Water Polo Travels With Doc

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

The title was stolen from a novel by John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie , by the way Charlie in the book is a dog. I know what you're thinking something similar to what Senator Benson said to Vice President Quayle, "I have read Steinbeck's work and Hunkler you are no Steinbeck." Since I am allowed to write about anything I please as long it has to do with water polo. I thought I would relate some stories on my water polo travels that have made me grin, and hopefully might do the same for you.

College Days

I went to Texas A&M to swim for Art Adamson a former New Zealand swimming and water polo champion, and I might add a coaching member of the US Water Polo Hall of Fame. I had no clue about water polo because I had never played it before; however, Coach Adamson had a rule that any one on a scholarship had to do long distance swimming or play water polo during the preseason of swimming. Since I was a sprinter the choice for me was a no brainer, so I began my water polo career my first year at A&M. (The funny part is in the next paragraph.)

After I completed the swimming season my freshmen year I stopped going to the swimming pool. Coach Adamson visited the athletic dorm two or three times a month, and on one of those visits right after swimming season he knocked on my dorm door. I said "Hi coach" and he said "Hunkler I haven't seen you at the pool lately." I said I thought that swimming season was over, and he said, "Have your scholarship checks stopped?" I said, "No, sir.", and he said, "Then your training doesn't stop."

I might add that Coach Adamson was a second father to me, and he awarded swimming scholarships on the basis of ability and financial need. I am afraid that all the other coaches in the Southwest Conference did not do the same. In those days we had a saying, "All the fast poor high school swimmers went to Texas A&M and all the fast rich high school swimmers went to the University of Texas."

(My proof reader and beautiful wife Billie said that I should tell you that I was offered a full scholarship and that I took a half scholarship and a waiter's job so that Coach Adamson could help another needy high school swimmer. And to tell you that the then Texas Senator, Lyndon Baines Johnson, sent me a thank you note for my generosity to the team - that letter, to me, is worth more than the cost of a full scholarship.)

Men's Water Polo

When I first started the men's water polo program at Slippery Rock University we had to practice with slick, brown, rubber, recreational soccer balls. The Monday after every away tournament an official yellow water polo ball would show up at practice. I would ask Dirt Ball, one of my players, where this ball came from and he said it licked his face a couple of times and then it followed him home. After practice I would deflate the ball, place it in one those large brown envelopes, and mail it back to its owner.

I had a player by the name of Bobby Mann who would shoot the ball from bad angles at the left and right wings (the 1 and 5 spots). Every one knew when he was going to shoot by the determined look he got on his face. When I saw that look on his face I would yell "Don't shoot Bobby; don't shoot", and my words were like Pavlov's bell causing him to shoot the ball. Ninety percent of the time that ball would go into the goal, and I would always yell, "Good shot Bobby; good shot!" And the bench would start laughing.

In 1983 the first time we qualified for the NCAA Championships we were a Club Varsity which meant that we followed the NCAA rules but that we were funded like a paltry financed Club Sport. In those days at every tournament we slept either on the apartment floors of our water polo alumni or on the floors of our parent's homes. We slept in the Slippery Rock Recreation Department's sleeping bags. Our budget was all of $2000, and we spent it all in qualifying for the NCAA Championships. The Athletic Department said they couldn't give us any money because we were a Club Varsity, and this was supposed to be the last NCAA Championship so the NCAA paid only for every team's airplane tickets.

Our Alumni in ten days raised enough money to pay for our food and our ground transportation, but not for our accommodations. I had an excellent player on the team by the name of John Barrett who lived in Irvine, California and his parents made arrangements for us to sleep on the floor of the Irvine Methodist Church's recreation center. (Actually we were going to stay on the floor of John's parent's home, but they sold the house three days before the start of the championships.)

At the pre-tournament banquet Pete Cutino the coach of Cal told me he was glad to see we made the championships and he casually ask me where we were staying. I told him and I said, "We don't play well if we don't sleep on hard wood floors." Pete then accused me of lying and when I convinced him I wasn't he walked away shaking his head, the way only Pete could do. A few minutes later Bob Horn the coach of UCLA ask me if Pete was lying about where we were staying and I said "No". He walked over to the table where the UCLA team was eating, knocked on their table very loudly, and said "Listen up; I don't want any one to complain about accommodations ever again because Slippery Rock is sleeping on a church floor." By the way both Pete Cutino and Bob Horn are also members of the US Water Polo Hall of Fame.

Swimming World published a long article about this 1983 NCAA Men's Championship, and in the article there were two team photographs - a small one of Cal the winners and a large one of the Slippery Rock team clowning around on a Jungle Gym. The headline for the story was above our photograph and read, "Slippery Rock Finishes Last in Possibly the Last NCAA Championship."

Women's Water Polo

My early teams loved to play tournaments in Boston because we were always given a floor to sleep on, we got to play in Harvard's all deep pool, and we got to eat at the No-Name Seaford restaurant. This restaurant would not take reservations and you had to wait in a humongous long line to get in but it was worth the wait because the seafood was par excellence and cheap. One time after eating there I went to pay the bill, and the women players said they would wait outside for me. Major mistake! When I got outside all but two were performing the chorus line from Moulin Rouge, and the two that were not dancing were passing around water polo caps to collect change from the crowd in the long line. They made enough to pay for a breakfast of bagels, bananas, and orange juice at the corner grocery market the next morning.

