UCLA’s Wright Talks Growth and Polo in the East at Princeton Tourney

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A recent visit to Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool by two-time defending national champion UCLA was memorable not only because it was the team’s first East Coast visit since the 2009 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament; it was also an opportunity for New York-based water polo journalist Michael Randazzo to catch up with Bruins’ head coach Adam Wright, perhaps the most accomplished figure in U.S. water polo.

A two-time NCAA champion as a player (1999-2000) as well as three-time Olympian (2004, 2008 — when he was a member of Team USA’s silver medal winning squad —and 2008) Wright, now entering his eighth season in Westwood, has compiled a sparkling .865 winning percentage (192-30) while leading the Bruins to consecutive titles (2014, 2015) for the third time in program history.

With his team on a 38-match win streak — including 5-0 in New Jersey — Wright spoke about the pressures of being a high-profile program at the most successful college athletics program in America, the U.S. Men’s National Water Polo Team’s failure to advance to the knockout round in the Olympics for the first time since the 1964 Tokyo Games, and his friendship with U.S. women’s head coach Adam Krikorian, considered to be the best women’s coach in the world.

The following content was edited for brevity and clarity.

Michael Randazzo: What is it like dealing with the dual pressures of repeating as NCAA champions AND maintaining UCLA’s tradition of athletic excellence.

Adam Wright: In regards to UCLA, it is what it is. If we were a country I think we’d have the fifth most Olympic gold [medals]. Yes we do have the most national championships.

I’ve been on the flip side where we’ve been second place several times, and those trophies are in the closet — that’s a fact. And some of those seasons were the most important seasons in program history.

That’s the nature of UCLA and that’s the expectation that our athletes and our coaches live with. And it is tough — but you have a decision on how you want to deal with it. That’s what I think is most important.

We have a new team, and there’s two ways we can approach this. We’re the two-time defending champions and we have a target on our backs, we’ve only lost two players… that puts you in a real tough position because you’re going to carry a lot of weight.

The reality is — and the way that we try to approach it — is every team’s new in the country, just like we are. Every year’s a new year. Even if you don’t graduate anybody somebody new is probably coming in. Things happen in the year, whether it’s people out sick, people hurt.

If the media wants to say “the two-time defending champions and they’ve only lost two players” we don’t control that. They can say whatever they want. But if we let that affect us then we do control that.

In regards to the two seniors, in [2014] we lost eight [seniors]. There was some concern about where our leadership going to be, where’s our depth going to be. That 2015 team did a great job answering those concerns.

In losing Anthony Daboub and Danny McClintick, those same concerns arise. You never realize as a group the depth of players until they’re not around anymore. Those two guys leave UCLA with the best winning percentage ever, it was almost 94%. Daboub’s ability to absolutely control the middle of the pool; Danny being an unbelievable defender on the perimeter, also being another coach and leader in the water.

These are challenges that we have to overcome, just like we did in ’14. The interesting part is to see who evolves into those roles — even the guys that are coming back for their senior years. We have an older group between juniors and seniors. Who’s going to take that next step and take over those roles.

We can feel the pressure if we want to let it affect us.

The East Coast is vital for keeping this sport moving forward — not only for the growth of the sport but for keeping water polo as one of the top collegiate NCAA sports.

Randazzo: There is one aspect of this season that is out of your control and that’s the change in your conference. How might that affect how your team’s performance this season?

Wright: What it really goes back to was 2013 where [the NCAA] added another at-large berth.

We know that we have one berth at stake from our conference tournament, and there’s a strong possibility that there might be another MPSF team for an at-large berth. That’s a fact. Everybody holds the same chips now.

Our biggest goal is [improving] ourselves and [taking] each opportunity we have to grow as a group. I believe that if we grow in the right fashion we will have a chance in any game we play. And that’s all you can ask for.

The reality of the landscape changing? There’s new conferences out here in the East — the CWPA split in two, which was a good thing. There’s a couple of ways to look at this, and that’s part of the reason we’re out here. The East Coast is vital for keeping this sport moving forward — not only for the growth of the sport but for keeping water polo as one of the top collegiate NCAA sports.

