Interview with Coach Dante Dettamanti: Part 1

Trevor Freeman.
Water Polo Planet
09/01/12

As a water polo community, I often think we forget how blessed we are that the person I sat down with this month is truly a man of the people.  Think about it for a second.  In how many other sports, is a message board participant also arguably one of the best coaches his country has ever produced?  Do you see Bobby Knight chime in on an Indiana Hoosiers fan site?  Would Bobby Bowden ever debate the merits of playing a “nickel” defense on third down?  That is what this man does on a day to day basis and sometimes I think we forget that every time this person talks we are privileged to listen to a living legend.

There are only three times I have ever been nervous to talk water polo with a player or coach since I began discussing the sport for Water Polo Planet, NCAA.com and College Sports TV close to nine years ago.  The first was Wolf Wigo.  I idolized Wigo as a player and the first time I interviewed him for College Sports TV, I am fairly certain that I came across like some star struck Justin Bieber fan.  The second instance is the first time I spoke with USC’s Jovan Vavic and that was mainly because I consider him to be such a sharp water polo mind that I was petrified I would say something that embarrassed myself.  The final time came when Dante Dettamanti came onto “Talking Water Polo at the Planet” for the first time.  The entire hour was spent with me reminding myself in my head “don’t ask a dumb question….please don’t ask a stupid question….for the love of God do not say something foolish.”  I remember the exact words I said to my wife after the show ended.  They were “my coaches used to teach me the Stanford counterattack and now I just talked to the inventor, you can cross that off my water polo bucket list.”   

For those of you that are too young to know the many accomplishments of Dante Dettamanti, here is a brief summary.  In twenty-five seasons at Stanford University, Dettamanti led the Cardinal to eight NCAA Championships, six second place finishes and twenty-two seasons in which the Cardinal were ranked in the nation’s top four.  He won over six hundred games and his .800 winning percentage is an NCAA record.  He was NCAA Coach of the Year six times and has coached superstar United States National team players that range from Jody Campbell to Wolf Wigo to Tony Azevedo.     

The Water Polo Planet message board banter about the recent Olympics sparked what I hope will be an electric two-part interview with Coach Dettamanti.  In part one; we are going to focus on our performance in London and our National team program in general.  In part two, we are going to discuss Coach Dettamanti’s legendary career.

NCAA 1

You are clearly a legend of the game and someone whose opinion matters.  Can you tell us what areas you think the United States could have improved upon during their performance in London?

I’m not sure about the legend part; but I definitely have an opinion. Even though water polo has become more of a “big man’s game”, it still boils down to zone shooting. Everyone starts in a press; but eventually they end up in a zone, including the five on six zone. To be successful in modern water polo; you have to be able to get the ball past the player who has his arm up in front of you, and the goalie who is taking away the rest of the goal. I believe that this is where we fell short in this Olympics.

We really don’t have a lot of so-called power shooters; at least not as many threats as the European teams have. Tony is really our only big shooting threat; and even though he is a great shooter; I don’t consider him a power shooter compared to some of the big Serbs, Croatians, and the players from Montenegro and Hungary. Teams can stop him by pressing him; even on extra-man. Italy and Spain go against the grain of the “big” size water polo players from the Balkans; but they have some great shooters who know how and where to shoot the ball. The Europeans not only shoot the ball hard; but they do a great job of placing the ball, shooting cross-cage, over the goalies head, as well as low under the arms of the defense and the goalie.

The second part of shooting is confidence. We seemed to lack the confidence and aggressiveness that the Europeans had when they shot the ball. In almost every game we seemed reluctant to shoot in the first half; or missed a lot of shots in the first half. Consequently we fell behind by four to five goals at halftime of each game; putting ourselves in a hole that we could not get out of. We got more aggressive in our shooting in the second half of most games; but by then it was too late; the game was over.

Our defense, which is usually a strong part of the USA game, also fell apart in critical periods of each game. Not only were we giving up extra-man goals; but we uncharacteristically gave up counterattack goals, as well as goals from two-meters.

NCAA 2

I remember being taught the "Stanford counterattack" as an age group player.  You are to the counterattack what Bill Walsh is to the West Coast offense.  What is your thought on the way the games were played in London?  The games seemed very static to me with everything coming off the six on five.  In many different sports and areas of life, it is felt that if everyone is doing one thing, that you should do something else.  Do you think the United States should perhaps alter its approach and go with a more speed-based attack which would involve playing more man to man pressure defense along with looking to counterattack at every opportunity?

