When I was first starting out to coach water polo, ad Infinitum + 2 seems like the number of times I tried to teach the fundamentals to some of my players. At first I thought these players weren’t smart enough to learn what I was teaching them. But then I learned the truth. It wasn’t that the players were not smart enough to learn the fundamentals but rather it was me not doing a good job of communicating how to do the fundamentals. Communication is so important and sometimes so difficult to achieve in water polo that many times the coach tries to blame his or her miscommunications on others. If you learn how to communicate with players, coaches, referees, and fans then you and your program are going to be winners regardless of your win and loss record.
In fact that is what these “Water Polo Travels with Doc” articles are all about. I am trying to communicate how great it is to be a part of this grand sport of ours. If I can communicate how much my life has been enriched by being a part of water polo and if I can entice enough people to become as excited and passionate as I am about this game then maybe, just maybe, my grandchildren will get a chance to see and play this game.
When I attended Texas A & M about 99% of the students were in the Corp of Cadets and not only did we march into Kyle Field for home football games but we also marched into the stadiums of away football games. Once when we were playing Rice University in Houston, my home town, both of my parents were at the game and when my company entered the stadium my Dad turned to my Mom and said, “Lil look at Dick’s company everyone is out of step but him”. I often wondered why the Corp of Cadets didn’t march into the swimming pool for our water polo games?
In my Dad’s and Mom’s eyes, at that age, I could do very little that was wrong. In fact all my friends used to kid me by saying that my Mom believed that my sh*t didn’t stink. For four years my Dad never missed a home or away swim meet in which I swam. Probably one of the most disappointing things in my life was that my three sons never got to meet and know my Dad. He was 52 when he died of lung cancer and I would be willing to bet $1000 Dollars to one of my Dad’s grilled pork chops that the book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, was written about him.
Men’s Water Polo
I had a goalie by the name of Lee Bettis who eggbeated to a different drummer. His junior year he got into an altercation with a vending machine and he was to be suspended from school in the middle of the water polo season. He was an A and B student so I pleaded with the Vice President of Student Affairs not to suspend him. I told the Vice President that he could live at my home. He agreed with the condition that all dorms on campus would be off limits for Lee for the remainder of the semester.
Thus this was how Lee came to live in our attic and how he came to be an adjunct member of our family. He had one video, “Lone Wolf McQuade” starring Chuck Norris which he watched what seemed like an Ad Infinitum + 2 times. Almost every time the TV was not being used he watched this video. Making a long story shorter than the two nano seconds I watched this video my oldest son, Wynne, a three time All Conference Mid-Atlantic player for the Rock, came home one extended weekend to visit the family. The minute he walked upstairs to his old room he asked what was that funky smell.
Lee was in class so Wynne went into the attic and found all of Lee’s clothes in piles on the floor. He said some of them stunk as if they had been worn several times but hadn't been washed for several months. Wynne placed all of the clothes in a dirty bed sheet and when Lee got home from class Wynne marched Lee to the closest Laundromat and made him wash all his clothes. Wynne also had a talk with Lee and do you know what – that funky smell completely disappeared. That was the year we beat Navy at Easterns and went to our first NCAA Championship. Lee was the goalie that in the last few seconds of the Navy game was singing, “California Here We Come”.
Lee was not the only player to live in our home. When we were a club we used to every year let a player live at our home and the player received free room and board. To my wife’s chagrin the players used to call it the “Hunkler Scholarship”. I told you my wife, Billie, was an Angel of Mercy because she not only put up with me, the three boys, but also the players on both teams. It would take a long time to count the number of players to which she was a surrogate mother and it would be impossible to count the number of meals she cooked for water polo players.
