Coaches are two of a kind Wa­ter polo pas­sion loud and clear at UCLA, USC


Above the blar­ing speak­ers, cheer­ing fans and slosh­ing wa­ter, two pierc­ing voices cut through the noise at each USC-UCLA men’s wa­ter polo match — those of Tro­jans coach Jo­van Vavic and Bru­ins coach Adam Wright.

“If you come to the game, you can hear them from the park­ing lot,” said Marko Pin­taric, co-head coach for USC. “Both of them.”

From a dis­pute over the lights go­ing out to con­tro­ver­sial calls by ref­er­ees, the coaches have clashed along with their schools. Pin­taric said the in-game con­flict stems from their shared per­son­al­ity traits — each coach is fiercely com­pet­i­tive and loathes los­ing.

Vavic and Wright will go head to head Sat­ur­day when No. 1 USC (27-1) hosts No. 2 UCLA (20-2) in the first match be­tween the teams since last year’s na­tional cham­pi­onship match, which the Bru­ins won. The win­ner of the fi­nal game of the reg­u­lar sea­son has a chance to earn the top seed for the Moun­tain Pa­cific Sports Fed­er­a­tion tour­na­ment, which will be held next week at USC.

The NCAA cham­pi­onships will be held Dec. 1-2 at Stan­ford. USC and UCLA have played each other in six of the last nine cham­pi­onship matches, with each team win­ning three times.

Pin­taric said play­ing UCLA re­quires ex­tra men­tal prepa­ra­tion. The crowd is larger, the play­ers tenser. To Wright and Vavic, the in­ten­sity de­fines years of ri­valry matches.

“It was bat­tles, al­ways,” Wright, 41, said. “Phys­i­cal bat­tles, bat­tles be­tween the coaches.”

Said the 57-year-old Vavic: “Those are re­ally the big­gest games.”

Vavic and Wright first met when Vavic was a young co-head coach at USC and Wright was a star player at Long Beach Wil­son High. The prospec­tive re­cruit

caught Vavic’s eye with his pass­ing and self­less style of play.

“He was one of the best high school play­ers,” Vavic said. “Very, very tal­ented.”

They spoke sev­eral times over the phone and Wright vis­ited USC, greet­ing friends who played for the Tro­jans and meet­ing with Vavic in his of­fice by the pool. But when Wright watched his brother win con­sec­u­tive na­tional cham­pi­onships at UCLA, he sought to fol­low suit and com­mit­ted to the Bru­ins.

As a player, Wright con­sid­ered Stan­ford and Cal­i­for­nia the teams to beat. USC was not a con­sis­tent pow­er­house when Vavic led the Tro­jans to their first na­tional cham­pi­onship in 1998.

The team Vavic in­her­ited in 1995 as co-head coach was tal­ented, but he said some play­ers fell short of the ded­i­ca­tion he en­vi­sioned.

He raised ex­pec­ta­tions for ef­fort and cut any­one who did not meet them, set­ting an ex­am­ple through his own work ethic. By Pin­taric’s first year play­ing for USC in 1997, Vavic cre­ated a cul­ture where play­ers poured them­selves into the sport, mo­ti­vat­ing one an­other with com­mon pas­sion.

“He re­ally puts his time and ef­fort into ev­ery­thing he does,” Pin­taric said, “and it’s con­ta­gious.”

Vavic called out his play­ers’ mis­takes in team hud­dles and shouted at them as they com­peted in the pool; his out­spo­ken style was off­putting to Wright and his Bru­ins team­mates.

“Fast for­ward to where I am now,” Wright said, “I get it.”

Wright won ti­tles in his fi­nal two years with the Bru­ins (1999, 2000), then moved over­seas to play for the U.S. na­tional team af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2001. He watched a cou­ple of UCLA matches when he was home but only loosely fol­lowed the col­le­giate game, as pro­fes­sional play cap­tured his fo­cus.

Mean­while, USC’s promi­nence kept grow­ing un­der Vavic.

