On The Record with Tony Karaman, Referee and Former Water Polo Player and Coach

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A chip off the old polo block! Luka Karaman follows in his father Tony's footsteps, only he's playing for USC, not Croatia. Photo Courtesy: Hali Helfgott

The world of water polo includes some intriguing individuals, and one of them is Tony Karaman. Originally from Croatia, Karaman played professionally for VK Jug in Dubrovnik, where one of his teammates was Elvis Fatovic, now head coach for the Australian national men’s team.

[On The Record with Elvis Fatovic, Head Coach for Australian National Men’s Water Polo Team]

When his playing career was cut short due to illness, Karaman made his way to California, then to New York City. He returned to Croatia as part of the Croatian Water Polo Federation and finally settled in Los Angeles, where he and his family reside.

With his son Luka showing promise in polo, Karaman moved him to Croatia where he competed for Jug. But the younger Karaman also spent summers in California, where he competed at the Junior Olympics with Orange County Water Polo Club. Luka’s varied polo experiences helped pave a path to USC, where he has been a key contributor on a Trojan squad that’s gone to the finals every year he’s been at USC—and won a national championship in 2018.

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Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Karaman, who was briefly his son’s coach at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, now spends his time in the sport as a referee—primarily on the West Coast, where he resides, but occasionally in the Northeast, where he recently met with Swimming World to speak about his life in the sport, his son’s career at USC, and how East and West continue to diverge when it comes to success in polo.

– You’re out East to referee Northeast Water Polo Conference matches.

This is my second year doing conference games for the CWPA in [the] Northeast Conference. This opportunity is greatly appreciated—and I am thankful for that. Because it’s shallow end pools, officiating is total different with different rules for stepping, for turnovers, and so on.

But, they are very competitive games and that’s interesting. When officiating, there’s adrenaline—maybe even more than you have in a game on the West Coast. I’m talking about small pools like St. Francis [Brooklyn]. It’s different when you’re officiating Princeton or Brown or Harvard because they [have] big pools, but these small pools [are] difficult to officiate. But, I like the challenge.

– When you come to the Northeast, play is indoors and many of the pools are shallow deep.

Indoor pools are not an issue. A small and shallow end pool is different. Last year was the first year I ever officiated at the shallow end pool. It’s quite challenging. But we all like challenges and sometimes it’s [an opportunity] to work at your professionalism in different ways. Just like having reffed at a more difficult levels.

– Given your California experience, it’s great for East Coast water polo that you are here.

We all have to officiate with the same goals and at the same level—just to follow up the instructions and inputs from assigners and evaluators and commissioners. But yes, you’re right. We have more games on West Coast and that’s why it’s probably they like some of us to come here. When you officiate more games, it’s like driving a car—the longer time you do it, you drive better or easier.

I find that I’ve been welcomed to the East Coast from many coaches. That I can say.

– One challenge is maintaining standards. When Harvard’s playing at Princeton, when Brown’s playing St. Francis, those are critical games. But the playing standards are not consistent.

Most West Coast pools, they have headsets. Some conferences, they have headsets they provide a referees and it’s much easier to ref with those because you’re on the same [page]. You can talk to each other during the game. You can change angles and positions and triangles and just want to say something in words of officials. It’s easier to ref with headsets.

Over here they don’t have it but I don’t see that as a downside. We still communicate with each other because we used to do it before headsets. Also, on West Coast, every game doesn’t have that. Most of important games they do. But if you don’t have it, you don’t have it, then you just go with signs and we talk between quarters and liked we used to do it before.

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There’s NOTHING like this in California. Photo Courtesy: St. Francis Brooklyn Athletics

It’s a little bit different than or officiating going East Coast because it’s narrow pools and it’s too crowded in a pool sometimes. Lots of things are happening and we have to be extra careful on that. Also, with different, with shallow end pools with touching a bottoms, touching the side of the pool and stuff, it’s I would say challenging. But in regards to communication between referees, it’s the same.

– If Eastern teams are going to make a Final Four, what is it that they need to do? It’s not just about the equipment, it’s not just about the talent, it’s something else.

East Coast has very close conference league games—and very good and competitive games, Coaches are doing a great job with players where they have. When we are talking about big pools like Harvard and Brown and Bucknell and Princeton.

They have a problem because of the schools. You can just get a roster of the best players in the country because it’s system doesn’t allow it. That’s a challenge for coaches because you can’t get into Harvard because you’re a water polo player. You have to get, because you have a very high SAT score. Princeton is the same. Brown is the same. They cannot recruit everybody they want and that’s why they’re behind West Coast teams. That’s the biggest difference.

In my opinion, they are working great as the coaches, as a programs, but that’s the reason what I think why they can’t compete. However, you have great talent coming and smart players, too. Last year you had Harvard beat Cal and so that’s not unusual, but it’s unreal.

– Ted Minnis has a pipeline of really talented players from California—including two national team prospects.

There is [Dennis] Bylashov and [Alex] Tsotadze. But like George Washington, St. Francis, teams like that, they start practices in August. You can’t compete with West Coast when they are practicing 11 months a year. That makes a difference. Also, [practicing] in pools with a shallow end—you can’t go and compete with USC.

[Northeast Water Polo Conference Report: Harvard Reigns Supreme in Opening Weekend of Conference Play]

– Your son Luka is a Trojan—he’s now a senior. With experience in both Croatia and SoCal.

Basically he grew up in Europe—he was born in New York. We moved when he was little and he grew up playing for Jug all age groups and levels. But I started to bring him here in 2013 to play Junior Olympics for a team from SoCal, Orange County Water Polo. He participated at three Junior Olympics. They even won a medal at platinum division 18 and unders. They had a great group of kids. Marko Asic from Pepperdine, the Kaltenbach triplets from Long Beach State. Sam Slobodian from USC, Luka and other kids, too.

