Despite being a minor player in the pantheon of American intercollegiate sports—there are only 46 varsity men’s water polo programs eligible for the NCAA tournament— water polo has its prominent advocates. This is particularly true at Harvard University; alumni – including Mehmet Oz, better known to fans of his afternoon syndicated television show as Dr. Oz – weigh in on their former teams, demanding results and advocating for change.
One of the most powerful is Michael Graff, a 1973 graduate and captain of Harvard’s then club team, who also played and coached the sport in his native Pittsburgh and his adopted home of New York City. Since 2006 Graff has served as chairman of the board of Directors at USA Water Polo, overseers of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams which competed this past August in the Rio Olympics. His endorsement and support are essential to Harvard water polo’s success.
Mr. Graff spoke earlier this month with New York-based Total Waterpolo contributor Michael Randazzo about his team’s run to a spot in the NCAA Final Four, the selection process that resulted in Harvard head coach Ted Minnis, and the health of the sport in the U.S.
This interview was edited for content and clarity.
Michael Randazzo: As a long suffering Harvard Water Polo supporter, what was your reaction to Harvard’s 16-15 win over UC Davis that qualified the Crimson for their first-ever NCAA Final Four?
Mike Graff: I was just elated. We have had a number of good teams-both men and women, but this one was special. This is the culmination of a lot of years of dedication and work by the athletes, by the coaching staff and by the university. I give the university great credit for sticking by the program through some pretty thin years
Over the last decade we’ve had renewed interest and support for the program from the alumni and the athletic department. Hiring Coach Minnis six years ago really was a step change in the program. The results we saw — these things take a lot of work. If you get all the inputs right good results usually happen.
Randazzo: How was it for you, a Harvard man, to see your team beat both Princeton and Brown on its way to capturing the East for the first time in program history?
Graff: Well, it was a good feeling because over the past years those programs have dominated our rivalry. We beat Princeton at Princeton earlier in the year, but then lost to them at home, and beat Brown at Brown and lost to them in Cambridge. And then in the championship we won both matches at Princeton. [Harvard beat the host Tigers 14-13 in the semifinals and beat Brown 11-7 in the Northeast Water Polo Conference finals].
Again, tremendous credit; this team just doesn’t quit. There’s no superstar. Everybody contributes. That’s one of the reasons they’re tough; it’s because the scoring is very balanced [Noah Harrison – 85 goals; Colin Chiapello – 46; Joey Colton – 43; Nick Bunn – 43] and everyone’s a threat. That makes them very difficult to defend. They’re in great condition, very strong on the counter-attack. It’s the deepest team we’ve had in years.
If you noticed, Ted played his entire bench — including freshmen — and eventually that wore down the other team.
Randazzo: In its first-ever NCAA tournament, Harvard topped Bucknell in a thrilling 13-12 overtime match. You have strong connections to both programs.
Graff: I’m a Pittsburgh guy. I coached high school at night when I went back to Pittsburgh after college. I started a water polo club in Pittsburgh, and of the two star players one went to Bucknell and one went to Brown — Mark Gensheimer and Russell Hertzberg We had a summer club, and from that club at least four of the players were Bison. One of the stars is now CWPA Hall of Fame, Mark Gensheimer, and the second is Tony Paxton, who was just inducted [to the CWPA HOF] and was our goaltender. We had another hall of famer on our team, long time successful Navy coach, Mike Schofield.
So, I’ve got a long relationship with Bucknell. I’ve played for their alumni team, etcetera. It was great to see those two teams get to the top this year. I have tremendous admiration for John McBride, and his team. And that’s a young team. So they’re going to be a force next year.
And the other Bucknellian? Scott Schulte [Bucknell all-time leading scorer from New Jersey], who was the college roommate of [Mark Gensheimer] the guy I coached in high school. That’s how long I’ve known Scott for.
Randazzo: Harvard polo is a great story because of the team’s success but also because of head coach Ted Minnis.
Graff: I’m a great fan of Ted’s. Recruiting is one of his great strengths. Coach Minnis embraces Harvard’s recruiting philosophy. They’re looking for people who clearly have the technical skills, and experience as well as the values that the university supports. A good balance of education, athletics and other extracurricular interests are essential to a well-prepared graduate. If you look at the number of varsity sports plus club teams they have, Harvard’s commitment to athletics is bar none.
They’re either the highest or second to Stanford. It’s a big part of university life.
When the university decided to look for a new coach a few years ago, Ted is one of the people who applied. I would say the program in those days was not at the level it is now. We were delighted to have him apply. He coached women, and that was important to us, and he was part of the Stanford Club program, which is very good training — he coached in high school.