The first player given the “Hunkler Scholarship” was an outstanding young man and excellent water polo player by the name of David Rottoff. He would eat anything Billie cooked except black eyed peas and guacamole. He said the black eyed peas tasted like sand and the guacamole looked like throw-up. He never told us why he wouldn’t eat these foods but told some players and they told us. He never complained about anything in fact when I went to wake him for morning practice one winter morning he was sleeping under the covers in his winter coat. After some extensive questioning we learned that he had been doing this all winter. He was so grateful for the free room and board he wouldn’t tell us that the window was stuck open about an inch above the window sill. We still think of David and Linda, his wife and a player on our women’s team, as being a part of our extended family.
Women’s Water Polo
When we first started our women’s program there were not many girl high school programs in the country so we ended up having to teach over half of the women on our team how to play water polo. By the way these players, male and female, that learned their water polo from the pool up at the Rock were called “home growns”. Many of the women had never played a contact sport and so many of them had to be taught not only the game fundamentals but also how to be aggressive.
Of course there were exceptions and one of them was a girl named Donna Decarlo. Donna was a pretty girl with long skinny arms and legs. When she swam with the ball you didn’t dare get close to her elbows because they were like mountain climbing picks that would bruise you to pieces. She used those elbows the way a great virtuosos used a Stradivarius violin to make music. She never started any rough stuff but she always finished the rough stuff that opposing teams started. Out of the water she was a debutante in the water she was a Godzilla monster. Her nick name was “Nails”.
It took us two years to make Kelly Billish aggressive and once she became aggressive she made the US Senior National Team and her younger sister Erika Billish came to the Rock aggressive and had no trouble making the US Senior National Team at a younger age. I found the best way to make our women aggressive was to give them an object lesson. Every year before the start of our collegiate season I would enter them in a tournament in Toronto, Canada so they could play four or five excellent Canadian Club Teams. We played NCAA Rules most of the year and the Canadian Club Teams played FINA Rules which were much more physical than NCAA Rules at that time.
Most of the Canadian players were not dirty players. If there were some then there were no more than the number of dirty US players. They were just tough, aggressive, physical players who played similar to most international players. You did not, I repeat, did not get close to Canadian Club players who were backstroking with an eggbeater kick. One of those eggbeater kicks to your mid-section would not only lose your breath but also keep you from finding it for almost a full quarter. And the French Canadians would rather grab your swim suit than have all of Canada speak French at that time. The first time I took a team of eleven women to a tournament in Canada we had ten torn suits by the end of the third game. Thank goodness two women brought needles and thread are we would have had to forfeit the last two game not for lack of will but lack of presentable swim suits.
Coach did this work? Well, in 1990, 91, and 92 we placed third in the Division I National Women’s Collegiate Championship. In 1993 and 94 we placed second and in 1995 we placed first – the only team outside of California to win a National Women's Collegiate Championship. In most of those years we attended a Canadian Club Tournament at the start of our collegiate season. “Thank you” or “Merci beaucoup” to the Canadian Club Teams for helping my teams to play better.
I have been asked many times when I coached who was my favorite referee and I always took the Fifth Amendment because I didn’t want to incriminate myself or the team. Now that I reflect back on my coaching career I still don’t have a favorite referee but what I do have is an amalgamate of referee character traits that would create what I would think of as my ideal referee. Here goes.
My ideal referee would have the following characteristics (in no special order):
Humor of Bret Bernard and Andy Takata
Deck presence of Paul Barren and Felix (John)
Consistency of Mark Koganav and Sandy Nitta
Calmness of David Alberstein and Alan Huckins
Book smarts of Loren Bortocci and Rob Corb
Passion of Aaron Chaney (covert passion) and Dave Heck (overt passion)
Unflappability of Brad Peavy and Lynn Kachmarik (flappable means to me to become unhinged)
Deck tolerance for coaches of Paul Barren and Felix (John)
(Oh, Oh, I am starting to repeat referees so I had better quit while I am behind!)
Remember: Communication is a two way street and if you try to force it into one way street then you are going to miss half of all those ad infinitum + 2 conversations about water polo that either you didn’t listen to, or worse, you didn’t have.
Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]