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USC's Jovan Vavic makes a big splash in water polo

Coach uses a strong personality to impress his style on men's and women's teams, which have won a combined 10 NCAA titles in the last 14 years.

February 16, 2012|By David Wharton
  • USC Coach Jovan Vavic roams the sidelines during a scrimmage against UCLA last month.
USC Coach Jovan Vavic roams the sidelines during a scrimmage against UCLA… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

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.

Starting over

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.

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