Marko Pintaric has spent more than half his life in the USC water polo program, first as a player on the school’s first national championship team and then on the coaching staff for 18 seasons, the last three as co-head coach.
It was more an internship than a career. Whenever Jovan Vavic, who guided the Trojans to 10 national championships, stepped down, Pintaric would take over. No one ever said that. But everybody knew it.
“Johan and myself, we had those conversations,” Pintaric said. “That was my goal, to take over.”
He just never expected it to happen the way it did, with his dream job coming in the middle of a nightmare. Vavic, who helped recruit Pintaric to USC, was fired in March after being accused of signing two recruits who had never played competitive water polo in exchange for $250,000 from the students’ parents. Vavic pleaded not guilty but Pintaric was named his interim replacement just the same, becoming USC’s first new water polo coach in 24 years.
And nine months later he has the defending national champions on the verge of a 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA title game.
The second-ranked Trojans (14-5) meet Bucknell (23-8) in a quarterfinal Thursday in Stockton with the winner advancing to a Saturday semifinal against No. 1 Stanford. Fourth-ranked Pepperdine (24-7) faces UC Davis (16-7) in another quarterfinal with the winner playing Pacific on Saturday. This is the Waves’ 13th NCAA tournament appearance but their first since 1997, when they beat USC in overtime to win their only national title.
For Pintaric, 43, who lost the interim tag three weeks before the season opener when he was also put in charge of USC’s women’s team, the road back to the NCAA tournament has tested both his stamina and his organizational abilities.
Under Vavic, USC had as many as six coaches for its two water polo teams. Now there are three.
“There were periods where we were sleeping only four or five hours,” Pintaric said. “The whole staff. All of us. Everybody stepped up.
“[But] there’s a lot of stuff we couldn’t do. So we just had to prioritize.”
That didn’t work so well at first, with USC dropping two of its first seven games, then losing two more in October. The Trojans hadn’t lost more than four games in a season since 2015.
“We just needed time as a team to adjust and to find ourselves,” Pintaric said. “Where we would be in, let’s say, the spring, beginning of the summer, we were not there in August or September.”
The team still hasn’t caught up.
“It’s still not smooth,” said Pintaric, who came to USC from Croatia. “We try to do this day in and day out, and only [we] kind of understand the full picture, the full situation.
“What our athletes went through, it’s unprecedented and this will be really, for them to prove to everybody that, you know, they’re there when it counts most.”
Through it all the players never lost faith in the man they call Pinta. Although the school never asked the team whom it wanted to play for, co-captain Marin Dasic hand-delivered a letter, signed by everyone on the roster, to then-athletic director Lynn Swann, asking him to keep Pintaric and assistant Casey Moon.
“It was as shock, obviously. No one expected it,” Dasic said of Vavic’s firing. “But at the same time I think we reacted really good as a team and we stuck together.
“We really wanted Pinta. He’s dedicated to this work. He works his ass off. And he wants to win. He wants to continue doing the same thing that we did with Jovan.”
Dasic, a senior driver who is second on the team with 39 goals, said that continuity was important at a time when USC looked wounded and vulnerable.
“It’s been different. Definitely it’s been a change,” said Dasic who, like Pintaric, came to USC from Croatia. “But we stick to the same system, same working habits. We do everything as we did before because that’s how Pinta has been taught. Many people doubted us.
“But here we are, 15th year in a row again in the NCAAs.”
For most programs that would be victory enough. For USC, it’s just the first step. Next comes making it to the final Sunday for the 16th time in 17 years. And even that won’t be enough.
“People say, ‘Oh that’s good. You’re runner-up’,” Dasic said. “I don’t think that’s for us. Honestly if we think, ‘Oh second place is good as well.’ Uh-uh.”
Given what it’s taken to get here, he said, only a championship will suffice.
“If we win,” Dasic continued “this is going to be the most special championship in USC water polo history. And that’s the greatest motivation for all of us.”