Wagner Is Eager to Pop Cork on Princeton's Untapped Talent : Water polo: Former standout goalie from Corona del Mar has no head coaching experience, but he's not letting that stop him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone must have spiked his drink, because Newport Beach's Jim Wagner is hearing things.

Wagner, a former water polo standout at Corona del Mar High and Cal, looks up from a steaming cup of espresso and squints, as if his eyesight will compensate for what he believes is some sort of hearing impairment.

The questions: "What happens if you don't win right away? What happens if you lose? " have been posed.

The squint has evolved into a look of befuddlement. Now that he has heard right, Wagner doesn't understand the concept behind this line of questioning.

"What if we don't do well," repeated Wagner, who honestly can't bring himself to say lose. "What do you mean? We'll do great. I know that sounds obsessive, but I'm confident we'll achieve the goals we set out to achieve."

The question intrigues him, although he hasn't thought about losing for even an instant.

"I hope this doesn't sound arrogant, I just have never experienced (losing)," he said. "I don't know what I'd do. If you've ever seen Bobby Knight, I'd probably (react) like that."

Inaugural jitters be damned.

When the Princeton varsity men's coaching job opened this year, Wagner didn't hesitate to submit his application. When the school offered him the job in April, he didn't hesitate to accept.

"I thought about it for half a second," he said.

Wagner, 23, leaves today for New Jersey. (As of Tuesday afternoon he hadn't packed as much as a razor blade.) With the challenges ahead, this is a journey he eagerly awaits.

And if Wagner is nervous about the road ahead, they are nerves of steel, because he's not the least bit apprehensive about what the future holds.

After all, he's holding the future.

"It is an interesting situation to me," said Wagner. "It was something I wanted. I did a lot of research on the team. I felt I had as good a shot as anyone. There were guys who were older than me, but they didn't have the experience I had. I sold myself. I was confident."

The 1988 Southern Section and Times player of the year and 1990 All-American had reason to be. Wagner has won at every level at which he has competed.

In three seasons at Corona del Mar, the Sea Kings won two Southern Section titles. In addition, Wagner was the goaltender during a record 41-game winning streak from 1985-86 that is still tops in the section. And in five seasons at Cal--his last as an assistant coach--he was a part of four NCAA championship teams.

Wagner's biggest failure was a fourth-place finish by his 19-under junior national team at an international competition in France.

These statistics didn't just impress Princeton officials, they were the key to his hiring.

"To have someone who has been to NCAAs five straight years and won four championships, that's why I'm there," he said.

Princeton may be a program on the rise, but where Wagner's going hardly compares to where he has been. Last season marked the first time Princeton qualified for the NCAA tournament, where it finished last in the eight-team field.

But Wagner expects his West Coast training will rub off on his East Coast trainees immediately.

"As much as I'll have to change, so will they," he said. "They'll have to realize they have to start doing West Coast things to have success. They can't keep recycling the same old East Coast things."

Wagner said comparing East Coast water polo to the West Coast game is similar to sizing up American professional basketball to its European counterpart.

"There are some European players who can come over here and play and be successful, but there aren't many teams that could do the same," he said.

But how does he plan on a continued reversal of fortune?

Small changes, even something as seemingly trivial as videotaping their games and those of future opponents.

"When I tried to find tapes of other teams and even of Princeton, there weren't any," Wagner said. "It was pretty discouraging. Something you don't think is that important can make a big difference."

Having seen Princeton's 1992-93 team play, he is convinced he is inheriting a talented bunch whose potential is largely untapped.

"They're incredible athletes and they're motivated," Wagner said, "but they haven't had the coaching. They can only improve as much as their coach can teach."

Which some believe is considerable.

Corona del Mar veteran coach John Vargas has overseen Wagner as a player and a coach.

"He's a student of the game, that's what will make him a great coach," said Vargas, who didn't blink when Wagner was hired with no previous head coaching experience. "Nothing Jim does surprises me."

Like coaches with more experience, Vargas said Wagner has a good handle on what it takes to mold Princeton into a contender.

"He's gung-ho, but he knows he has to change things slowly, but surely," he said. "That's a great way to approach it. It takes most people his age a long time to realize that."

As the youngest known coach of a Division I program, Wagner is aware of the resentment some players may feel by having someone almost identical to them in age, telling them what to do.

"There could be room for animosity," he said. "But as long as we have an understanding of what we're trying to accomplish, I don't think it will be a problem. I'm there to help them, to teach them things that will make them better. I don't have anything to prove as a player, only as a coach."

Because of the age similarities, Wagner said he can relate to the difficulties a student-athlete faces.

"I won't be out of touch with them, because I've recently been through it myself," he said.

And he has recently been as competitive--and successful--as he wants his players to be. For this reason, Wagner has tried to prepare himself for any frustration that might arise.

"You always want to be in a situation where you have an effect," he said. "I'll have an effect because of what I coach them, but it may be tough because I can't jump in and do it myself."

Do what, exactly? Wagner doesn't rule out an NCAA title entirely, but logic prevails and he amends his first-year expectations.

The questionnaires he sent to his returning players came back with a prevailing common goal.

"We want to beat a California team and we want to be competitive in every game," he said. "These guys have been overachievers all their lives, getting to Princeton proves that. It kills them that they're not better in water polo. And it kills me."

With talented athletes, it's simply a matter of time until Princeton is consistently competitive with teams from the West.

"I'd like to say we could get to the next level the first day," he said.

Said Vargas: "While he's there, he'll have the best East Coast team, no doubt. Taking it to the next level is a matter of time. I think he's (patient), but in some sense, I wouldn't want him to have patience."

Wagner would eventually like to see more high-profile West Coast players going to Ivy League schools, but again, he knows it's not going to happen overnight.

"You're certainly not going to lose anything academically by going to a Princeton," he said. "But they feel like they will lose something athletically. I would like to get to the point where they feel they can come without losing anything."

Under Wagner, it's likely they won't.

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