We used to have a swimming “advantage” over the Europeans; but now they have caught up to us. That doesn’t mean that we should stop stressing the counterattack as a tactical weapon. It is one of the easiest ways to score a goal. The counterattack is a matter of out-reacting the other team, and doing it on every possession. Most European teams pick and choose when they will counter, and don’t do it every time; but we don’t seem to even do that. I saw at least three teams score counter goals against the USA; so at least they are countering some of the time.

I can’t tell you how many times I would see both teams moving down the pool at half-speed on the counterattack. No wonder we are trying to shorten the course to twenty-five meters. A slow counter is really boring.  Every possession should be an opportunity to counterattack. If you don’t counter on every possession; then you will never create that one out of five to six times where you get a “free man” and a chance to score. In order to do this, teams need to be trained to counterattack. If teams are trained correctly, they can counter on every possession. When I worked with Ratko Rudic for a year with the USA team; we did not work on or stress the counterattack once during that entire year. That is typical of European coaches who stress front-court offense and defense, and six on five more than anything else.

Let me also say that in this day and age of zone defenses, it is much more difficult to counterattack; then it was we played exclusively in a press defense. Now-a-days, the “free man” comes out of the back line, from the wing defenders or the 2-meter defender. It can be done; but this makes it much more difficult to score on the counter.

NCAA 3

Let's say they made me the CEO of United States Water Polo and my first decision was to make you our National team's Head Coach.  What would your strategic plan be?

Because we cannot hope to match the Balkan countries in terms of size; we cannot tactically play the same kind of static game that they do. That is to pass the ball around the perimeter until you take a shot; or throw the ball into two-meters and draw an exclusion and then score on the extra-man. We cannot win that kind of game. I would stress more of a movement-oriented offense starting with the counterattack; and then finishing with drives at the end of the counterattack and in the frontcourt. You are still going to need a two-meter threat; but the movement game will increase the effectiveness of the two-meter game; because the two-meter player is also part of the movement offense.

I would also play a hard-nose pressing defensive game that hopefully would increase turnovers, limit the amount of time the ball is in the frontcourt, and limit the number of times the ball gets into two-meters. In addition, the press would also greatly increase our counterattack opportunities. I believe that this sort of game would be a better fit for the kind of players that we have in this country.  

 NCAA 4

If you were coach of the team, would you encourage players to go overseas to play in the various professional leagues or would you keep them here and have them train together for an extended period of time prior to large international competitions?

Water polo, more than any other sport, is a game of “situations”. What better way to learn to play the game and handle all of the different game situations than to play in a lot of high stress competitive games. This competition is not available in this country; so you have to go where the competition is, and that is in Europe, where all of the best players in the world are competing against each other every week. You are not going to improve as a player if you don’t experience these kinds of competitive situations over and over again. You are certainly not going to improve by only practicing among yourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of practicing together is required of every team; but to do what the USA did, and not play in Europe at all prior to the Olympics; and train together for nine months, just did not work. I didn’t think that it was necessary for these players to train together for that long anyway. Many of these players have been together since 2000, and have played in several Olympics and numerous World Championships and World Cups together. I believe that they knew each other very well. They didn’t have to “get to know” each other; they needed to compete. Big mistake by the USA!

NCAA 5

I remember the first time I casually mentioned this on the radio.  I was told after the fact that this idea would never happen because it would infuriate people overseas while annoying some parents over here.  That being said, I still think it is an outstanding idea and wanted to get your take.  It is common knowledge that most international players lose their spot on their country's National team totem pole when they decide to come to America for college.  My thought is that if Serbia will not play an Ivan Rackov (formerly of Cal), then we should work to get him naturalized so he can play for us.  USA Basketball has fielded notable internationals turned U.S. citizens in Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon.  USA Track and Field has also fielded naturalized talent over the years.  Why shouldn't we grab an Ivan Rackov or Balazs Erdelyi (currently of Pacific) and work to suit them up for us?

Good idea; but lots of problems associated with this. First of all, we don’t have the pull with the State Department to get the “quick” citizenship that is required to do this. Secondly, how many players would want to give up citizenship in their own country? Right now they have the best of both worlds, they can still go home and be citizens of their country, and still get a scholarship and their education paid for in this country. Not a bad deal. Lastly, while these players that come here do very well on our college teams; are they good enough to be on our National Team? Possibly some of them. If they are that good, then they will play for their own country, and have a chance to medal.  Rackov was not denied a spot on the Serbia Olympic team because he came to America; there were thirteen better players that beat him out.

The kind of guys we should go after might be an outstanding player from a country like Israel or Brazil or Mexico, where their country doesn’t have a chance to play in the Olympics. I know several players from Mexico who played for Germany, Perez from Cuba who played for Spain, etc. But then we are back to square-one with the immigration and citizenship issue. I don’t know the answer to this.

Check back for Part Two on September 15th.