Commentary: The Rise and Scandalous Fall Of USC Water Polo Coach Jovan Vavic

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Whatever critics might say about Jovan Vavic, NO ONE ever accused him of being unprepared. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Editor’s Note: Jovan Vavic, former USC head men’s and women’s water polo coach, will be arraigned today in federal court in Boston, MA on criminal racketeering charges, in connection with the massive Varsity Blues scandal that has rocked America’s higher education system. Vavic remains the biggest casualty in an investigation whose full scope has yet to be determined.

Since 2012, Michael Randazzo has covered NCAA varsity water polo. In that time he has had a number of encounters with Vavic. Highlights from their interactions are included below.

The dramatic demise of Jovan Vavic’s unparalleled career at Southern Cal has stunned the world of American water polo. The accomplishments his men’s and women’s teams have recorded over a quarter-century are historic: ten men’s and six women’s NCAA titles and an overall record of 1,156-238. Those 16 titles represent 15% of the Trojans’ haul of 107 won in a century of play in all sports, and are more than any other coach in USC history.

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Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

But the luster of that record is cheapened and diminished by the nationwide Varsity Blues admissions scandal in which Vavic has been caught up. Arrested by the FBI almost two weeks ago on a criminal racketeering charge, he faces far more than the dishonor brought on by alleged corrupt activities at USC. If fully enforced, the criminal RICO statute—first used to convict members of the Mafia three decades ago—carries a prison term of up to 20 years and severe financial penalties, including as much as $250,000 in fines.

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

Later today, with his career in shambles, Vavic will plead for his life and reputation—guilty or not guilty. To the water polo community, this is an unimaginable development, and I personally find it hard to reconcile the circumstances with the person I’ve covered for the past six years.

In considering this reversal of fortune—from the most successful coach in American polo history to a disgraced felon possibly headed for as many as 20 years in prison—I choose to look back at select interactions with the man whom I, and others, have compared favorably to UCLA’s John Wooden, the one-time Wizard of Westwood, identified as the greatest coach in NCAA history.

My first encounter with Vavic, in December 2012 at USC, was from a distance. I had followed a mercurial St. Francis College men’s team from its basement pool in Brooklyn Heights to its second NCAA Final Four in three years, and was unprepared for the scene at what was then the McDonald’s Swim Stadium. Having never seen outdoor polo before, it was a little overwhelming to take in the nation’s two best teams—USC and UCLA—playing for a national championship in a such a scenic venue.

The Trojans won 11-10, holding off their fiercest rivals in the final seconds to cap an undefeated season and fifth-straight NCAA title. I remember none of it; my only recollection was a bizarre victory ritual: everyone possible—players, coaches, fully dressed spectators—leapt into the pool.

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Vavic with son Marko after winning the 2018 NCAA title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

In that moment, Coach Vavic and his players, surrounded by adoring fans, were as joyful as any group of competitors in the world, carefree and sopping wet.

Catching on that this was a phenomenal coach enjoying success unseen in Los Angeles since Wooden dominated NCAA basketball with ten titles in 12 years, I finally tracked Vavic down in October 2013 for my first interview with him. Over the phone I referenced the UCLA great; Vavic acknowledged how much Wooden’s methods had permeated his thinking.

Jovan Vavic: I have many of John Wooden’s books. Just to even be mentioned in the same sentence with him is not fair.

He’s just so way above all of us. But I thank you. He was a great educator and a great basketball mind. But he was also a very strong disciplinarian without having to use strong language, and that’s not really easy. I am very impressed with this side of his coaching—that he was able to control and manage his players without having to be overly disciplinarian, using aggressive language or being a strong personality. He was able to get the most out of his players just by creating the atmosphere of competition.

I got to speak with Vavic, again by phone, while overlooking the most magnificent setting imaginable, in Malibu for the 2015 SoCal men’s tournament, an annual competition of the best California teams prior to the beginning of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) season schedule.

