If you want to gauge the state of collegiate water polo in America, just ask Matt Anderson. Currently the head coach of the Connecticut College men’s and women’s teams, for 12 years (2003-14) Anderson led the University of Michigan women’s program—piling up 332 wins, 10 CWPA titles, four NCAA berths and one Olympian—two-time medalist Betsey Armstrong. He has also been a fixture on the NCAA water polo circuit, chairing both the men’s and women’s committees.[On The Record with Olympian Betsey Armstrong—New Member of USA Water Polo Hall of Fame]
Now in his seventh year in New London, Anderson spoke recently about his peripatetic polo experience, how life in the Big Ten differs from the New England Small Collegiate Athletic Conference (NESCAC), what comes next for his Camel women and how the NCAA must contend with NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) issues now roiling its ranks.
– You were born in West Germany, grew up in the Midwest, moved to California, ended up at San Jose State then took the women’s coaching job at Michigan. After more than a decade in Ann Arbor you took the Connecticut College job. How do you keep track of all your polo travel?
I have been well-traveled. [Laughs] When I graduated from high school in San Diego, I had Big Ten connections with my parents and sister attending Big Ten schools. But I didn’t know a lot of the schools outside of California. Then, when I went to Michigan, I didn’t know the Connecticut College’s, the Washington & Jefferson’s [in the East]. They weren’t in the arena of the schools I competed against.
– Connecticut College may be a DIII program but you play Brown, Harvard and Princeton, Northeast Water Polo Conference teams. Will you continue to play NWPC teams in seasons to come?
When I first got here, it wasn’t the Northeast Conference, it was the larger Collegiate Water Polo Association. We were part of an Ivy League group with Brown, Harvard, MIT, Iona. Then, the shift was to get to a level of schools that are our peers athletically and size-wise—and compete with them.
For five or six years in the Mid-Atlantic [Water Polo Conference], we were successful, taking second place in 2016, third in 2017 and 2018, going to the DI conference championships and doing well. But ultimately what happened was the 12-hour bus rides to Salem, to Washington & Jefferson. The return rides were wreaking havoc on the kids and what they were truly here for: academics.
Why are we taking 24-hour round trip bus rides? Winning is nice but it’s not why we’re playing polo. We want the kids to focus on what they want to do, which is academics.
So, we switched back to the Northeast Conference, knowing that with the advent of USA Water Polo-led national championship, we would always have an avenue to a DIII national championship. Last year we hosted the East Coast DIII championships out of which MIT and Hopkins advanced to the final four.[Sagehens Win National Championship Over CMS, 13-12]
We knew that avenue was there and our emphasis changed to the kids’ enjoying their experience here. Let’s get out of these 24-hour weekend rides and get back into the conference with Brown, Princeton and Harvard—with the understanding we would select the games we were supposed to play.
– The Camels did compete in this year’s NWPC Championship.
Until we play a double round-robin we’re always going to be the #7 seed—and that’s fine. Neither Connecticut College or any DIII is going to regularly beat St. Francis, Harvard and Princeton three games in a row. We hope to have a chance to, but the consistency of a roster is different at DIII then DI.
– Well, that almost happened in 2015 when Johns Hopkins beat St. Francis, Brown and dropped a one-goal decision to Princeton in the finals of what was then the CWPA Eastern Championships.
They did. Hopkins and MIT have had that possibility. Those are the schools [the Ivies] recruit against. If you want a medical [career] you look at Stanford, you look at Hopkins. Harvard and MIT are always battling for the same type of recruits. It’s the depth that ultimately gets to you.[Tigers Claim Eastern Crown Over Upstart Johns Hopkins in CWPA Final]
I was referring to a small school like Connecticut College, W&J etc. To have the opportunity to do that is far and few between.
– Communicating playing opportunities to athletes is a big part of the how the sport grows.
I’ve had the luxury of going from big DI to small DIII. A big part of doing this is PR, the whole communication of what’s out there and finding those athletes appropriate for the school they finally discover.
There are great opportunities on the East Coast or in the Midwest if they would just explore a bit further the academics and find out if the sport they want to play is offered. It doesn’t mean that you have to have been a high school All-American to play at the next level.
A lot of players have the opportunity to play but are not aware of all the schools available to them. People who play club and travel to different places for tournaments open their eyes to colleges around the nation which have club or varsity programs they can play [for].