Without them we go backwards. I absolutely think it’s important that they have access to the [NCAA] tournament. On the flip side too I think it’s important that that you maintain the integrity of the tournament by, having at least the two best teams with a chance to play for the national championship. I do think that’s important.

As we move into another year from now it gets interesting because you’re looking at maybe six conferences. At the end of the day your championship tournament has got to hold the respect of the nation’s best teams — and hopefully in the end the two best teams that deserve it will be there.

Where it can get dicey is maybe that opportunity doesn’t happen. From our perspective we’re looking at our conference and we believe a lot of years we will field the two best teams in the country.

There’s a lot of things as a whole that we have to look at in how we move forward. But we also have to keep all the programs in mind — it’s not just about us. And it’s not just about USC or Stanford or Cal or the MPSF teams. It’s about growing our sport and making sure we keep it in a safe position. One of the ways we can do this is making sure we’re including and giving access to all the conferences.

Randazzo: One of the down sides of this new format is that the Eastern representative is almost certain not to be one of the country’s top four teams.

wright-ucla-arms-crossed-facebookWright: That part for me is okay, because they have access to the championship. If they take care of what they’re supposed to here on the East Coast in their league or conference tournament, they should go. They should absolutely go.

My big things is: find a way to keep the integrity of the tournament a year from now and [make] sure that championship game is the two best teams from whatever conference they’re from. Because you know what? There are a lot of good conferences. Even the GCC [Golden Coast Conference] is going to be a good conference.

Those teams should arrive to the final. That’s important.

And that’s another reason to point to the East. They’re expanding the sport. They’re doing it at a higher rate than we are on the West Coast. For us that’s vital. If we get two, three, four, five programs then we can push for an eight-team tournament. It can’t just be because we split up and made new conferences. It’s got to be the addition of new programs. And the East Coast has been fantastic about that. And some DIII out west are looking at adding [programs].

That’s a real positive and that’s why we always have to keep in mind that there’s an access way for the East.

Randazzo: The U.S. didn’t make it to the knockout round in the Rio Olympic. Given your vantage point overseeing the top college program in America, what does this mean for the future of men’s water polo?

Wright: We can sit here for weeks. Every coach has his own opinions. This is the first time I believe since 1964 that we didn’t make [the knockout round]. And that’s a concern.

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One of the things that concerns me is I have a perspective on the national team — as a young junior team player I started my first trainings with the full national team before they left for Atlanta [in 1996]— they needed somebody in the water. And I was there.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a period of time that we’ve had a larger pool of players to select from. The men’s side is completely different than the women’s — our men’s collegiate level’s nowhere near the international level of play. On the flip side the women’s collegiate level is the highest league in the world.

I’m a firm believer [that] what you invest is what you get back. I know this: that Olympic field in Rio — and knowing from my buddies that are on the team that have been part of three, four, five Olympic games [Tony Acevedo, Merrill Moses, Jessie Smith], and from some of the coaches in the world — it was an Olympic field where we absolutely had a chance to compete and be one of the top teams.

Serbia that was ahead of everybody but from there on out it was pretty wide open. At the same time though Serbia was beatable. It was not the same team they’ve had in the past. That’s not to take anything away from them because that team accomplished everything.

From that aspect it was a little disappointing that we didn’t get through [to the medal round]. I’m not there, I’m not in the bubble every day but it just seemed like a lot of things went wrong in moments… I always believe that when you’re prepared, in moments of crisis you know how to respond. It seemed like a lot of things didn’t fall into place for us. It’s easy to watch on TV and say: “Why didn’t they do this?” — that’s not right either.

This summer, when push came to shove we weren’t a group, and some guys made decisions that cost the team dearly. A lot of time that comes from the culture of the group. Again, I don’t know [because] I’m not there.

It is a concern and I think behavior’s an important aspect of this sport — being able to keep your cool. Everybody has their moments — it happened in a lot of games, there were a lot of red cards.

How do we move forward? That’s what’s most important.

I think [Garrett] Danner has put himself in a position where he’s demonstrated that he was the best goalie in college.

