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One of the brightest young minds in American water polo is not at USC. Or Stanford. Or Cal or UCLA. Alex Rodriguez—known as “A-Rod,” just like the notorious former baseball player—is the head coach for the men’s and women’s teams at Pomona-Pitzer, a Division III program located 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
During his decade in Pomona, Rodriguez’s teams have enjoyed noteworthy success, including multiple trips to the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments. Following a year-long sabbatical—including a trip to the Rio Olympics—as the top assistant to Dejan Udovicic, head coach for the U.S. Senior Men’s National Team, Rodriguez returned just in time to guide the Sagehens to the 2016 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship. In the spring of 2017 Pomona-Pitzer’s women also qualified for NCAAs, their fourth appearance in six years.
In many ways, Rodriguez has been preparing to be one of the nation’s top coaches his whole life. A walk-on at Pepperdine who became an integral part of the Waves’ 1997 NCAA championship team, he graduated to Terry Schroeder’s assistant, a position that led directly to his current Pomona-Pitzer position. Hard work and choice opportunities have led him up the USA Water Polo ladder from youth coach to a prominent role on Udovicic’s staff.
With his team out East for the Harvard Invitational, Rodriguez spoke about his learning curve in the sport, a young U.S. men’s squad’s myriad challenges, his Sagehens’ quest to again make waves in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and how tenacity, diligence, and devotion have given him a prominent role with Team USA as they look to qualify for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
You are “Alex Rodriguez,” and there are many people with that name. But there’s one Alex Rodriguez—commonly known as “A-Rod—who is universally known for his major-league baseball career. Is it tough to live in the enormous shadow he casts?
A funny story is I have a high school friend, Matt Wise, who played major league baseball. When he was a senior in high school, he went to travel ball and met Alex. He came back and told me: “There’s a guy with the same name as you and he’s great at baseball!”
I laughed it off. I just figured he’d never make it big because it’s so hard for baseball players.
And now you go by “A-Rod”?
I used not to like people to call me A-Rod, but I just gave up. And now both of my kids are A-Rod: Austin Rodriguez and Addison Rodriguez.
You were a successful player at Bonita High School and at Citrus Junior College who walked-on at Pepperdine.
I was a 2-meter man in high school. What 2-meter man doesn’t want to be coached by Terry Schroeder?
I went there on a down year. Jack [Kocur] and Alan Herrmann red-shirted, I transferred in from junior college. It was great. I don’t know if I would have gotten the playing time if it wasn’t for this scenario. I was the leading scorer my junior year and an All-American.
Senior year was amazing. Merrill [Moses] was a sophomore; Jack and Alan came off redshirt. Jeremy Pope came in and suddenly we went from really bad to really good.
We started the season ranked fourth or fifth and had to play Stanford at home, and then again a few days later at the SoCal tournament. We beat them both times and then we had to play Cal, who was #1 that year to start off.
I still remember that game against Cal [an 8-6 Pepperdine win]—that was the first time we believed we could win the national championship. We rode that for a long time, only lost one game until Mountain Pacific [Sports Federation tournament] and lost three games all year. It was pretty special for us.
We played USC in the NCAA final [an 8-7 OT win by the Waves]—and just had our twenty-year reunion. Most of the players came back. It was great to see everyone again and be honored during a Pepperdine vs. UCLA game.
What was it like being coached by Coach Schroeder?
Terry is such a good guy. I’ve had some very fortunate opportunities and some amazing people in my life as coaches.
He has a command of men that I haven’t seen anyone else has. He makes you feel like you want to play for him. I learned a lot about presence and leadership from Terry. [After graduation] I came back and was his assistant for three years. That was a great experience for me because Terry’s a chiropractor, too, and I was able to do a lot of the management stuff for the team [including] budgets and travel arrangements when he was out.
Those three years at Pepperdine as Terry’s assistant were great teaching for me. I feel like I got to do a lot of things that a head coach normally does, but I also had Terry in the background, overseeing me, making sure I don’t overstep my bounds or make mistakes.
As you’ve moved up in esteem within USA Water Polo, you’ve become one of the leading decision-makers for the U.S. Senior Men’s Team.
I owe Coach Udovicic a lot. He looked at my resume and said: “You coach here, you coach here, you had success here; you’re a coach!”
