USC’s Jovan Vavic is One of the Winningest—and Most Colorful—Coaches in Collegiate History

Relentless, loud, and eternally demanding, the Eastern European expat has built a water polo dynasty that rivals the Wizard of Westwood’s basketball crown
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As a fall sun slips behind the walls of USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center, the water in the main pool takes on a deep blue hue. It would be a dreamy scene except that Jovan Vavic, head coach of the university’s men’s and women’s water polo teams, is stalking the deck, arms slashing as if he’s attacking a cloud of gnats. His 36-member men’s team is cruising through a practice drill, rifling off shots from impossible angles that land crisply in the net. The athletes appear to be the picture of precision. To Vavic, they are a disaster. Rather than take the time to pass the ball to a teammate—a more measured approach—they are firing at will. In basketball it would be ball-hogging, and it’s made Vavic livid.

“This is not what the coach wants!” he bellows in a growl that sounds like pebbles being pushed through a paper shredder. At 54, he looks the part of a gently aging surfer, trim and tanned, with a swirl of hair the color of wet sand. He restarts the drill, only to find himself just as frustrated minutes later. The whistle shrills, and he explodes. He jabs his finger at each player, screaming at them the way Oprah might dole out automobiles:YOU took a quick shot! YOU took a quick shot! YOU took a quick shot!

The gesture, delivered with such a flourish, should be hilarious, but it borders on terrifying. His players float placidly, spartanlike in their silence. Not one of them dares to talk back or even mutter under his breath. There is hardly a ripple in the water. This is, after all, the man who lines up players along the outdoor pool deck and laces into them as they stand shivering. Who kicked a container filled with medicine balls so hard, he broke a toe. Who angrily drew a circle on a whiteboard, explaining that it was the empty dessert plate of a player he then blasted for being too slow.

The next day the Trojans demolish two opponents—Loyola Marymount and Cal Lutheran—by a combined score of 39-7. Under Vavic, the USC men’s water polo program has finished first or second in the nation every year since 2005. From 2008 through 2013, it won six national championships in a row. Vavic has been named National Coach of the Year 12 times, and his teams have won 13 NCAA titles, including 3 for the women. This fall he was declared the Pac-12’s Men’s Water Polo Coach of the Century. Yet his accomplishments are often overlooked in the vast athletic real estate at USC, which has produced more Olympians than any other university and engendered empires: Rod Dedeaux (baseball), Dean Cromwell (track), and John McKay and Howard Jones (football). Vavic has more titles than any of them. John Wooden’s mastery at UCLA is the clearest parallel in L.A. sports history; the Wizard of Westwood managed to amass seven consecutive championships.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Vavic’s methods are uniquely his. Brusque, exacting, sometimes cruel, he practices a coaching style more in common with that of the old triumph-at-any-cost Eastern Europe he grew up with than the new everyone’s-a-winner United States. He is, however, consistent in his demands, as willing to rip a 23-year-old woman as he is an 18-year-old boy—although, “if you’re still being criticized as a senior, you’re a dumbass,” he says. His Balkan-soaked accent twists the second syllable into oss, which has the effect of both softening and punctuating the profanity. “I’m sorry, but you are. Usually my upperclassmen aren’t getting criticized unless they are total dumbasses.”

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Jovan Vavic grew up in Herceg Novi, a small town on the Montenegro coast. Water polo has a long history in the old Yugoslavia, which gravitated toward and thrived on the game’s brutality. The sport fuses the close-quarters physicality of hockey with basketball’s fast-break frenzy and the high-wire tension of a soccer match. Above the water sculpted torsos bob gracefully as sinewy arms reach for the bright yellow ball. Below the surface legs and feet claw, kick, gouge, and punch for position.

Vavic was transfixed by water polo as a child. He wasn’t a great athletic prospect, but he was compulsive. Starting at age eight, he would spend upwards of six hours a day at the pool, first practicing with his youth team and then lying on the concrete to watch the older boys train. He’d run home for dinner and then return to study the senior club team until it was time for bed. His skills improved, but his climb also owed much to attrition. As the hours grew longer and the coach more strident, plenty of his colleagues burned out.

“Many people are not willing to push and wait for their chance,” he says. “Some of them wanted it immediately. Some had other interests. Some thought they had more talent than they did. In my opinion, they were quitting because it was hard.”

