionally and physically to play their sport. It’s like a full-time job; there’s a lot that you have to do, a lot of events and activities that you have to take part in that are asked of you day-in and day-out. You still have an academic load to carry… you basically have three lives: you have an athletic life, a social life and an academic life. Your job is to balance those three—which is hard to do.

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Thomas Dunstan. Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

There’s always going to be some people who do this better than others, and the people who are most successful are the ones who are directed and say no to things that they know would deter them from success.

I heard this news just about a week ago. He’s not on the roster, he’s not on the national team—and no one knows what’s happening. It’s too bad. It’s a loss for the sport and it’s a loss for the individual. There may be circumstances that we’re not aware of and may never know about. Certainly, when you have a player of that caliber and he’s no longer in the program it’s too bad.

[Playing at the highest level] is not for everyone, and your priorities can change for many different reasons and those could be personal reasons, there could be an injury—there’s lots of possibilities.

– What does your life look like over the course of this upcoming men’s seasons?

I will be the voice of the UC San Diego Triton’s men’s team this fall. I’ll be Denny [Harper’s] home game announcer for this season. I’m not going to give you a count on the number of seasons… it’s more than 20! I’ll be spending some of my Saturday’s announcing the Triton’s home games. I’ll also be spending some of my Saturdays at San Diego State Aztec football games with our recruits and whatever Saturdays are left over—and I don’t think there are too many—I might have a golf club in my hand.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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