Speaking about my team, I just wish there had been an access way for some of our guys to at least demonstrate the maybe they could help the national team. That doesn’t mean they have to be in the 13 but to not have access and demonstrate over a two-, three-, four-year period that you clearly are one of the top players in our country — that’s tough as a coach to answer to your players. We’ll see if that changes.

On the flip side if players aren’t getting access then they lose motivation to represent our country. And I think that’s going to be a big question moving forward. What are the motivations of the players and coaches as a whole in our country? What is the plan and how are we going to get better. Is there a plan in place? If not then the motivation changes drastically.

Randazzo: How do you view the decision to pick McQuin Baron instead of Garrett Danner for Team USA?

Wright: Look, McQuin’s an excellent goalie. I think Danner has put himself in a position where he’s demonstrated that he was the best goalie in college. Ultimately it’s up to the coach [Dejan Udovicic] for selection; I just think it would be interesting if [Danner] at least had a chance to see what he would be like [trying out for the national team]. That’s the most important thing.

And that access was never there.

Maybe at that level he’s not the right goalie. But, maybe he is. Not knowing is difficult

From our side we have kids who come to our program with aspirations of representing our country. That’s the hardest part for me — that’s the part that I can speak about. When a kid’s demonstrated and worked his butt off and really doesn’t have access [to the national team], it’s a hard things as a coach to accept. Because that’s what my expectation is as a coach is to give my guys the map. If their goal is to be the best college water polo player possible, then I’ll help them get there. If their goal is to try and get to the national team, it’s my job to give them a map to get there.

A lot of them that was their goal — they did everything in their power to get there and there wasn’t access.

Randazzo: Given what happened with this year do you envision having more input regarding developing the U.S. national team?

Wright: Every coach has their own ideas and beliefs. It’s their choice if they want discussion or input or have collaboration with other coaches. I don’t have that collaboration. I feel that one thing that is unique is [that] I’m one of the coaches — there’s [John] Vargas and there’s Kirk [Everist] also with national team experience — [who] understand what maybe are the most important elements for the development of my players at [the collegiate] level to get them to the next level.

But I can’t control that. All I can control is putting my players in the best possible position to reach their goals.

Randazzo: What has it been like to share the Spieker Aquatics Center pool deck with Adam Krikorian, head coach for Team USA and — by most measures — the best women’s coach in the word?

Wright: Adam’s cemented that. He’s the only coach to win two gold medals in a row on the women’s side.

My brother [Randy] played with Adam at UCLA. Adam was the captain of the ’95 NCAA championship team — the first championship since the Bob Horn years. I was a high school senior so I was at all those games his junior and senior years and I got to watch Adam lead the team. He was a guy that people just gravitated towards.

His competitive spirit is second to none. [He’s] uber competitive whether it’s basketball or pick-up sports and it’s unique. He was an assistant coach when I played at UCLA after he finished in ’95 he stayed on.

The way he interacts with athletes is special — especially in this day and age that’s a super important component. Adam gave me the chance to come back to UCLA; after the 2008 Olympics he gave me a chance to work on his staff. I was on the men’s side and the women’s side — just watching how he brings the groups together — that year [2009] the women won their fifth [NCAA title] in a row. That’s hard in sports — to drag along a group again and again — to watch how he brought those girls together was really incredible and instrumental in my development as a coach. Knowing when to push the buttons and knowing when to bring the athlete along in a different manner

You can’t question anything. Look at what he’s accomplished — it’s truly incredible. As far as the Olympics, there’s no doubt the U.S. on the women’s side we have unbelievable players, we have unbelievable girls coming through the system, we have three high school girls playing on the national team.

I really believe that they’re in such a great way they could probably field a couple of teams that can compete to be the best in the country. That’s a testament to the program that he’s running.

Nobody really understands; you can have the best athletes but think about how many teams haven’t succeeded with the best collection of athletes.

It really takes a lot for a coach to keep that group going; it takes a lot for a coach to bring all those personalities together, to bring all that talent together — because there’s only one ball. I went over to the Netherlands for the qualification tournament. It wasn’t even close. They’re just so sound.

It was impressive. As a former national team player it was really a joy watching them in Rio — how they behaved and how hard they worked for each other.

They deserved to be the best. They worked the hardest — again, it goes back to: what you invest is what you get back.