Discussing goalie McQuin Baron, who at that point was vying for a berth on the U.S. roster for the 2016 Olympic games, Vavic was tellingly frank about the curse of potential.

Vavic: He could be the best goalie in the world someday. He’s that talented. But the word potential—I can give you a nice sentence about potential. This world is full of unsuccessful people with a lot of potential. He has a lot of potential and he’s gonna be awesome, but he’s not there yet. Physically he is fully capable. But he has to improve his mental game.

As it happens, Baron did make the U.S. roster in 2016, and until recently was considered the Americans’ top goalie. Having missed the last two national team competitions, his status is unknown for this summer’s Pan American Games, when Team USA will seek to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Runnels Memorial Pool at Pepperdine. Photo Courtesy: Pepperdine Athletics

Vavic and I next spoke in April of 2017. I was in Los Angeles for the MPSF women’s water polo tournament, with grand plans to interview the country’s top four women’s team coaches—Vavic, John Tanner of Stanford, Brandon Brooks of UCLA and Coralie Simmons of Cal. Catching up with the USC coach was challenging; we landed at LAX, and I immediately raced to set up for a telephone interview in the only place there that had reliable cellphone reception. Somehow, I was able to get the full interview in, and we touched on the topic of foreign players coming to the U.S. for collegiate competition.

Vavic: I went to college in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and we didn’t have a set-up where your practices and classes were all in one place. Countries like Serbia and Croatia discourage you from going to university so that you can become a professional water polo player. 

Here, it’s the best of both worlds. [You can] focus on your studies and play water polo at the highest level. In a state like California where there’s so much opportunity, it is the best of everything.

I can understand why so many young people want to experience this—and if somebody pays for your education, I’d wonder why wouldn’t you do it.

My most memorable Vavic moment occurred during the third period of the semifinals of the 2017 NCAA men’s tournament, and it represents how savvy he was at controlling a game’s tempo. Lachlan Edwards, his All-American set, had just gotten rolled for brutality by punching Cal’s Luca Cupido. The Trojans were already down a goal when the five-meter penalty conversion and a subsequent power play upped the visitor’s advantage to three. Then, Vavic literally made time stand still. Protesting the call against his player, he took the slowest possible walk around the Uytengsu Pool deck before finally arriving at the table of Bob Corb, NCAA National Coordinator of Officials.

I’m sure Vavic knew that there was no hope in appealing the foul; it was a stalling tactic to give his Trojans a moment to regroup, which they did, overtaking the Golden Bears 12-11 in one of the most gripping sporting events I’ve witnessed.

The next day, following a deflating loss to UCLA in the NCAA title match, when queried in the press room about how his senior captain could commit so egregious a foul, Vavic was non-committal.

Vavic: It really hurt us that we didn’t have our primary center, and it also hurt us that in the first quarter our primary defender and second center picked up two ejections.

You could feel the tension as the disciplinarian coach sidestepped accountability for a loss due to his captain’s poor—though all-too human—decision-making, one that cost his team a national championship.

The last time I saw Jovan Vavic was at the 2018 NCAA women’s final, after his Trojans gutted out a 5-4 win against a Stanford squad that had beaten them in the semifinals of the 2017 tournament—a match that saw USC set Brigitta Games sustain two fractured ribs. This information, confirmed by Vavic after the 2018 win, added fire to an already intense rivalry between the Trojans and the Cardinal, and was a factor in what was as physical a women’s match as I think I’ll ever see.

May 12, 2018; Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Los Angeles, California, USA; Women's Water Polo: NCAA Championship Game: USC Trojans vs Stanford Cardinals; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Vavic’s not in this photo, but his fingerprints are ALL over this 2018 NCAA title celebration. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

In the press conference afterwards, Vavic was almost giddy, his joy infecting his Trojans. The bond that he and his players shared, and his elation at their success, was palpable. You could see how much the USC athletes loved playing for their coach.