Whether it’s a Carthage College in the Midwest or a Penn State Behrend or W&J or Mount St. Mary’s—the number of kids if they were to reach out to the school and see if they could fit academically, they would find, more so on the East Coast the possibility of a roster spot is very viable compared to some West Coast school who get so many kids. A good amount of SCIAC [teams] end up cutting people as their rosters gets too large.
– What are your thoughts about the national DIII championship which gives two men’s and women’s teams from the East a chance to make it big in California.
You always want to finish as well as you could. A couple of years ago we finished top two or top three in the East, but you wonder how it would be if you played those West Coast teams at the end of the year.
What you’ve seen with the men’s DIII championship is that it didn’t go as plan. The talk is always [about] Pomona-Pitzer. They’re a wonderful program whose sights are on beating West Coast DI teams. They’re getting kids in academically, they’re putting in the financial resources but lo and behold, Whittier pulls off the upset two years ago.[Whittier, Behind Stalwart Defense, Beats CMS 5-3 to win Inaugural DIII Collegiate Water Polo National Championship Title]
This year you have Claremont-Mudd-Scripps [play] a competitive game with Hopkins and possibly if MIT was in the 2/3 game maybe MIT would have had the chance. [In the final] it’s Pomona-Pitzer, they’re in the Top 20 and CMS was inches away from winning the DIII national championship, a game that went to OT.
That’s the beauty of having a final four, what you think is written can often be different [then the results]. You have Cal, USC and UCLA; out of the last 19 years they have won 18 national championships on the men’s side. On the women’s side USC, UCLA, Stanford are the only ones to win a women’s national championship in 21 years.
With Whittier winning it, CMS just a fraction from an upset and Hopkins and MIT being extremely competitive, and other schools trying to get there—like Austin, Connecticut College, W&J—anything can happen at the DIII level.
– You enjoyed tremendous success in Michigan. How is it to go from Ann Arbor to coaching a small liberal arts college in New London.
A big part of this is the culture correct for you at the time. My years coaching DI and the national youth team and being the women’s national “B” team head coach was wonderful, taking the team to the WUG (World University Games) in Shenzhen China and winning the first medal for the USA in 23 years (silver). When I was in my 30’s and early 40’s, DIII was not something that fit my culture. Now that I’m in my mid-50s with a couple of kids at home, the “pedal to the metal” lifestyle is not the correct culture.
There’s Scott Reed at Macalester who also went from DI to DIII, so we have seen both sides of it. At DI the focus isn’t always on the 360 degrees of the kid. The big part is the athletic part and then school fits into that.
DIII is what a student athlete is truly about. 270 degrees of the 360 is about the student aspect. Then you have the athletic part that fits in.
You have kids that want to compete, that are driven but maybe didn’t have the opportunity or the growth spurt or at the end of the day didn’t have the passion or energy that is needed at a big DI Power 5.
Having kids of my own I know and understand what a small DIII school is trying to impact. When I was at Michigan it was all about my culture [in that] you’re here, the school has a lot to offer, it’s a great school, go find what you need to do—but ultimately [athletics] is what you’re here to do.
When kids are looking for colleges, they have to decide what sort of culture they want. Where do academics fit? Where do athletics fit? Obviously, both can happen at a Harvard, at a Stanford. But you have to figure out the type of lifestyle [and] culture you want in college and find that school that fits accordingly.
– Are you keeping watch on how the latest coronavirus wave may impact the 2022 season?
COVID’s gonna be around; it’s never going to get to the point where it wipes everyone out because then it’s not gonna be around anymore. It will mutate to where it will survive and become like the common flu—we’ll always have to be aware of it.
The question is: Will it affect the season? I think it will and it may affect some schools going remote for the beginning of the semester or after spring break.
We were fortunate [at Connecticut College]. It felt like I was at a DI again. We practiced from the beginning of September all the way until April when we normally only get that 10-week span. I’m not allowed to do off-season practices with the kids; I can only do them during the championship season. That presented us an opportunity to practice every day. Granted it was only an hour to an hour and a half, but we did it for the mental aspect.
Our school being an inclusive, small college, everyone gets tested [and] we have to wear masks.
The concern is that some places might take not take this seriously enough that it might affect the ability to have a season without bumps. What concerns me on the women’s side is we’re scheduled to go out to California to Pomona; I could see being told: No, we’re not getting on a plane.
– As you look at forward to the Camel women’s upcoming season, what are your hopes and expectations?