OC lost in semifinals to [Johnny] Hooper’s team by one goal and then beat Stanford for the bronze. That was very competitive JO’s that year. In the first round they were losing five, six goals in the last quarter and they won that game and everything moving forward.

Growing up [Luka] learned fundamentals playing for one of the best programs ever existed. When he came here for JO’s, he had quite a difficulty to adjust to officiating system. In Europe, they’re used to playing heavier and so that was an adjustment for him to learn how to play on that level. Because in the States, it was more about liabilities and safety at that point. They are a little over aggressive fouls what they use in Europe and he wouldn’t finish some games because of that.

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Luka Karaman defends Cal’s Joe Molina. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Then I brought him to high school where I coached, Marina High School, his senior year of high school. That was his adjustment period being here, being back in the States for a year before he entered at USC.

– Why USC? Your son likely could have player for any program.

Actually, Harvard was interested in him as well. As a parent, that would be my first pick. He was recruited by a few more schools. But USC is THE program.

It’s just a great school and great networking, especially when you want to live in Southern California. Education is what matters. Water polo is just a great vehicle to get to school and through school.

– He’s gotten to play on a national championship team, and gotten coached by arguably some of the best coaches in America. Now he’s looking at the end of his college career and go onto a dream profession.

It worked for him—especially as he was growing step-by-step. When he entered first season he was a red-shirt and learning a lot. USC runs a specific program and it’s different than others—and just great learning experience. Then second year he  played a little, third year he played a lot. This is his last year and he’s happy where he’s at. He’s had fun playing and he’s glad that he’s about to finish school.

– No matter what sports you’re in, when you’re competing for a national championship, there’s a lot of pressure.

Especially after twice in a row, losing championship in finals. It was hard last year with pressure on all of them and they did it, but just being in a finals all these times and losing it’s like extra heavy on them. They are still just kids.

– What was it like for you as a parent when Jovan Vavic was fired?

First, it was a shock to everybody what happened. They were off season but training. USC is a program where you’re trained 11 months out of year. They were in training and at that point they didn’t know anything what’s going on. They didn’t know what happened for a long time. They continued their training but their heads were all over just not knowing what the future holds, what’s going to be tomorrow. They were so stressed and that lasted a long time because USC administration didn’t know what’s going to be next for the coaching staff. They didn’t announce anything. Nobody was [saying] anything. They were practicing with two coaches on board after their season, everybody else left.

[After a Quarter Century in Troy, Jovan Vavic Fired as USC Men’s & Women’s Head Water Polo Coach]

[Marko Pintaric] and Casey [Moon] were there, but they were uncertain of their positions because nobody knew: Are they going to clean them [out] as well? Their contracts were expiring the end of June. Being in practice, knowing all of that wasn’t easy on boys.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

Marko Pintaric and Casey Moon. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

Even after summer break, they didn’t know because USC announced that they’re looking for new coaches. We as a parent supported Pinta because we trust that he’s was the best solution for the program, being Trojan himself his whole college career and coaching after college and being there for 20 years and knowing the system, what was established.

[Five Questions for Marko Pintaric, USC Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

Even though, he’s not Jovan, so he has to have his own [approach]. They didn’t know who’s going to be a coach until 10 days before the season. It was stressful period for them, a good five months. That’s why they struggled in the beginning of the season.

They were prepared physically to play. But I think mentally they still needed to catch up. That’s why they had early losses to Santa Barbara and then UOP. They are getting back on track now. Everybody wants to win championship again.

– And now USC has something to prove.

That’s why you are playing sports. If you are playing marbles, you want to win. If you’re an athlete, that’s what you do. You don’t want to just spend 11 months in a pool for fun. There has to be a goal and their goal is certainly to make NCAA finals and win a championship. Is it going to happen? We don’t know. You never know, but they all hope for it.

– UOP and Santa Barbara have been surprising contenders for top honors.

Yes, it’s first Santa Barbara had a great beginning of the season. That’s not by chance. You don’t win 13 games in a row by chance. You can win one but not 13, so you have to give them great hand for that.

[Changing of the Water Polo Guard: UC Santa Barbara #1 in CWPA Top 20]

That’s good for water polo. UOP is always a good program. Going back five years, they were competing for championships. Talents are coming and going. But I think they also have a good program and they’re pretty consistent with what they’re doing. It’s good for water polo that we have lots of teams competing for the positions and changes at the top.

You always have like Stanford and USC pretty close and UCLA. Cal is full of surprises every year, but they somehow always come up on the top. Then there’s teams like UOP, Santa Barbara, Long Beach, even Pepperdine, I would say UC San Diego as well.

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Jovan Vavic—man in the middle. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

It’s good for competition and it’s good for water polo because you don’t want to see games with a big difference in score. You want to see competitive water polo and that’s what’s going to bring people to the stands and that’s going to bring more kids to schools to play water polo. They’re not going to just focus on top four programs like Stanford and UCLA and USC, Cal.

But kids would sign up for UC San Diego. Kids would go to Santa Barbara. Kids would go to Long Beach. Not just for schools but for water polo as well.

– As a parent, you have a different connection to Coach Vavic than most.

First it was shock to everybody. Then it’s sad because he’s arrested and overall what happened, it didn’t sound real. We don’t know the facts. We can guess what we are reading or certain comments. But we don’t know.

I’m not his attorney. He cannot talk about it. Basically, everything is just guessing. I know Jovan a long time and I truly believe that he’s innocent and that he will prove that in court, and I wish him the best on it. Every other comment, I wouldn’t say anything because I don’t know and I don’t want to hurt anyone or hurt myself because… whatever happened to him and getting fired, that’s on the administration. It’s not on me to say what happened and why it happened.