CAMBRIDGE, MA. At the inaugural Harvard Invitational men’s water polo tournament last weekend, ten teams —Brown, Bucknell, Dartmouth, Iona, MIT, New York Athletic Club, Princeton, University of Toronto, Wagner and of course Harvard (16-3; 3-2 CWPA North) — played 15 games over two days. In between matches Ted Minnis — now in his seventh year as head coach of the men’s and women’s water polo teams at Harvard — spoke with New York City-based writer Michael Randazzo about changing attitudes towards polo at America’s oldest institution of higher learning, Harvard’s emergence as one of the country’s top programs, the growth of the sport in the East and what it will take to hang a Collegiate Water Polo Association championship banner in Blodgett Pool.
Michael Randazzo: Harvard football has won three straight Ivy Championships; Tommy Amaker has gotten the Crimson into four straight NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournaments; how much of your time is spent changing minds at Harvard about water polo?
Ted Minnis: When I got here seven years ago there was that one banner up there [points to large Harvard Water Polo banner hanging over the Blodgett Pool] and that’s all there was. Oh, and we had some team pictures up [on the walls] like everybody else.
That was the first thing [I changed]. If you go all the way up to the top [of visitor seating] that’s where all of our water polo stuff is and that’s what I put in. When I got here Bob Scalise [Harvard Athletic Director] made it clear to me that he wanted to support the water polo program — that they wouldn’t have moved me from California to Cambridge if they weren’t going to give me all the support that I needed.
And they’ve been great.
We’ve done a very good job of being great citizens here. My kids do well in the classroom, they’re leaders in the community and in the pool and they’ve embraced us. That’s what’s so great about the coaching staff here — everybody cares. I’ll be walking with a group and Coach Amaker will stop and have a conversation. Coach [Ted] Denato [Harvard men’s hockey coach] will stop. Kathy Delaney Smith [Harvard women’s basketball coach] — the most decorated coach in the Ivy Leagues with over 600 wins — they all will stop and have conversations. The collaboration between sports is great.
We all just want to do a good job; we’re all “Bob’s children” — he calls us that. The swim program here has been very successful — you see all the Ivy Championships listed — and our goal is to win a championship and hang the first championship banner in Blodgett Pool.
Randazzo: Harvard’s men’s team has improved substantially since you arrived in 2010. What would you attribute your program’s success to?
Minnis: When I got here recruiting was the number one thing [to change]. We had to get our name out there so I just went everywhere wearing Harvard gear. I wanted people to see me and think about Harvard water polo — because there wasn’t anything like that before. People would say to me: “Are you the Harvard-Westlake coach?” And I’d say I’m the real Harvard coach. That was a big first step.
The second was I told the kids in the class that just graduated — they were my second recruiting class and the most decorated group to leave the program — I told them: “I’m not selling the university. Harvard’s Harvard. I want you to think about what I can bring to the table as a water polo coach and what my vision is for this program.” They bought into that. They came in and changed the level of practice — that was the most important thing.
Randazzo: Does that mean that there were concessions on the academic side that allowed you to do this?
Minnis: No. It came back to collaborating with those other coaches and talking to my captains and finding out how the academics worked here. The biggest change we made was we went from a Monday to a Tuesday day off. On Mondays they don’t offer a lot of labs and my kids need to take labs. So we give them off Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Now they have two afternoons in the middle of the week where they can be Harvard students. They can eat in their own dining hall, they have an opportunity to go to office hours and have an opportunity to take some classes that they couldn’t if we practiced at our regular time like when I first arrived.
When I first got here the pool was open during our practice for rec swim and swimmers swam though our practices. You’d have people walking around and watching us. So getting practices closed and being able to just focus on water polo was a huge part of that.
Randazzo: We’re talking about a cultural change that you had to institute when you arrived. And — by many measures — it’s working. Earlier this year Harvard was ranked 8th in the CWPA Men’s Poll, the program’s highest ranking ever. What will it take for Harvard to capture its first-ever CWPA men’s championship?
Minnis: Luck! I think that’s the biggest thing. People don’t understand: our conference is very strong. I look at the Princeton team as very good. The Brown team is very good. St. Francis is a very good team. I think we can be in the same conversation as those three.[To win] you have to have a good day. You have to be hitting your shots. You have to have some luck with injuries as we go down the stretch. Everything comes down to referee draws and how they call the game. All of those things play into winning a championship and I think that’s what it’s going to take.
We’ve lost to St. Francis and Brown in conference play. Any way it goes we’re going to have to beat a good team in the semifinal to get to a championship game and beat a good team. So you’re going to have to have some luck.
Right now we’re healthy; hopefully we can stay that way.
Randazzo: Three games at the end of the season — the Northeast Conference Championships and then a play-in game for the NCAAs — determine your team’s fate. How ready are they for this?