I was appreciative, but honestly, I’ve worked my ass off to get where I’m at. I was hired as a youth junior coach—and I expected as a youth and junior coach to be at every national team practice I can.
The first couple of weeks he didn’t even talk to me. [But] I wanted to earn my way on his staff if I could. I was going to try to be available, work hard, learn and the last four years I’ve learned so much.
One of the things I feel in our sport is that professional development is non-existent. We had Nikola Malezanov of Washington Jefferson come to Australia; we had Bryan Suhovy of Fresno Pacific as a videographer for our Russia trip. Teddy Minnis from Harvard was with us for world championships. They got to sit in on meetings and get to absorb [things]. We need more of these opportunities in our sport.
Are there things that need to change in time for Tokyo in 2020?
The plan for 2020 is separate from my feelings about how the country’s growing water polo. There are issues in our college men’s program. My Pepperdine team won 20 years ago. Which non-Pac-12 team won before that?! UC Irvine? UC Santa Barbara? There’s only a handful—and how many men’s teams are there in this country?
It’s now 49 and growing…
But there are over a thousand colleges and universities [in America].
I’m not trying to point fingers, but at the end of the day, the growth of the sport here has to be a priority to somebody. A long time ago Dan Sharadin was active in that. I would like to see that part of it grow. There are times when it appears we’re growing [the sport] but I don’t know if that’s true.
How can we make certain that our men’s senior team is fully prepared to win?
I was talking to Tony Azevedo about the Final Six [European professional championship] and asked him: “How many American players in the last 20 years have played in the Final Six?”
We had three. Did you know that the Serbians had 11 or 12 of the 13 on their [2017 FINA World Championship] roster that played in 2017 Final Six?
It’s simple: it’s about the experience and playing. Americans play a lot while we’re in college, though in spring we’re not playing. And it’s not like football where college players can make a lot of money. These kids have to study. Several college players finished finals in mid-June and then joined us. What kind of shape were they in?
All those Serbians, they’re playing professionally at the highest level of the game—in Final Six—and then they go to their national teams.
There are so many loaded dynamics. The 2016 European Championships—that was a fantastic tournament. Where do our guys go for that kind of experience? Intercontinental Cup?
I know we lost to Japan. And I don’t have an answer [for that]. I’m not a person to ever pass the buck.
Except for that game, we had a pretty successful summer. We went into a shootout with Serbia; McQuin Baron played out of his mind in that game. We went into a shootout with Italy. We handled Russia—and if you take away some of the extracurricular activity, we had an opportunity to win by seven.
All of us own up to what happened with Japan. If we had our more experienced players, and if there was more motivation for those experienced players to play—but also a better system for us. European Championships is a fantastic tournament. It’s such an experience, especially before the Olympics.
Hungary put [Krisztian Manhercz]—who is the same age as Ben Hallock and Thomas Dunstan—on their team. They got to give him experience before the Olympics and test him out. He stuck with the Olympic team.
Sometimes I wonder: where will we get those high-pressure situations for our players?
I’m a simple person; you train, you play. How you train is how you play. You put yourself in pressure situations; sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed, you keep doing that until you’re good at it.
I can tell you that Final Six is a completely different type of pressure. When you put money behind it—it’s a completely different kind of pressure than an NCAA championship.
I’m an NCAA champion, and I can tell you; the Olympics for players in other countries is a whole different kind of pressure. If they don’t do well in the Olympics representing their country their performance is connected to their contract for a professional club.
This is the problem: I don’t see our guys getting enough high-level competition consistently throughout the year. High, high-level competition, like where you’re ‘living and dying,’ based upon the outcomes.
Besides getting them consistent, high-level competition, what does it take for the U.S. to retain its best players?
I feel like things are very easy to see if you look at them. The salaries [in European professional water polo] are going to affect more people from Australia and U.S. The cost of living here is way greater than living in Hungary and Serbia.
I just don’t know if our kids want to go live in Europe.
One thing I’m disappointed about [is] my parents are from Cuba. My mom wanted to have me here. I’ve always been brought up with love for this country.
Regardless of how I felt about anybody, I would always support the national team. That’s my flag, and this is the country that’s given my family a fantastic life.
