Even from a distance, the man catches your attention.
Hovering close to the pool’s edge, he stalks back and forth, throwing his arms into the air, thrusting his hips. Moments of intense silence — his eyes like pinpoints — give way to outbursts.
“No, no,” he hollers. “Is anyone listening to me?”
Jovan Vavic is just warming up, just getting started with practice for the women’s water polo team at USC. His players tread water, heads bobbing above the surface, listening to a voice that booms deep and thick with an Eastern European accent.
The rumble of jets on approach to Los Angeles International Airport is no match as he demands proper technique — “Up, up, up” — for receiving a pass.
“Do you hear a single thing I said?” he yells. “Because you sink like cement.”
Not many Southern California sports fans would recognize this 50-year-old coach or even know his name. Water polo is obscure enough that he remains largely anonymous despite a recent string of championships that has pushed his career record into John Wooden territory.
Yet, within the confines of the sport, his reputation is too big to ignore.
A rival coach recalls hearing about Vavic before their teams first met, people telling him “this guy’s a maniac.” Players come to USC hungry to win but mindful of his reputation.
“There’s this whole stigma about playing for Jovan,” says Nadia Dan, a senior on the squad. “It’s supposed to be scary because he’s going to break you down.”
Vavic uses words such as “battle” and “warrior” to describe the game he loves. He speaks of teaching American kids the true nature of water polo.
‘What it takes’
Those words — battle, warrior — make more sense if you go to the town of Herceg Novi in Montenegro, where Vavic grew up. Water polo was as popular there as the NBA is here; boys were drawn to the pool as soon as they could swim.
The game loosely resembles basketball as players race back and forth across the water. The team with the ball passes it around, looking for a chance to hurl it by the opposing goalie, while defenders do everything possible to prevent a score. That includes pushing, pulling and kicking beneath the surface, which explains why referees constantly blow their whistles for fouls.
Size is a valued commodity in this physical contest; neither large nor naturally gifted, a young Vavic found other ways to succeed.
“It was survival,” he recalls. “I ended up making it because so many other players quit. They were better than me, but they didn’t work as hard.”
His junior team coach, Baro Dabovic, believed athletes should pay their dues in training sessions that stretched for hours. If that sounds familiar to the men and women at USC, Vavic — who coaches both teams — acknowledges modeling himself after Dabovic.
“Not an easy man to play for,” he says. “But he really understood what it takes to win.”
After a stint with the junior national team, Vavic played for Jadran, a top professional club in his hometown. It was during the summer of 1984, in the off-season, that he took a break by visiting the United States.
A big fan of American films and magazines, the 23-year-old expected to enjoy himself but didn’t much like the East Coast. He says: “I was homesick. I wanted to get back for the start of water polo season.”
With his vacation ending, a friend suggested a quick trip west.
Los Angeles changed everything. After a few days of sunshine and beaches, Vavic says, “I fell in love. To me, this was paradise.”
The young man never returned home, extending his visa and starting over in a new country. That meant waiting tables and working his way up to manager at a series of restaurants. It meant getting married and having four children.
But leaving water polo behind wasn’t so easy and, after a few years, he sent letters to high schools across Southern California, volunteering to coach. Palos Verdes High had an opening, which seemed like fate to someone who still acted like a tourist exploring Southern California.
“I was always driving around in that area and it was a dream,” he says. “All these houses that were a million-bucks-plus.”
Some of the boys on his team had never seen a water polo match, but they were eager to learn, which was all the new coach needed.
“I remember how seriously he took the game, which made us take it more seriously and want to do well,” says Phillip King, a Palos Verdes player in the late 1980s and now a teacher. “He came in and we won all our league games for two years.”
UCLA hired Vavic as a men’s assistant in 1991, paying him $4,000 a year, which meant he still had to work nights at a restaurant. USC lured him away the following season.
With his salary at $15,000 — and his wife, Lisa, earning good money in computer sales — he could make water polo a full-time pursuit. USC soon promoted him to co-head coach and then head coach. In 1995, the school asked him to build a women’s program from scratch.
The men had yet to win a championship but were establishing themselves as a national power. The women were another story.
