UCLA long has had one of the nation’s most dominant water polo programs. The Bruins won NCAA titles in 1969, 1971 and 1972 and finished third or better 12 times since 1963. Of 11 players on the 1972 Olympic team, six were from UCLA, including five starters.
Yet UCLA will eliminate water polo as a varsity sport in the fall.
The implications are disturbing to many of the nation’s top water polo coaches, including Stanford’s Dante Dettamanti and Cal’s Steve Heaston, both of whom have said that UCLA’s decision could damage the sport’s prestige.
But these coaches might benefit from the Bruins’ demise, particularly in terms of recruiting players from the Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley areas.
Brian Border of Harvard High and Kevin Driscoll of Agoura are considered two of the top water polo recruits in this year’s class. Each considered Pacific 10 Conference power UCLA as a top choice. The opportunity to stay close to home appealed to them.
“I imagine this must be devastating to them,” said Bob Horn, UCLA’s water polo coach of 28 years.
Border was accepted by UCLA two days before the school announced the water polo program would be dropped. Although Border was not certain he would attend UCLA, an attractive option was lost. Now Border has narrowed his choices to Brown, Stanford and Cal.
“It was bittersweet,” Border said. “I know I am going to a school that has water polo. (But) this has really hurt me. They were in third place in the NCAAs last year and getting better, and now, just like that, it is gone.”
Driscoll also thought highly of the Bruin program.
“UCLA was such a major program,” he said. “Now the closest place is UC Santa Barbara.”
Driscoll, who said there had been a strong possibility that he would attend UCLA, is deciding between UC Santa Barbara and Cal.
Horn, who retired as coach a few days after the 1990 season ended but before the school dropped the sport, is upset because the university never gave the program an opportunity to find alternative funding. UCLA dropped men’s water polo, and men’s and women’s crew as part of budget cuts designed to reduce the athletic department’s $3 million deficit. When the announcement was made March 8, Horn organized a movement to save the program and reduce the team’s expenditures. His efforts will not help Driscoll and Border, but they might help save the program for team members with eligibility remaining.
Former Harvard stars Justin Cheen and Damon Willick fall into that category.
Willick transferred to UCLA from UC Santa Barbara in 1989 hoping to play for a national-championship contender. A torn rotator cuff kept Willick out this past season, but 1991 was to be his season to contribute. Now, he might never get the chance.
“I think I might be done,” Willick said. “I transferred once and it’s a tough transition. I don’t know if I want to do that again.”
Harvard High Coach Rich Corso, an assistant at UCLA from 1977 to 1986 and a potential candidate to replace Horn if the program is revived, said the decision to drop water polo disturbs him.
“Not so much for personal reasons, because I had not decided if I was going to take the job anyway,” said Corso, who said he has been interviewed by UCLA, “but it seems to me, if there is a problem, you don’t amputate, you try and fix it. This program has done more than succeed in the pool; they have a great academic history as well. GPA and academics are never an issue with that team, they almost always have the best cumulative grade-point (average) of any team.
“The people who played there have gone on to be doctors and lawyers, and they are now coming back asking, ‘What can we do to save it?’ But I think it may be too late.”
Even if Corso cannot coach in Westwood, he still might get a chance to work with many of the players. Corso said that 15 Bruin players, including Willick and Cheen, have contacted him to see if there is room on his Harvard Foundation club team, the nation’s strongest. They do not see transferring as a viable alternative this late in their college careers.
Corso, a pivotal figure in water polo’s rise in popularity in the area, believes UCLA’s decision will affect the upper echelon of local players.
“The Valley is only going to flourish, but nationally this takes one of the great powers away from a limited amount of choices already,” Corso said. “Local kids have grown up with UCLA on their mind and for them, this is a disaster. The programs here will do well, but the kids have one less opportunity.”
Said Driscoll: “By dropping water polo, UCLA said that water polo isn’t an important sport, like basketball or football. That might make people think that they should choose to play something else. It’s too bad. Water polo is a really fun sport.”