With a vehicle full of chattering kids on the well-traveled and often aromatic route from Eagle Rock to Davis, Dan Leyson was already several miles in to his transition from frenetic Southern Californian to resident of far sleepier Yolo County, CA. Appointed the new men’s head coach at UC Davis just three days ago, Leyson and his family were eager to settle in their new home town. They planned to begin the search for housing and visit schools within days. In the mean time, there were several hours of captive highway time to talk on the phone about his new job.
“I’d always been looking for the right opportunity, and always had a great desire to move to Northern California,” said Leyson. “When I was with UCLA we visited Davis, and I thought: this might be an interesting place to be.”
That sentiment would have been far less likely just three years ago when the program was slated to be eliminated by the school. Some highly effective fundraising by the university and a groundswell of support from the US water polo community generated donations more than sufficient to keep the program alive. Despite that success, Leyson couldn’t help but be concerned.
“It was my first question: is this program going to be around?” Leyson said. The school’s administration assured him it would. His job would be simple: “create a good program.” There was nothing mentioned about extraordinary fundraising. That work had already been done.
The process was straightforward. Davis listed the job, Leyson submitted an application. Contact with Athletic Director Terry Tumey was established. Leyson and his family were invited to visit the campus again. He dined with Tumey, met with sports and academic advisors, a few players, assistant coach Kevin Peat (whom Leyson praised for hauling in 13 new recruits), had dinner with the family out on the town. Everything was “really relaxed and enjoyable.”
That opposed to Los Angeles, in which life had become “a grind.” He had taken over Rose Bowl Water Polo Club in 2005 and grown it to over 200 members, quickly establishing it as one of the standout clubs in the US. That and an assistant coaching position with the UCLA men took up the bulk of his time.
“It was a lot of work. I was never home,” Leyson recalled.
In Davis his time won’t be spread so thinly, at least for now. His focus is purely on the Aggies, no other water polo obligations on the calendar. “I’m looking forward to a short break from club,” he admitted, though he planned to establish relationships with the local high schools and Davis club coach Tracy Stapleton. Soon Leyson will begin off-season training with his squad, including a full schedule of summer-league matches. His fitness-centric philosophy might be new to some of his athletes as he executes his plan, but it forms the basis of his success.
“I feel strongly about slow and steady progress,” he said. “But everything begins with physical condition. We have to arrive at a point where we don’t have to worry about being tired.”
From that follows a unique blend of coaching styles. From his time as a professional athlete in Spain and having worked under the legendary Croatian coach Ratko Rudic, a focus on that unique European blend of meticulous precision and creativity. But also a healthy dose of fundamentals as espoused by Jim Sprague, Leyson’s coach at Sunny Hills High School in the 80s.
In 2012 the Air Force Academy shocked the establishment by winning the Western Water Polo Association tournament, earning at trip to the NCAA Championship tournament. That surprise result isn’t lost on Leyson, whose Aggies finished a competitive fourth in the same tournament. With an influx of new talent and a skilled coach energized by the family-friendly pace of Central California, the Aggies have nothing less than an invitation to the national championship tournament in mind.
correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly named Leyson’s high school coach as Stan Sprague when it should have been Jim Sprague. Since corrected.