Below is Part Two of our interview with Dante Dettamanti. If you missed part one, please click on the following link, HTML_Trevor_pages/tf52_Interview_Dante_Dettamanti.html
When you look back at all the games you were involved in, which ones stand out the most?
There are actually two games that stand out more than any of the others. Winning a championship is always a big game, and my first NCAA Championship in 1978 was big because it was the first one, and it was also an amazing game. We were playing Cal (with Coach Cutino) that year, and they were loaded with players like Kevin Robertson, Carlos Steffens (Maggie’s father), etc. We had three outstanding seniors, and the greatest goalie that I have every coached (John Gansel) in the cage; but we were also trying to win with three freshmen who had little college experience. Of course one was future Olympian Jody Campbell who was about 6’1” and 165 lbs dripping wet as our starting 2-meter player.
Incidentally, most people don’t know this; but Campbell was hit by a ball just three days before NCAA’s, and split open the webbing between his thumb and forefinger on his shooting and passing hand. He played three games heavily bandaged and with a splint between the finger and thumb; until he ripped it off for the final game. We were losing by three goals in the second half, when freshman and future Olympian Alan Mouchawar came off the bench and scored three goals to tie the game. In overtime, Gansel made some great saves to keep the game in hand; and finally Mouchawar (again) hit Doug Burke (84 Olympian) on the counterattack to win my first NCAA Championship.
The other game that I will forever remember was at the 1985 NCAA Championships against UC Irvine and Coach Ted Newland. In 1983 I started five freshmen (with future Olympian Craig Klass at 2-meters) because of graduation losses. We had the only losing season in my twenty-five years at Stanford that year, and did not qualify for NCAA’s. These same players came back in their sophomore year ’84 (with the addition of a freshman and another future Olympian Erich Fischer from Reedly, Ca) and placed second.
Now here we were in the finals in 1985 against UCI, who was the favorite to win the title with future Olympian Jeff Campbell playing at two-meters. We did not start well, and once again found ourselves behind by three to four goals in the second half. We fought back and tied the game in the fourth quarter, with the lead changing hands at last four times in the last few minutes of the game. Finally, with about ten seconds left in the game, UCI scored the go-ahead goal; and you could see their team celebrating on the bench. By then I was out of time outs; but we lined up at half with the idea that we would try to get the ball to Klass in the hole.
From half court, everyone swam down into the frontcourt except for our smallest player, 5’8” and 150 lb. sophomore from Newport Beach, Matt Tingler. He swam down the left side of the pool, where nobody was paying attention to him, and received the ball at about seven to eight yards with only a few seconds left on the clock. He had the presence of mind to look at the goal, saw the UCI goalie a little out of the goal to cover Klass, and threw a seven-yard lob over his head to tie the game. I will always remember that shot as the most beautiful shot in my coaching and playing career.
As the game went, we went into overtime, and we scored the winning goal on a pass from (who else?) Tingler to Klass, the first NCAA Championship for these players who had a losing season when they were freshmen, two years before. Two other games that stand out for me includes the 1993 NCAA’s against Cal; when we came from six goals down in the second half, almost won the game on a break-away in the fourth quarter, and lost by a goal in sudden death overtime.
I have to also include the Championship game of the 1979 World University Games in Mexico as another big one. We took a bunch of college kids like future Olympians Terry Schroeder (Pep), Jody Campbell (Stan), Peter Campbell (UCI), Doug Burke (Stan), and Greg Boyer (UCSB), goalies John Gansel (Stan) and Jack Graham (USC), John Dobrott (UCSB), Dave Myers (Pep), Jeff Stites (UCLA) and Marty Davis (Stan) and beat the National teams (not their University teams; but their National Teams) of Yugoslavia and the USSR to win the gold medal; the first gold ever for a USA National team in modern International Water Polo.
An outstanding argument can be made that your 1986 NCAA Championship team is the best of all-time. They won their second straight NCAA title that season and did it in style as they went 36-0 to cap an NCAA record forty-five game winning streak. That squad also won by an average score of 14-5. Can you tell us about that team and what made them great?
There is always an argument of which teams were better, my 1980 and 81 teams that won back-to-back championships; or my 1985 and 86 teams that also won back-to-back. Both the 1981 team (31-0) and the 1986 team (36-0) were undefeated. It would be difficult to choose between them; but I will be diplomatic and say they were both the best teams ever at Stanford in the past fifty years or so.
The 80 and 81 team had three Olympians (Campbell, Mouchawar and Bergeson) and great goalies (Gansel should have been an Olympian and Vince Vanelli), while the 85 and 86 teams had two Olympians in Klass and Fischer, and another great goalie in Todd Kemp; while David Imbernino was an Olympic alternate. Both teams had great depth and very few weaknesses at any position; but I would have to say that the 85-86 team had a stronger second unit, with players like Olympic and World record holder in the 100 fly, Pablo Morales, coming off the bench.