“I was walking around the pool deck, looking for anybody who could swim,” Vavic says. “We had only one girl who played water polo before. We had some skiers.”
The record book shows eight consecutive defeats to start the inaugural season, including a 20-3 loss to California. The funny thing is, Vavic grins when he talks about that spring.
“It was a challenge,” he recalls. “And I like challenges.”
The men captured their first national championship in 1998; the women followed in 1999. Over the last 14 years, they have won a combined 10 titles and Vavic’s peers have named him coach of the year 10 times.
“Jovan is remarkable for the way he prepares his players,” says Christopher Ramsey, chief executive of USA Water Polo, the sport’s national governing body. “He’s got an incredible ability to teach the fundamentals.”
Any questions about his standing in the game were answered in December when the USC men won a record fourth consecutive NCAA title. But that was two months ago, which seems like light-years to Vavic as he guides the women into a spring season in which they trail Stanford in the national rankings.
With evening shadows stretching across the pool, the powerfully built coach thunders through practice, shaking his head and puffing his cheeks in disgust. His team is working on ways to attack Stanford’s defense and, for the moment, his displeasure is aimed at sophomore Kaleigh Gilchrist.
“Please, please,” he says in an exasperated tone. “We have discussed this a million times.”
Before she came to USC, veteran players warned Gilchrist: You have to be a tough person to go through this program. The talented surfer figured she could handle it, but all that yelling is only part of the challenge.
“It’s kind of eye-opening,” she says. “You realize that you didn’t learn as much in high school as you thought.”
In addition to being loud, Vavic is known as a tactician, demanding that his team react to ever-changing situations amid the bedlam of splashing water.
“The system here is like a machine,” Dan says."Play by play is broken down and Jovan is a perfectionist.”
Players must turn their shoulders precisely when making a pass; they must learn every page of a thick playbook. Upperclassmen know to encourage newcomers who struggle with the physical and mental demands.
The grind left an impression on former men’s player Will Agramonte, who has turned Vavic’s tirades into a stand-up monologue at local comedy clubs and wants to write a movie with Liam Neeson in the lead role.
“I just take the funniest verbatim quotes,” says Agramonte, who looks back proudly on his time with the team. “There aren’t any you could put in the newspaper.”
Gilchrist has acclimated to the rough language. It is early in the women’s season — USC has a 3-1 record so far — and she leads the team in scoring.
“You have to buy into it,” she says of her coach’s style. “My goal is to never get the same thing wrong twice in one practice.”
Like he was
Mornings are spent drinking coffee and gazing at the ocean from his home in Palos Verdes Estates, the place he once dreamed of. Away from water polo, Vavic is affable and quick to poke fun at himself, a voracious reader who buys a dozen or more books at a time.
His oldest children — Nikola and Monica play for the Trojans — see two halves to the man.
“There’s a pretty big difference,” Monica says. “The way he switches to ‘Hi, sweetie, how are you?’ throws people off.”
This warmer side has, over time, influenced his coaching.
Back in the late 1990s, “he was having some problems with the commissioner and he’d been ejected from games,” says Lou Tully, the women’s coach at San Jose State. “That’s not a good thing.”
Calling himself “young and stupid” then, Vavic suspects his confrontational style scared away some recruits and alienated referees to the point where too many calls went against his team. Only after he grew calmer, picking his battles with officials and players more carefully, did USC begin winning championships. Of course, “calmer” is a relative term.
“This is a physical sport and you don’t accomplish anything by saying please and thank you all the time,” he says. “You have to push.”
Therein lies the secret to his success. The boy who once fought to improve himself as a player has become a coach who teaches the finer points while retaining much of that fire.
“I don’t know if you ever get used to it, but you accept it and embrace it,” Dan says. “You realize what he’s doing for you.”
Players who stick with the program say they come to love his passion and the work ethic he instills in them. Rival coaches ultimately respect him because, as Tully puts it, “his record stands all by itself.”
So there is no quit, no complaining, as Vavic makes the women repeat an offensive set time and again in a practice that stretches past two hours.
They churn through the water as if it were a matter of survival. They are learning to be as tenacious and smart as he was back in Herceg Novi.
“We can do this,” he hollers at them, “if you would just listen to your coach a little bit.”