Minnis: My seniors have played in a lot of big games. They’ve beaten a lot of really good teams — things that haven’t happen here since 2000 – 2001 [when Harvard was last a top Eastern team] — Princeton was on a pretty big win streak and we’ve beat them two times in the last year. I would say it’s a rivalry game now; before it was a butt whupping. Brown is the same. We’ve won a few games — it had been a while since we’d beaten Brown.
The last two years we’re 10-0 when we go out to California. This senior group has learned how to play in big games; they’ve learned how to lose and how to win. We’re getting such great senior leadership out of them that I think we are in a place where — if the money’s on the line we’re ready to play for it. Add in luck, staying healthy, staying focused and staying hungry.
Randazzo: Will you count on Joey Colton and Noah Harrison to deliver when a title is on the line?
Minnis: I think if you asked anybody they’d tell you the same thing: it’s between Joey and Noah. We know that. They know that.
We talk about family ball. That’s what we play here. What I’m most impressed about with this group is they don’t care who scores the goals. They don’t care who gets the press and the accolades. They just want to compete together and win and they’re unselfish in the pool. Joey’s leading our team in assists this year. I think that shows the type of player he is.
Anyone can step up at any given time. Everybody is getting a lot of playing time. Our lines are on and we’re doing a good job with that. At any moment someone could step up and score a goal. Joey and Noah are very capable of doing that.
Randazzo: For goalies you’ve got sophomore Anthony Ridgely and freshman Nikhil Suri. Come the Northeast Conference playoff, who’s in net for the Crimson?
Minnis: I’ve given them both playing time and have been playing them in big games. That’s giving them experience, especially my freshman goalie because he’s making the adjustment to playing at this level. In the middle of the week I make a decision on who gets what games. So Nikhil got the Toronto game, Anthony will get the Wagner game. Anthony will get the Bucknell game and Nikhil will get Dartmouth. So we predetermine that. As we get deeper into the season hopefully they will separate themselves and if not we feel comfortable with either one in the goal.
Randazzo: It appears that this is a down year for the East.
Minnis: I’d have to say that it’s a down year for everybody then, no matter if you’re in the East or the West. Because if you look at our records against West Coast teams — set aside the UCLAs and the [UC Berkeleys], who came out to Princeton and are the top two teams in the country — everything you see are one-goal games and we’re winning some of those games. We’re 4-1 against teams on the West Coast, our one loss being to [University of the Pacific]. Princeton lost to Santa Barbara in sudden death and they’re #6 in the country.
There are the four teams in our conference and Bucknell — they’re playing really well — that makes five teams on the East that are good enough to compete with that next tier of 5, 6, 7 through 15th [ranked teams in the country].
Randazzo: Do you feel that the East deserves a seat in the NCAA Final Four?
Minnis: I don’t know if anyone necessarily deserves a seat in the Final Four. I feel the teams from the East should have an opportunity to play for a spot to go to the Final Four. Before we split there were 20 teams on the East that we had to navigate, and there was one team representing us. [The CWPA] represented 47% of NCAA Men’s Division I water polo. It doesn’t seem fair that we had only one opportunity. Now we have two opportunities — that’s all we’re asking for.
We understand that you have the Big Four [UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford] and the MPSF. And yes, they’re going to beat us by numbers and all that but the thing about that is they win their conference championship, that’s a big deal. They get in and they play a national championship game with their top two teams, that’s great, right? But why shouldn’t everyone else have an opportunity to get in and do those kinds of things?
That’s the big thing, not necessarily having to be in the Final Four. Having two opportunities to have go to the Final Four is good for water polo and the East Coast.
Randazzo: As evidenced by the addition of LaSalle and Wagner, the sport is growing in the East. When does the Ivy League join the water polo party?
Minnis: The growth is happening in the East. I think Adam [Wright of UCLA] is right and everyone understands that. We’re all trying to work together so that water polo doesn’t go away on our watch. We all love this sport —no matter if you’re Adam Wright coaching UCLA or Ted Minnis coaching Harvard. Everything that we have in life right now was given to us through water polo. We love the sport so much and we want to give back to the sport — we don’t want to lose it.
I think it’s great what Chris [Radmonovich, Wagner head coach] has done, they’re getting some buzz and now other programs can see it.
Louie [Nicola, Princeton coach], Felix [Mercado, Brown coach] and I are very big about wanting polo to be an Ivy League sport. We’ve done Ivy League championships and had the club teams. Dartmouth is close and that’s why I invited the to this. Columbia is really disappointed that this year we’re not doing the championship because Princeton’s in our conference now — which made it not feasible to play an extra time.
You’re seeing a lot of growth happening at the DIII level; I would love to see growth happen at the DI level and I’d love to see it happen on the men’s side. It’s great that we got the seventh spot in the NCAA — that shows that they’re receptive to what’s going on.
And it’s an easy add if you have a swim program. Buy a couple of goals!