The accomplishments of all of these players after they graduated from college was even more amazing; with the edge in this category going to the 80 and 81 teams. It is hard to argue with five players from 80-81 who went on to become doctors, Steve Smith became an Astronaut (walked in space twice and repaired the Hubble telescope), and John Tanner became the highly successful women’s water polo coach at Stanford.
You coached two players in Wolf Wigo and Tony Azevedo that I consider the two best American field players of the last twenty years. Can you tell us a little about both guys and what made each special?
You would have to add Jody Campbell to that mix of the best ever at Stanford, and best in the country. We have had a lot of great players over the years, including twelve players who played in the Olympics; but Campbell, Azevedo and Wigo stand out as the top three. Those three were different kinds of players; but they all had several things in common that made them stand out from the rest.
First of all was their fierce competiveness. Those three, along with Craig Klass, were the most competitive athletes I have ever coached. They would do just about anything to win a water polo game. Wigo had a herniated disc that was scheduled for surgery in his sophomore year. He really couldn’t train that hard during the season; yet he gutted it out and led our team on the counterattack and goals scored. Azevedo played the whole 2001 season with a broken ear-drum; but only missed one game. Campbell was our starting two-meter player as a 165 lb freshman and played the NCAA’s with a split web between the thumb and forefinger.
The second thing that stood out was their “feel for the game” and their ability to “see the entire pool”. Their game instincts were incredible. They were always one step ahead of everyone else. It was like they knew what was going to happen before it happened. This is something that you can’t coach. These three were born with it. This goes along with a great passion for playing the game of water polo; which they all had.
Lastly, they all had the ability to make their teammates look better. They all were all great passers who would just as soon set up their teammates for a shot than take the shot themselves.
It was my great privilege to coach them. Heck, I just gave them the ball and let them play, trying hard not to screw them up too badly.
When you reflect on your coaching career, what experiences were the most gratifying?
Probably the most gratifying experience in coaching is to take a bunch of great athletes, and mold then together into a functioning unit that has the capability to win championships. I have had the privilege of coaching some of the best in our sport. Along the way we were able to win a lot of games and a lot of championships. I am proud to say that I have been able to produce championship teams at every level that I coached. The athletes had a lot to do with my success; but someone had to put them together, and get them to play together as a cohesive unit and with a cohesive game plan.
I know you recently coached at Menlo-Atherton High School and also spent a season coaching in New Zealand. Would you ever consider coaching again at the NCAA or international level?
I have coached at every level, both as a head coach and assistant coach; but the one thing that I feel I never had a chance to do was to be the head coach in the Olympic Games for the United States. During the era when I was at the peak of my coaching career, I had a great interest in coaching the National Team. However, during that time, US Water Polo had a policy of not using college coaches to coach our Olympic Team. They felt that a college coach would use that position in order to recruit players to come to his school.
As a result, almost all of the USA National Team coaches during the past fifty years have been Junior College or high school coaches. Pete Cutino from Cal finally broke the barrier in 1973-76; but when the USA team failed to qualify for the 76 Olympics, there went that opportunity out the window. Under the leadership of USWP CEO’s Bruce Wigo and Chris Ramsey, the barrier was finally broken in 2000 by a foreign coach Rudic, followed by Baker, Azevedo, and Schroeder, all college coaches.
Being head coach of the US National Team is the only position that I would still consider doing.
Well there is a revelation that adds spice to the search for a new United States Men’s National team head coach. What is often ignored in life is that the easiest decision is usually the best one. Those are the decisions that are guided by your “gut”. Thinking too much often overcomplicates. Instead of baking a perfect cake, you end up overcooking it. We have expounded on his ideas for the National team and his successes on The Farm. The argument for Dante Dettamanti is even simpler than the five thousand words spent on framing this man and his genius. Dante Dettamanti is arguably the most accomplished American coach that is presently available and interested.
When USA Basketball needed a hero after a disappointing 2004 Olympiad they turned straight to Duke legend Mike Kryzewski. The same move should be made here. Offer the job to your sport’s living legend. I know it is a bit presumptuous for someone who has always been an NCAA guy on a macro level and a Fordham University supporter on a micro level to weigh in here when I have probably spent a thousand words talking about college water polo for every single one that I have used discussing our National teams and USA Water Polo in general. However, the success of our sport begins at the top and that is with our National squad. The decision that is made will impact all levels and it needs to be the correct one. Make it easy USA Water Polo. Get the decision behind you and move on. The role needs to be filled as soon as possible and there is no choice that would be more unifying and better received than this one.