Corso Fights Current Amid Stream of Work : U.S. Water Polo Coach Finds Life's Rewards Despite Immersing Himself in 3 Jobs

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Rich Corso leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, as per a photographer's suggestion.

"Is that supposed to be a picture of what you do all day, Corso?" cracked Mark Maretzki, Corso's assistant for Harvard-Westlake High water polo team.

Corso--who coaches the Harvard-Westlake team, works in the Harvard-Westlake Middle School admissions office and oh, yeah, is the head coach of the U.S. National team--smiled slowly. Good one.

Corso lives in a kaleidoscopic water polo world, careening from country to country, job to job, practice to practice.

Today, as he does every year, he will attend the nation's high school water polo showcase event--the Southern Section Division I championship at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza Pool.

For a change, he won't be coaching in a championship match. A quarterfinal loss to San Clemente last week ended Harvard-Westlake's season, only the third time in nine years a Corso-led Harvard team hasn't advanced at least to the semifinals.

But Corso's season never really ends. Instead of watching his daughters, Meredith, 11, play basketball or Meghan, 6, play soccer, he observes and evaluates other young athletes for Olympic potential.

One of the top figures in United States water polo, the 39-year-old high school coach constantly prepares for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta--in this case, by scouting.

"There's probably a (future) Olympian out there," Corso said of the championship matchup between El Toro and Corona del Mar. "Watching the best young guys play is real important. It's good for potential contact.

"Of course, it's tough to sit there and watch two Division I teams go at it while your kids are sitting at home, but it's something you have to do."

It's something you have to do. So is working 17-hour days, holding down (in essence) three full-time jobs, traveling for more than 60 days last year with the national team to such places as Cuba, Russia, Greece, Spain and Portugal, and--hardest of all--going months on end without really spending time with his wife, Catherine, and two daughters.

Those are all things you have to do if you're Rich Corso. Some of his coaching counterparts in Europe, the cradle of the sport, are paid more than $100,000 annually. The Italian coach, Ratko Rudic, is rumored to make something between $275,000 and $500,000.

Corso's current salary as coach of the national team? $7,000. (Starting in 1994 his salary will jump to $40,000 as training intensifies).

Said Bruce Wigo, executive director of U.S. Water Polo: "There's no question that our national team coaches are grossly underpaid for what we ask them to do. I mean, you have Hungarian coaches who get Mercedes-Benzes as part of their coaching package."

Corso drives a black pickup truck--and himself into the ground.

"It's real difficult, with both of the girls getting older," he said. "I enjoy being at their games and their school functions. I like being a part of that. At times I'm not around as much as I want to be or should be, but it's a choice you have to make."

Each fall morning for the past two years, Corso has chosen to endure a frenetic workday that begins before 5 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m. The dizzying agenda includes three separate water polo practices: a pair of two-hour sessions for the Wolverines (from 5:45 a.m.-7:45 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.-5:30 p.m.) and a grueling two-hour evening workout at the Long Beach pool with the national team.

He squeezes his admissions and recruiting work for the middle school into the jampacked days. Ditto dealing with the mountain of administrative work, faxes, phone calls and assorted problems inherent in his coaching jobs. And, of course, he must prepare for each practice and each game.

"It's a pretty crazy schedule," he conceded. "But I talk to my daughter Meredith about (my responsibilities) all the time. Even though she's only 11, she has a pretty good grasp that her daddy doesn't just go to the office; he goes to the office and then coaches the Olympic team."

Given the circumstances, having one job isn't an option, so his personal life and time with his family are sacrificed.

"Sometimes he puts his family on hold," said Jim Toring, a former Harvard-Westlake player and member of the national team. "Sometimes he can't go to Meredith's games. He has to put off his own life for a few months at a time."

Currently, though, Corso is giving thanks for a brief respite, enjoying what for him is a full-fledged vacation: The national team is in the midst of a three-week break, and Harvard-Westlake's season is over.

"My day is more like a normal person's day," he said. "It's great. The other day I got to see Meredith's (junior high) basketball game for the first time in two months."

But a vacation is a relative term for him. His days still revolve around floating goals and yellow leather balls.

Monday, he returned from a four-day gathering of eagles in Colorado Springs, Colo., in which the head coach of every U.S. Olympic team met for seminars discussing training, tactics and the like. He will scout the high school championship today and the NCAA championships on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

A scant three days later, the national team will resume practice, and Harvard-Westlake's returning players will begin training for next season. Corso will be back to the water polo grind. But that is his passion.

In Kahlil Gibran's book, "The Prophet," the protagonist says, "Work is love made visible." Corso's love is visible at a glance into his cluttered office, decorated in Modern Chlorine.

Seventeen framed high school water polo All-American certificates adorn the walls. Two boxes filled with not-yet distributed gold-medal plaques from the 1993 World University Games sit on one desk. Olympic flags and championship banners cover more wall space, and Corso-authored training manuals are stacked in piles. As usual, a tape of a water polo game--this one the 1992 Olympic semifinal between the United States and Spain--is flickering on both television sets.

Sitting at his desk and reflecting on his hectic lifestyle, he seizes on its rewards rather than dwelling on the long hours or having to divide his attention among two teams, his family and his admissions job.

"It's very, very demanding, but even the dog days are good," he said. "The national team is the highest level of the sport. I enjoy working with that caliber of athlete and competing against the best coaches in the world. I mean, if you beat the Russians, that's a big accomplishment. If you go to Europe and tie or steal a game, that's pretty exciting. There's a lot of national pride."

And though the high school game is slow and embryonic compared to the split-second nature of the Olympic level, he loves that too.

"I'm not saying that I'm coaching inner-city kids, saving them from gangs," he said. "I'm not. But I can offer them a lot. I can make an impact on kids, teaching them discipline, work ethic and the meaning of the word 'No.' "

He doesn't use a velvet glove. "More of an iron fist," Toring said.

Harvard-Westlake goalie Peter Kiefer agreed: "Initially, I thought he was a real dictator. But we all realize he's the best coach we'll ever have. For him to put in that much time for a high school team, it's really kind of an honor."

Corso already has served as an assistant for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, coach of the U.S. Junior National team from 1985-88 and coach of the Canadian National team in 1991-92. He is blunt, confident and very demanding. Fellow coaches and players agree he is an innovative thinker and formidable strategist.

"There are not many people I would accept being an assistant coach for," said Ricardo Azevedo, who applied for the national team job but was offered a job as Corso's assistant. "But I would for Rich."

Added Terry Schroeder, the national team captain from 1983-92 and Pepperdine coach: "I really respect (former Olympic coaches) Monte Nitzkowski, Bill Barnett and now Rich for the time they put in despite the lack of financial reward. Really, the only reward is seeing the team come together and being one of best in the world."

For Corso, such benefits are enough to revolve his life around water polo. He accepts its difficulties, works through them, and always, always focuses on the game.

Focus is the key, he says, and tells a story from his days as coach of the junior national team.

The Russian team was playing one year in the World Junior Championships. There were 17 players on the bench watching the game. Somehow, a large glass water bottle behind their bench fell and shattered, scattering shards all over the pool deck.

Not one player on the team turned around to see what the noise was, Corso says. "They were totally focused on the game. Seventeen kids from our country would have turned and been, 'Oh, my God,' and lost their heads."

Corso strives to be like one of those Russian kids, sitting on the bench, watching the game and not hearing the breaking glass.

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