Now Get This . . . : Quiet Times Have Come to the Pool at Newport Harbor Where Water Polo Coach Bill Barnett Has Mellowed . . . Just Kidding

Times Staff Writer

The reports of Bill Barnett’s mellowing are greatly exaggerated.

Rumor has it that Barnett, Newport Harbor High School water polo coach, a man whose picture once appeared in a newspaper with the caption Old Yeller --is more calm and more quiet in his 20th season.

For proof, they cite Barnett’s behavior during last Friday’s CIF Southern Section 4-A semifinal match against No. 1 Sunny Hills.

What? No screams?


Instead, Barnett watched with intense detachment, staring and studying as if he’d stumbled into a foreign film with subtitles a bit too small. He retained his composure even as those around him lost it.

As he watched the Lancers’ Bill Slope tie the match, 8-8, and Dave Cash put Sunny Hills ahead for good, Barnett never budged from his perch atop a metal folding chair. The extent of his histrionics consisted of a rub of his chin, a few soft claps and an occasional smile.


A rub, a clap and a smile? Sounds like St. Nick the night before Christmas, not a guy former players described as “crazy” during practices and games.

“Why yell at that point?” Barnett asked. “The season is practically over, what would be the purpose? None. It would be of no use. I don’t think I’ve changed the way I do things.”

No use in yelling? This from the the man who never met a decibel he didn’t like. This from the man who players say they would never dream of calling anything but Mr. Barnett?

“Yeah, we heard Mr. Barnett was easing up,” one Newport Harbor player said. “That’s what we’ve heard . It’s kind of hard to believe. If he’s easy now, I’d hate to have seen him before.”

But according to Barnett nothing has changed.

He still yells, still intimidates and he still commands more respect than any other water polo coach in the area.

“When you play for Mr. Barnett you know you’re playing for the best,” Newport Harbor’s Rob Mihalko said. “You tell people you play at Newport Harbor and they say, ‘Oh, that’s Barnett’s school.’ ”

Said Marina Coach Dave Pickford: “He’s so good that he could take the freshman team here at the beginning of the season, and by the end of the season they’d be beating the varsity.”


Under Barnett the Sailors have reached 16 finals in 20 seasons.

This season’s team, however, was given little chance of success. Every player from last season’s Southern Section champion were gone. Barnett himself was spliting time between Newport Harbor and the U.S. national team. He was named the 1988 U.S. Olympic coach last year. The Sailors placed only fifth in the prestigious South Coast Tournament late in September, definite proof to some of the team’s slide.

But those in the know . . .

“I don’t care what his team looks like now,” Sunny Hills Coach Jim Sprague had said after the Lancers won the tournament. “Any team coached by Bill Barnett is going to be there come playoff time. You watch. This team will develop, bit by bit, and when it counts they’ll be ready.”

They did. Unfortunately for Sprague, Newport Harbor reached its peak against his team, leading the Lancers, 7-6, after three periods of play.

Respect? Barnett could fill a wheat silo full of respect. Friends? Well, he hasn’t harvested many on his way up.

“I know I’m not the friendliest person in the world,” Barnett said. “But people have to realize that it’s nothing personal I have against them. I might really like someone, I just don’t always show it. It’s just my personality.”

Ted Newland, UC Irvine coach, and one of Barnett’s closest friends: “That’s just Bill. He’s not the kind of guy who is going to stop and chit-chat. When he has something to say, he says it, then goes about what he has to do.”

What he does is study the game. So do his players. Before each match, the Sailors receive voluminous notes about opponents’ tendencies and shortcomings.


“It’s weird,” Sailor Jason Belanger said. “It’s like he knows exactly what’s going to happen. You’ll be playing and something will happen and you’ll say to yourself, ‘How did he know?’ ”

Twenty years of scouting and studying the game doesn’t hurt a guy’s intuition.

“If Bill Barnett is anything, he’s a student of the game,” Newland said. “I’ve been trying to get those notes he gives out published. Might be the best thing written on the game.”

Student Barnett, who long ago earned his masters by winning 10 Southern Section championships, made a bold prediction when the Sailors lost Sunny Hills.

The loss ended an 11-season streak in which Barnett and Newport Harbor had appeared in the final.

Barnett prognosticated: “This isn’t the end of the world. Life will go on.”

And life, i.e. water polo at Newport Harbor, has gone on for Barnett. Two days after the loss, the frosh-soph team was back in the pool, swimming laps.

“Not going to the finals just meant we played one less game and had a few days earlier to start on next season,” he said.


Not everyone started on time. One player informed Barnett Monday that he wouldn’t be able to go through workouts until some stitches were removed from his eye.

“They were playing war on the Back Bay,” Barnett said with a laugh. “He got hit in the eye with a BB. Geez.”

Odds are problems such as that won’t arise on the Olympic team. A lot of changes will, though. Barnett will be coaching men, not boys. Methods will have to change.

“There shouldn’t be a problem with adjusting,” he said. “I’ve been involved with the national team since 1977, I don’t think I’ll have a problem.”

Not with players, maybe, but an Olympic coach must also be adept at smiling when he doesn’t want to. Making quick friends and slapping supporters’ backs.

“That could be a problem,” Barnett said. “Monte (Nitzkowski, 1984 U.S Coach) was so good at that. I might have to change a little.”