On the verge of graduating from UC Irvine in 1983, John Vargas learned of an opening to coach boys' water polo at Newport Beach Corona del Mar High and decided to apply.
"I thought it was going to be a one-year deal, but as I got into it I started to enjoy it and it took off from there," Vargas said.
That was 18 years ago. Corona del Mar has won six Southern Section titles with Vargas and is 14-2 and the top-ranked team in Southern California this season--the coach's last before he leaves to take over the Stanford men's program on Jan. 1.
The Stanford job is a plum at the collegiate level. The quality of play is not at all new to Vargas, who for four years coached the men's U.S. national team.
"That's going to be a good situation for him," said Santa Ana Foothill Coach Jim Brumm, who coached Stanford's All-American junior goalkeeper Nick Ellis. "Everybody wants to go to Stanford."
Vargas will replace the retiring Dante Dettamanti and will inherit one of the strongest programs in the nation. The top-ranked Cardinal, with only four seniors on its 20-man roster, remained undefeated in 12 games this season by downing No. 6 Long Beach State, 11-6, Saturday, and No. 10 UC Santa Barbara, 9-5, Sunday.
In addition to Ellis, the Cardinal will have redshirt freshman Tony Azevedo, a three-time Southern Section Division I player of the year at Long Beach Wilson from 1997-99 who, at 18, was the youngest member on the 2000 Olympic team coached by Vargas.
Also expected to return is Peter Hudnut, a junior from North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake who was an All-American last season, when he led the team in scoring, but has been slowed this fall by off-season shoulder surgery.
"Timing is everything," Vargas said last week. "They have a great group of guys returning, a real special group, but there is a lot of work to do toward recruiting next year and the years after."
Vargas said recruiting is one aspect of the college game that is new to him, but it's something he can't take for granted, even at a school such as Stanford.
"[Recruiting] is \o7 everything\f7 in college athletics," he said. "At Stanford, the standards are so high, [a recruit] is going to truly have to be a student first and an athlete second."
Those who have watched Vargas over the years, both as a player and coach, predict he will continue his success.
"He has been successful on all levels, so I wouldn't expect anything different," said Brumm. Vargas began playing water polo at Hacienda Heights Los Altos High, then at UC Irvine, where he was a two-time All-American and in 1982 helped the Anteaters to an undefeated season and the NCAA championship.
While coaching Corona del Mar to four Southern Section titles and six final appearances from 1984-89, Vargas was also working toward his goal of playing in the Olympics, as had his older brother Joe, in 1980 and '84.
Vargas was the last player cut by Bill Barnett, then U.S. coach, before the 1988 Games, but he made the 1992 team that competed in Barcelona.
Barnett, longtime coach at Newport Beach Newport Harbor High and now an assistant with the Sailors, said Vargas acted like a coach in the water during his stints on the national team, so no one was surprised when he was named U.S. national coach in 1996, guiding the team through the Sydney Olympics.
All the while, he remained coach of the Corona del Mar boys' team, calmly sitting in his poolside chair during games, occasionally shouting directions that could barely be heard above splashing.
"He appears very calm and collected during games," Barnett said. "He doesn't get rattled and neither does his team. His kids fear him, and that's why they're so disciplined."
James Palda, who graduated from Corona del Mar in 1995 and went on to play at UCLA, said Vargas expects his players to match his work ethic. One of the reasons Palda chose UCLA was because Vargas said then-Coach Guy Baker expected a similar approach from his players.
"[Vargas] instills a lot of discipline in whomever he coaches at any level," Palda said. "That carried over to my college career."
Palda remembers Corona del Mar's season opener against Foothill in 1994. The Sea Kings were considered the top team in Orange County, and Palda said they showed up overconfident. They let a three-goal lead slip away in the fourth quarter, and Palda remembers Vargas calmly walking into the team room and unleashing a "tongue lashing" he'll never forget.
"You want to talk about when Vargas went crazy? It was that one," Palda said. "I think we swam for two straight days after that. We didn't even touch a ball."