The last week in September, 11 countries and Orange County will go head-to-head in Seoul, South Korea, for the Olympic gold in water polo. Well, almost. Half of the U.S. players are from Orange County, as is the coach--especially the coach.
His name is Bill Barnett, and he coaches water polo and teaches math at Newport Harbor High School. When he was interviewed by CBS-TV during the 1988 Pan Am Games, the sportscaster--who had obviously done his homework--asked Barnett if he were out of the coaching mold of Bobby Knight, Indiana University's volatile basketball coach. Several months later, overseeing a practice of his Olympic team at the Harbor High pool, Barnett was still aggrieved at the question. "I don't see myself that way," he said plaintively. "I don't go around throwing chairs."
A review of Times clips over the past decade, however, might lead one to disagree. He's referred to repeatedly as a "drill sergeant" and a "tough disciplinarian" who has frequently had to deal with complaints from parents who say he is too rough on their teen-agers. But Barnett has consistently provided the one sure antidote to this kind of criticism: He wins.
In the 22 years he has coached water polo at Harbor High, Barnett has reached the California Interscholastic Federation 4-A finals 17 times and has won the state title 10 times. He is so universally respected in his field that, in 1984, he became the only high school coach to be appointed head coach of a U.S. 1988 Summer Olympic team.
I caught up with him recently at 7 a.m. at the Harbor High pool where he was preparing to put his charges through a routine Barnett three-hour workout. The team members--13 tall, lithe, tanned Californians and one import from Hawaii--were warming up, and Barnett climbed into the bleachers flanking the pool to talk. He is medium-sized, flat-bellied and walks with slightly hunched shoulders as if he's in a perpetual hurry. His uniform of red swim trunks, red baseball cap, dark glasses, sandals and a whistle seem to be grafted on.
Sports Illustrated referred to him in a recent article as "taut and terse." Terse he is, but taut he wasn't--at least not on this day. His team had just taken four out of six exhibition matches from a touring Yugoslav team that will be one of the major U.S. opponents in Seoul, and Barnett was mellowed out. At least for Barnett.
He's aware that water polo isn't exactly crowding football and baseball as a major American sport, so he's pleased at the exposure it will get to a huge American TV audience during the Olympics. "We've had competitive water polo programs in high school in California since the early 1930s," he said, "but it's never been very popular in other states, even where there were strong swimming programs. The main reason it's been slow to grow is the reluctance of a lot of swimming coaches to let water polo get established. They just plain don't want swimmers to play water polo. But that's beginning to change. Now it's starting to catch on all over the country."
Until the last few years, the United States has never challenged for world leadership. The best it could do was a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. But the United States won a silver in 1984 and is now playing on a par with its three chief rivals: the Soviet Union, Italy and Yugoslavia. Only 12 water polo teams make the Olympics, and the United States qualified with a fourth-place finish in the 1986 world championships.
Barnett refuses to assess his team's chances. "I predict we'll arrive there on Sept. 14 and start play on the 21st," he said tersely. "Beyond that, I don't make predictions."
He's happy, however, to explain some of the finer points of water polo to those who may be watching the game for the first time simply because it's an Olympic sport.
"Water polo," he said, "is difficult to understand because there are so many whistles. There's a lot of body contact, and the officials have to keep control, so they blow a lot of fouls. When a whistle blows, action continues, but the man committing the foul has to drop off the player he fouled and give him a free throw. If a player commits a major foul--like holding a man under water--he has to get out of the playing area for 35 seconds or until a goal is scored.
"Most of the scoring is done close to the goal as in basketball, which water polo resembles in many ways. The goalie can't go beyond half-tank, and on offense we try to work it into the man in the center so he can draw a foul or pass it off to a swimmer cutting for the goal. The action never stops unless a player is ejected."