The preview I would have given two years ago when it was supposed to be the first DIII women’s championship, [was] there’s no doubt in my mind: We were going to be there. Ourselves and either Macalester or Austin. We were fully loaded; then we go up to Harvard one weekend before we’re supposed to board a plane—then told everything is shutting down.
I like my team, but they’ve only played two games in the last 24 months. I have Maria Sell, one of the top three players on the East Coast who can carry the team. But I haven’t seen this team in a game.
I went from a veteran team to I have a junior who has only two games of college experience. You look at a team like Austin which is overloaded with players and talent to that point they don’t have enough spots. In Texas they have depth and talent.
We’re going to be competitive, but from a coaching standpoint you have to have depth if you want to make the Final Four. You’re only as good as your back-up goalie—and I only have one goalie. That was my motto when I was DI because that’s how important having depth is.
No matter how good Melissa Moreno, one of my captains, or Maria are, we don’t have six for six and can withstand injuries. I like my team and we’re going to be competitive with anybody. The question is: Will we have the depth?
Austin has a senior group: 8 – 9 girls who have been together for four years. It’s Texas so they continue what they do during this time and have a lot more playing experience. They’re the team everybody is chasing.
You have Wittenberg, Carthage and Augustana’s coming in. The question is: do we have the talent and the depth to withstand the re-entry into playing, half the schools had a full-fledged season last year—we did not. It won’t be fair to slot and say we’re going to be first; or we’re going to be ninth because we’ve only played two games in the past 24 months. It will shake itself out.
I will say, it’s just a matter of when Connecticut College will get in the Final Four—it’s not a matter of when. We have the most CWPA championships of any school. We’ve always been competitive, and we always will be. Right now, it’s just too early to tell. With 11 players we don’t have the depth to tackle some of the big squads that I’d like to tackle.
– As an administrator for the NCAA, I suspect you’re aware of the looming impact of NIL (Name, Image, Licensing) on non-revenue sports. How does this initiative to pay collegiate athletes complicate the funding for Olympic sports?
I don’t think a lot of people understand that at the end of the day it does have a trickle-down effect. You look at Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams. Oklahoma football is obviously able to NIL—now all of the sudden after a great freshman year for one of the nation’s top ten teams [Williams] says he’s going to enter the transfer portal. Because there’s school out there that can offer him more money.
That’s exactly what this is.
Lane Kiffin said this best when he tweeted: It’s all about who can offer me the most money.
The Alabama quarterback, the Ohio State quarterback, Quinn Ewers—who before he played a game had a million dollars in endorsements—transferred to Texas.
You might say, well that’s fine and dandy Anderson, but what does that have to do with us? At the end of the day, the self-supporting programs are going to have to rely on alumni. You’re going to have sports that will continue to drive the school and then you’ll have other sports—it may be that schools say: We have 26 sports; you six sports you’ve got to start supporting yourselves. Like what UConn did in cutting sports like women’s rowing, men’s swimming—a big part of that is that they knew that financially it was going to be hard to run a big athletic program with NIL because the playing field is not level.
By that, I think that a lot of DI’s will look to take the DIII model. DIII’s raise money for their programs. You’ll see a lot of: Coach, you want to go out to California, you’re gonna have to fundraise.
Being on the NCAA committee for years, people say we act slow. But we move slowly because we’re looking at things correctly from as many angles as we can. It’s funny because you have Jay Bilas—he’s a lawyer and commentator who’s complaining that the ‘NCAA is holding kids back, they’re not letting them make money’.
Then we say here’s Name, Image, Likeness and Bilas says: “Oh my God, you’re not regulating it, NCAA isn’t controlling this.” You’re being a hypocrite, Jay. The NCAA is allowing athletes to do what they wish but you want them to control things like they did before, and that’s what led you to complain—the control the NCAA had—and now you want them to bring back control?’?
The NCAA is looking to figure out how this affects what we’re here for, which is all the sports—not just football and basketball.
It will benefit the Power 5 but [what of] the smaller schools? The St. Francis PA’s, the Bucknell’s. Are they going to start losing players who have become good and now they have an opportunity to go someplace [else]? It might be only a $5,000 or $10,000 endorsement but enough to make the kid leave the school.
It won’t affect a lot of smaller water polo programs, but I believe it will be: This is what we can do if we can find the support to do it. It’s not a positive for all the sports. It’s a positive for some student athletes but I see it affecting the quality of schools supporting as many sports as the can because financially they’re going to have to focus on the sports that drive the athletic department—not the non-revenue sports.