Wright was play­ing pro­fes­sional wa­ter polo in Italy when he was of­fered an as­sis­tant’s po­si­tion UCLA. He ac­cepted and re­turned af­ter the Bei­jing Olympics in 2008, the year USC went un­de­feated and won its fourth na­tional ti­tle.

Vavic has won more team na­tional ti­tles than any USC head coach — nine for men’s team and five for the women’s team, in­clud­ing the women’s ti­tle in 2018. The USC men won six straight ti­tles from 2008 to 2013, and have played in the last 13 ti­tle matches.

“I was shocked,” Wright said. “But then at the same time, I was im­mersed in our world here … why weren’t we con­sis­tently com­pet­ing with them or chal­leng­ing them?”

When Wright be­came UCLA’s head coach in 2009, he built his play­ers’ con­fi­dence by chal­leng­ing them in prac­tice. He short­ened tac­ti­cal prepa­ra­tion in the film room and used the time for con­di­tion­ing and strength train­ing. There were no rest days, be­cause Wright wanted to prove to his play­ers they could per­form through ex­haus­tion.

“They termed it, ‘The grind of ’09,’ ” Wright said.

UCLA lost to USC twice in the reg­u­lar sea­son but de­feated the Tro­jans in the MPSF tour­na­ment by four goals, the Bru­ins’ largest mar­gin of vic­tory over their ri­val since 1989. Wright has won three na­tional cham­pi­onships for UCLA in the last four years, all against USC.

“They al­ways get, al­ways … some of the most tal­ented play­ers in the na­tion,” Vavic said. “And that’s a chal­lenge.”

Vavic keeps Wright busy by em­ploy­ing a style un­like any other the Bru­ins face. A typ­i­cal col­le­giate wa­ter polo team runs for­mal plays af­ter a break, like a time­out, goal or penalty. But Vavic in­te­grates play-call­ing into the game’s flow, mak­ing the of­fense un­pre­dictable. Wright es­ti­mated the Tro­jans run 70 to 90 plays in a sea­son, some­times 100, along with vary­ing de­fen­sive schemes.

“If you’re not pre­pared for USC,” Wright said, “then you don’t have a chance.”

Wright, who also took over the Bru­ins’ women’s pro­gram in 2017, pores over film of his op­po­nents, and Vavic and Pin­taric do the same. The mu­tual fa­mil­iar­ity sep­a­rates UCLA from other op­po­nents for the Tro­jans. Wright pre­pares like Vavic does, so by game time, each team knows the strengths and weak­nesses of the op­po­nent.

“Those games will al­ways be close,” Pin­taric said, “just be­cause you have those two coaches study each other.”

Wright’s metic­u­lous study, com­pet­i­tive­ness, pow­er­ful voice and even tac­ti­cal style re­sem­ble Vavic’s. In es­tab­lish­ing UCLA, Wright has learned by watch­ing Vavic main­tain his dy­nasty.

De­spite the in-game dis­agree­ments, the two are friendly. Wright said they both un­der­stand the heat of the mo­ment sparks ten­sion, and they talk through dis­putes when needed. They talk on the phone and at tour­na­ments about Vavic’s four chil­dren, is­sues with the col­le­giate game and ways to grow wa­ter polo.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Wright said, “be­cause we don’t have to talk to each other ... but then, man, that would kind of be a shame too, with I be­lieve two peo­ple that are heav­ily in­vested in a very small sport.”

Los An­ge­les Times

JO­VAN VAVIC led the Tro­jans to their first na­tional ti­tle in 1998.

Minette Ru­bin

UCLA’S Adam Wright has won three ti­tles in the last four years.

Minette Ru­bin

MEM­BERS of the UCLA wa­ter polo team gather around coach Adam Wright, shown with a doc­u­ment, dur­ing a re­cent match against Stan­ford. As a stu­dent, Wright won ti­tles in his fi­nal two years with the Bru­ins.

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