Vavic: I’ve had some good players before and some really tough girls, but with girls you don’t always get competitiveness—you have to find those kind of girls. This might be the most competitive group I ever had.

In trying to piece together how anyone with so much impact on his players, and such deep-seated conviction in his ability to lead, could have thrown it all away, I am at a loss—no matter what he pleads today.

-Opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

9 comments

  1. avatar
    Ron Vogel

    Oh for goodness sake: Quit worshiping the guy. He is a disgraced accused felon. If you played the game, I did back in the day, you know this is disastrous for the sport. He deserves to be a pariah. Quit sucking up to this dumpster fire man.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Ron:

      In a public forum, all are entitled to their point of view. Mine is: in the time I’ve covered the sport, Vavic’s success is unmatched. This makes his firing a tragic situation no matter how this case is decided.

      AND, he’s ACCUSED, not convicted – important distinction.

      I find it interesting you identify yourself as a “back in the day” guy (I’ll go out on a limb that you love the sport). Yet you revel in Vavic’s fall.

      Clearly, I don’t share this opinion.

      Your correspondent

      • avatar

        Innocent until proven guilty is our constitutional right. He pled not guilty. His attorney said he was not guilty and intends to prove it in a court of law. He is not a felon. sc should not have fired him until they knew the facts. Judgment should be reserved until a jury of his peers hears the evidence and decides what judgment is entered.

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Hi Al:

        This I can agree with (though I do appreciate that others have a viewpoint different from mine). What IS disconcerting is the circumstantial evidence in Vavic’s case; I’ve dug in a bit and it doesn’t look good. BUT, if you read the quote from Heinel’s lawyer, they’re taking an aggressive stance proclaiming innocence.

        I appreciate that Vavic is a lightening rod—and that means there’s folks that REALLY don’t like what he’s done for Trojan polo. BUT, I can’t agree that he deserves heaps of scorn (admittedly, I have NO TIE to USC or it’s rivals).

        Your correspondent

  2. avatar

    I bleed UCLA blue and gold–3rd generation and my son is 4th generation. My father played basketball for John Wooden and I was raised in the Coach’s ethos. Thus I don’t wish ill on anyone and believe that a man is innocent until otherwise proven.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Albro:

      Thank you very much for your comments. Wow, to have played for Coach Wooden; what an honor. Of course, I must point out that there’s hundreds of former USC men’s / women’s players who likely would say the same thing about Coach Vavic (I have heard his players adored him).

      And, I agree with you that wishing ill on ANYONE who is not proven guilty is a dubious proposition. BUT, folks like to trade in salacious comments—and in this case, the allegation are quite severe.

      On a related note, last night I was at UCLA Spieker Aquatics Center and saw a fantastic women’s water polo match between your Bruin women and the Tigers of Pacific. It’s a reminder about how potent—and appealing—the sport is.

      Your correspondent

  3. avatar

    I know a few of the “kids” that played for Jovan and have met a number of Wooden’s players as well. The foremost quality that was conferred on them all was the desire to be the best that they were capable of being– Great lesson for all of us.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi Albro:

      I appreciate this sentiment—it’s clear that both Vavic’s and Wooden’s players were highly competitive and well-coached athletes who aspired for, and consistently achieved, the highest possible results.

      To be fair, I feel it’s important to mention Sam Gilbert, a UCLA booster who was an important behind the scenes figure helping to maintain the Bruins’ remarkable success. Wooden himself acknowledged he was too trusting of Gilbert; the reality in American intercollegiate sports is that success is VERY complicated.

      Your correspondent

  4. avatar

    Hello Michael,

    I sat next to Sam’s wife at Pauley Pavillion. We talked about the old days, when she would have the players over to her house and feed them sandwiches around the pool. Sam would advise them about life and careers after college. It was a different world back then. At this point I harken back to our previous posting–innocent until proven otherwise.