Trevor Freeman
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October 14 - Help Wanted

Not sure if you caught this? Actually I’m pretty sure nobody has. USA
Water Polo is advertising the opening for the position of Men’s National
Team Head Coach/Director on the front page of
their website. This
position became available when Ratko Rudic, the legendary Yugloslavian
head coach who took over the United States Olympic Team, resigned in
December of 2004 to take over his native Croatia.

Many experts find it absolutely startling that the sport is advertising its
opening on the front page of its website, instead of quietly seeking out a
qualified candidate. Most also find it equally troubling that the United
States National Team has yet to choose a head coach considering we are
halfway to the 2008 Summer Olympics and Ratko Rudic resigned almost a full year ago. Water Polo
is a sport that has had considerable growth (especially on the women’s side). However, winning at
the sport’s highest level is necessary in sustaining this growth and it is disconcerting that a new Men’
s National Team coach hasn’t been chosen.

However, perhaps this prolonged vacancy finally affords us the opportunity to have some open
dialogue about the team and how it is chosen. As background, Water Polo became the first team
sport in the Olympics in 1900. The United States won their first and only gold medal in the 1904
Olympics in St. Louis. In 2004, the United States finished in 7th place, in 2000 the result was 6th
place, and in 1996 the United States was also in 7th place. To sum it up, the United States has been
the definition of mediocre.

According to the listing on the USA Water Polo website you need to have three qualifications in order
to be considered for the position. These qualifications are as follows:

--Extensive successful international coaching experience.
--Successful head coaching experience.
--Ability to develop and implement a successful athlete pipeline.

There is one qualification sorely missing from this list. It is the ability to look past a stopwatch when
choosing the team. Whoever lands the head-coaching job needs to do one thing. Add toughness. For
years, the European powers have bullied the United States National Team. From our hole sets being
pushed out past 2 meters to our wings being pressed to the wall, America has been physically
outmatched.  

Many former players believe that it is because USA Water Polo for years has put too much emphasis
on the stopwatch and not enough emphasis on how people play the game. Think about how many
guys in the NFL failed the stopwatch test at the combine yet became big-time players. Emmitt Smith.
Jerry Rice. During the Olympics, we constantly hear about how wonderfully conditioned the United
States Water Polo team is. How the United States wants to get in there and counterattack these
teams and take advantage of their speed. You know what? It hasn’t worked. When America plays the
tough European teams we do not counter and we get beat. It is as simple as that.  

You see the problem with relying on speed and your counterattack ability
is that you need two things to happen for success. The first thing that
needs to happen is for the opposition to not score or “dump” the ball. The
second thing that needs to happen in order to have an effective counter is
that a few people need to get out ahead. Namely one person on the weak
side with one person coming in from the strong side and a trailer
following behind. This is simpler said than done when you have a 6'4",
235 lb. Hungarian impeding initial progress.

I always felt that the United States National Team took a big swing and a miss in 2000 when they
didn’t add one of the most dominant players of my time onto the team. UMass hole set Brian Stahl
was exactly the kind of guy the stopwatches omit; yet he would have provided the toughness that has
been sorely lacked. Stahl was a big ol’ boy from Pennsylvania who would punch you in the mouth just
for giggles. He had an outstanding playing career in high school and college. At Pennsylvania water
polo powerhouse Wilson High School he totaled 482 goals and, 226 assists over the course of his
career, during which time his team went 132-4. In college, Brian Stahl led UMass to three Final Fours
and was first team All-Tournament twice. While at UMass (which sadly dropped their program in
2002) Stahl set six career records, the most impressive of which were points (502), goals (349)
ejections drawn (211) and penalty shots drawn (34). A lot of guys looked better than Stahl in a
speedo, but not a lot played better and nobody was tougher. I saw Stahl play more times than I can
count and you know what I never saw anyone do to Stahl. Make him move some place he didn’t want
to move to.  

However, naming a coach is more important than arguing over what type of style we should play or
what kind of players should be chosen to represent our country in 2008. USA Water Polo is at a
critical point. Our Men’s Olympic team has had a series of mediocre finishes and something needs
to be done. There is enough talent in the United States to compete with the European powers.
However in order to do this, USA Water Polo needs a coach and a message. The formula for success
starts at the top and filters down to our Junior National and Youth Team squads. Hungary knows what
they will do in 2008. America needs to know the same.


Trevor Freeman was a former four-year starter and team captain at Fordham University, where he
scored over 150 goals in his career.