Representing our country in Brazil was the proudest moment in my life.
We do have certain dynamics that are different, but that’s the one thing that’s been hardest for me. I don’t mind the criticism; I’m not a very sensitive guy. At the end of the day, I’ve seen people get things unjustly. You can complain about it, or when it’s your turn, you can take advantage of your opportunity.
That’s what I always preach, and that’s what I do. I had an opportunity to coach with the national team, and I’ve done everything I can to take it and learn from it and get better. I’m continually trying to get better. And now I’m trying to help my colleagues get better.
We can talk about how great [Adam] Krikorian is, or Dejan is but, there has to be a solid base.
And our base as a sport can be a lot higher. I love this sport, and I coach it all the time. I would love to see it better in this country. I’d like to see our athletes have an opportunity—I’d like to see McQuin play in four or five Olympics if he wants to, and not have to sacrifice financially to do it.
Bringing it back to the U.S. college game, you’ve got two teams—men and women—that you coach at Pomona-Pitzer. Both teams have a pathway to NCAA championships. What will it take for your men to return to the tournament?
This is probably my best team individually because of my athletic director, Lesley Irvine, who has changed everything for me at Pomona-Pitzer. More than anything, she brought passion to me [when] she asked: “What can I do to help you win?”
I didn’t have that before.
She wants to make water polo like every other sport in our conference. In DIII it’s very common to have double round-robin—that’s your conference champion—in a four-team tournament for an NCAA qualifier.
She keeps saying that people will follow you better [if we have this], and she’s right. We’re in the SCIAC conference with everyone—football, baseball, etc.—plays in. Everyone understands when we win SCIACs.
When UCLA wins MPSF, the average person is mystified. “Why aren’t you Pac-12,” they say. That doesn’t sound as well as winning the school’s conference.
For us, it’s winning the conference and getting the bid. My goal is to keep moving up the ladder. You can see it in my freshmen who came in last year: Joe Schafer and Jacob Niskey. They produced right away, and they give us some depth.
This year with Dylan Elliot and Adam Gross we have water polo players. I used to have players that played water polo.
I’m excited. I have great kids who want to learn, want to get better. Some people wonder if I struggle to go from Tony Azevedo to [our kids] and I don’t. I just love teaching the game and love individually breaking it down. It is great to be learning.
I love teaching and coaching the game. Pomona gives me that opportunity [as well as] the flexibility to do the national team. Summers are open because we’re not allowed to coach [college athletes] then. My AD has been flexible with me missing parts of the season. This was the first time in my seniors’ career that I was here for pre-season and the beginning of the [regular] season.
I missed last year for Montenegro. I was on sabbatical the year before for Olympics. The year before that I was in Kazakhstan with the national team. I’ve been given some leeway, which is nice.
Talk about your roster, which is drawn from all over the country.
Some of my best kids… a Greenwich kid doesn’t play as much as a SoCal kid. I look at athleticism and again, I don’t mind coaching.
James Baker [graduated from Pomona-Pitzer in 2016] from Greenwich, is a perfect example. Another guy who played here: Jason Cox [2013 graduate] from Maryland. He was possibly my best player. Christina Williamson, she’s from Washington.
You take athleticism, and you coach it. Do I take the fourth or fifth SoCal guy off the bench who’s gotten the best coaching and is tapped? Or do I look at a kid who’s athletic and work with him? I have Riley Mangan on my squad right now. He’s 6-4, swims in my first group, throws the ball hard, strong as an ox. Doesn’t know how to lift, doesn’t use his body… I guarantee you that by his junior or senior year he’s going to be a player.
This is one of the advantages I have. If Riley goes to a DI, at that level, they’ll bring in a freshman who’ll match him. These kids get in the water immediately with me.
I do a lot of individual skills. I don’t assume a kid knows anything. We go over individual skills and put it all together. I’ve got some talented kids—who didn’t play water polo as seriously as they could have—to produce.
Baker’s a perfect example. He was a good goal scorer when he came in. His overall game developed and now he’s playing professionally in Spain.
To me it’s about life; you use water polo to travel right after college because once you get a job and have a family, you can’t do that anymore.
Water polo’s a great conduit to meet people and do things you don’t normally do.