Before a tournament game I would always tell my women players I was going to put on my "coaching togs" which of course were my shorts and Slippery Rock shirt. At a US National Women's Collegiate Championship in San Diego before the first game my women players told me to go put on my new coaching togs. (They had given me a set of green warm-ups to wear because they said my legs were to skinny to wear shorts.) I should have suspected something was up but I didn't. I should also add that in those days I wore my glasses in those square, heavy set, black frames. Because when I came out of the dressing room my women's team was on the other side of the pool with their backs facing me. On cue and in unison they all turned around wearing fake black rimmed glasses with those enormous fake noses, and a player was holding a sign that read "We want to look like our coach!"

This might be one the National Tournaments we stayed on the floor at one of Denny Harper's rent houses. Then Denny Harper was the men's and women's coach at UC San Diego. He is now just the men's coach at UCSD. Denny Harper's women's team won five, yes I said five, US National Women's Water Polo Collegiate Championships and his men's team has placed as high as second in he NCAA Men's Water Polo Championships - not bad for a Division III team, and still he has not been elected by the good old boys to the US Water Polo Hall of Fame.

At a National Collegiate Championship at Cal the women's team slept on the TV lounge's floor in a co-ed dorm - the first floor was for the women and the second floor was for the men. I slept in the TV lounge but had to dress on the second floor. The last night of the championship I told the women I was tired of being surrounded by a pack of chattering women, and that I was going out with the other male coaches for some dinner and cold liquid nerve pacifier. I further told them the Captains and seniors were in charge of the team until I got back.

I got back at about eleven p.m. and when I walked into the TV lounge the lights were out and several women started to giggle - a bad sign. First I checked to see if they let the air out of my air mattress - they hadn't. Next I checked to see if they put cereal in my sleeping bag - they hadn't. Thus, I went to sleep, and the next morning when I went to get dressed on the second floor I found that the leg holes on ALL of my underwear had been sewn tight together. At breakfast several of the women asked me if I had a hard time trying to get dressed, and of course I told them no that I hadn't, which brought an extra smile to their wonderful faces.


The first story has to do with one of my early women's teams. It was a trip to a tournament in Toronto, Canada. When we had a lot of rookies (freshmen) on the team I tried to go to a Canadian tournament early in the women's water polo season to toughen them up and to make them more aggressive. In those days the FINA Rules allowed much more physicality than the AAU Rules. We were playing Se Foy in the last game for the championships. We had to win the game to win the championship and they could win or tie the game to win the championships.

We had this Canadian-biased, French-Canadian referee on the game. Our team was called for an offensive foul almost every time we had the ball, but in spite of the biased refereeing we were tied 1 - 1 with twenty some odd seconds left in the game. Lynn Comer-Kachmarik, another member of the US water Polo Hall of Fame, went on a break away to our offensive end of the pool, and since the Canadian's had the ball no one went with her. Well, our goalie stole the ball and made a perfect pass to Lynn. When Lynn reached the four meter mark she picks up the ball to take the shot and the whistle sounded. The French Canadian referee from back court stopped the game because he said that the Canadian goalie's cap was untied. This gave time for the Canadian players to recover and the game to end in a tie - Se Foy wins the tournament.

I ran over to the referee and said, "Par le vou English?", and he said, "Non". Then I said, "You are the cheatingest son-of-a-b***hing referee I have ever had on a game", and in clear and precise English he said, "I understand that!" I ended the conversation with a very loud "Good!" and stormed back to the dressing room. This is the same referee that a Toronto, Canadian coach threw the ball at when he lost a close game to a Montreal, Canadian team. This referee just didn't like English speaking players and/or coaches even if they were from his own country.

Two other short stories involved the referee Paul Barron, a member of the US Water Polo Hall of Fame. He is called the "Bear" and he looks like Mr. Incredible but his legs are much larger. The first story involved a four meter call in a men's game against Queens College. Paul made the call and I thought it was a bad call - of course Shelly Rothman, the coach of Queens, thought it was a good call. When the penalty shot was taken my goalie blocked it, and I yelled to Paul, "God knew that wasn't a four meter call." Paul almost swallowed his whistle from laughing so hard.

In the last story Paul had refereed half a men's season before he found out that he had to wear glasses. Right before an important league tournament Paul asked me if I thought the other coaches would make fun of him for wearing his glasses to referee in the tournament. I told him not to worry that when the coaches reached our age they too would be wearing glasses. In the first minute in the game against Navy, Paul made a four meter call, and Schofield was grinning like the Cheshire cat in the Alice In Wonderland movie; yes, you got it, another member of the US Water Polo Hall of Fame. I called time out before the shot was taken, borrowed a towel from one of my players, walked the length of the pool deck, handed Paul the towel, and said, "Here I thought you might need this to clean your glasses." He responded by laughing and saying, "Give me the number of the player you want ejected after the penalty shot."

Parting Shot

There is an old, cop, TV series called "Streets of San Francisco", and the show always started or ended with the voice over, "There are a million stories in the ." In water polo there are a million such stories as I have just written, and it is those stories and the people in those stories that make water polo such a grand sport. It is also what makes it well worth all the hours we spend, all the energy we expend, and all the money we lose to be a part of it. Viva la water polo!

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]