No he wasn’t a 10-year veteran with college coaching experience, but his intrinsics, in terms of his values, the way he treated people, we all could tell he would be excellent in recruiting and teaching smart young people. And we had very good references from people who knew him very well.
It’s a bit of a chance that the athletic department took but it’s certainly paying off.
Randazzo: You wear many different hats, including your role leading USA Water Polo. From that vantage point how would you say that both awareness of the sport and the quality of play — particularly at the collegiate level — has changed over the past decade?
Graff: I graduated [from Harvard] in 1973 and started playing in 1969. So I’ve been around for a long time. I wasn’t as active in those middle years as I have been for the last decade or so, but I would say about the level: first of all the interest in the sport has grown tremendously.
To illustrate here are a couple of facts: Membership in USA Water Polo has gone from 23 – 24,000 in 2006 to 45,000 this year. That’s not all the players in this country, that’s just the ones who choose to join and are generally the ones who are playing in Junior Olympics or national championships, which is at a higher level.
If you look at the number of high schools, the number of colleges — varsity and club — there’s growth everywhere, in masters as well. The sport is growing, both for men and women; obviously the addition of women as real participants has been tremendous and that’s been a big change over the last 20 years.
We are also growing across the country–not everywhere, but now we are growing faster outside of California by a significant margin. Texas, Florida, Michigan, the Northwest, Hawaii and the Northeast have all had strong growth recently.
So, the sport is growing; is the quality getting better? I believe it is, for a couple of reasons. One, there’s more athletes participating, so that increases competition and that improves quality
Two, over the last five, six, seven years USA Water Polo has invested a lot into something called the Olympic Development Program (ODP). It’s led by the Olympic coaches and John Abdou at USA Water Polo, and this year we’ll have about 4,000 [players] from 13, 14 and up to 18 year-olds learning the same skills and drills that the national teams follow. It’s done on four or so weekends during the year where they can get coached by the regional ODP coaches as well as the Olympic coaches and from there the top performers get selected to the national training camps.
That’s the base of our pipeline, if you will.
That didn’t exist before. We’re seeing more players, we’re seeing more investment in development. At the college level you’re certainly seeing this for both the men and the women. People say that the best professional water polo league in the world is the women’s NCAA, where you’ve got women from all over the world playing there.
Women don’t tend to have as many professional opportunities after graduation and there’s no university system like ours. So you see many more international players on the women’s side and you’re seeing a lot more on the men’s side as well.
So I think the quality of play is definitely better, the athletes are better, and the coaching has certainly kept up with it.
Randazzo: One of the greatest potential growth areas for the sport is in the Ivy League. The “Ancient Eight” have historically had strong rivalries in the sport but currently only three schools field men’s and women’s squads that play at the varsity level.
Graff: Water polo’s a contact sport – it always has been. It’s been present at the university for a long time – since the early Seventies – The two oldest programs are Harvard and Brown. Yale played and had a good team–they were a varsity program and won Easterns. Cornell played as well. Princeton didn’t play in the 70s. They started 20 years later than Harvard, Brown and Yale did. But under coach Luis Nicolao they have built a fabulous program
I think for all of us it was always more exciting to play Brown or Princeton or Yale or Cornell than to play somebody that wasn’t in the conference. And we’ve tried hard to get other Ivy universities to make the sport varsity, so that we could get an official conference in the Ivies, like in other sports.
We’re hopeful we can do that with the women. Penn’s been very interested. All the schools have clubs – they all play. It would be great to have Yale back. They did have a coach and were a varsity program way back when. I hope when they build their new pool they’ll consider – certainly starting with women – making it a varsity program.
We’re still working on that, there’s a lot of work to do – we’d love to get more varsity programs across the country and it’d be great to get a few more Ivy schools to start varsity programs so then water polo will become an official Ivy League sport.
When I played, the top four teams were Yale, Harvard, Army and Fordham. The top four teams in the East. One of those four teams won every year.
Army has a great facility. It would be wonderful to see them go varsity [again]; they were varsity when I played.
Randazzo: Whenever you talk about Harvard Athletics one of the storylines is how they stack up with Stanford – the Crimson’s West Coast academic rival. The Cardinal have had tremendous success in water polo but this year – for the first time ever – Harvard qualified for NCAAs and Stanford did not. What do you make of this?
Graff: I have tremendous respect for what Stanford has done as a program – their athletes and coaches. [However] they’re still ahead of where Harvard is. It would be great if we could get to a point where we could play them very competitively in the future.
I would think that’s an aspiration of ours – to be able to compete with them and hold our own.