One by one he outlasted the competition, carving out a professional career with a top local team, Jadran. During the club’s off-season in the summer of 1984, he traveled to the United States, a place he’d become fascinated with through films and magazines. The East Coast was a disappointment, too gloomy and bustling. A friend persuaded him to visit Los Angeles before going home. It had the beaches and laid-back atmosphere of Herceg Novi but on a grander scale. There was a built-in group of friends—a dozen or so water polo players who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. He stayed, forsaking his pro career for a job waiting tables. The transition wasn’t as difficult as it might seem. “Where I come from, people work for 20 years to buy a car,” he says. “As a waiter, I had my own apartment, car, and TV in three months. I thought to myself, ‘This is pretty darn easy.’ ”

Vavic found his water polo fix attending college games until, three years into his L.A. residency, that wasn’t enough. He hoped to land at Palos Verdes High—he was enamored with the peninsula’s beauty—and became its head coach. Modeling himself on the tough but fair coach he’d competed for as a youth, Vavic quickly transformed the unskilled team, which then didn’t lose a league game for two seasons. In 1990, UCLA, his future alma mater (he would graduate in 1992 with a degree in history), offered him a full-time assistant position. Two years later he went to USC with the same title; six years after that, he won his first national championship as co-head coach with John Williams, who then retired.

Today Vavic lives in a sprawling house with an ocean view in Palos Verdes Estates. He treats his home like a gated compound (his wife, Lisa, refers to it as “the cave”), holing away upstairs for marathon tape sessions and endless tweaking of his game plans. His daughter, Monica, calls him the most prepared person she’s ever seen; by the time his teams take to the water, she says, “he knows what other people are going to do before they’re going to do it.”

In order to ready USC for its opponents, Vavic must first convince his own teams of the strength of his vision. “You would be amazed by what an 18- or 19-year-old who hasn’t won anything will challenge you with,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many championships you have. If you don’t embrace that challenge—‘I have to prove it to them’—you won’t continue winning.” Hence the long hours and the attention to detail. “That’s something you can’t fake,” he says.

There is also a sect of the sport that identifies Vavic by his bombast, not his titles, and disdains him for it. “For some people it’s just a complete turnoff,” says Stephen Siri, a captain on Vavic’s 2012 championship team. “They would never want to play for him. His personality is definitely very well known in the water polo world. I’d hear, ‘Good luck’ or ‘Oh, man, how is that?’ ”

Vavic’s bellowing and name-calling show little signs of abating, as do the tantrums that accompany his fury—especially when he loses. It’s one area where, by Vavic’s own admission, he has made no progress as a coach. “It’s actually worse now,” he concedes. “When we are so used to winning and have won so much, you forget what it feels like to lose. I wish I could handle that better.”

“Jovan hates being under someone else,” says Kostas Genidounias, the all-time leading goal scorer in USC men’s history. “He always wants to be on top.”

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A practice at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, which replaced the swim stadium used for the 1984 Olympics
A practice at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, which replaced the swim stadium used for the 1984 Olympics

Photograph by Carly Hebert

Vavic doesn’t enjoy the yelling. He views the program and all its parts—players, coaches, and their families—as a giant community he shepherds, a group he’d much rather smile and laugh with. Vavic has never cut a team member, which is uncommon in college athletics. Rather than chase away students, his flamboyant style has kept his rosters packed. The main knock on USC among recruits is that there’s too much talent.

The way Vavic sees it, he is beholden to all the players as much as they are to him. “It’s a responsibility to them and their families to make them into men,” he says. “It’s not only about winning, it’s also about developing young boys, who many times come to us selfish. Very few come selfless. If we have done something to make them about the team, then we’ve done something right.”

It especially bothers him when he has to shout at one of his tenured players for mindless behavior, but “I want them to be able to handle situations that are very tough in life. Everything in life is really a struggle. It’s not milk and honey.”

Away from the sport, Vavic is lighthearted and goofy, quick to laugh and quicker still when it’s at his own expense. “A gentleman,” Genidounias calls him. He surfs, skis, and shoots hoops with his kids, and every year the family vacations in Europe and Hawaii. Even during the college season, Sundays are for relaxation, and Vavic can often be found in front of his TV watching the NFL or the NBA, particularly the San Antonio Spurs. He doesn’t read books as much as he inhales them, anything from historical nonfiction to other coaches’ biographies (he finds similarities between himself and legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzew-ski), with the occasional “no-brainer” mixed in, such as the Clive Cussler book he’ll finish long before this story runs.

Hardly anyone knows this side of Vavic, which suits him fine. But the unintended consequence, he says, is that “most people don’t know that for me the most important thing is my family, and not winning.” It starts with Lisa, whom he met at reggae night in a Hermosa Beach club and married in 1990. Until he took over the USC women’s team in 1995, his salary was a pittance, and the young couple leaned on her job in computer sales to start their family. His two oldest children, Nikola, 23, and Monica, 21, helped him amass five of his national championships. Nikola was the 2012 National Player of the Year as a junior. Monica decided her father would be her coach when she was 13, after listening to him in the locker room the day his 2007 women’s team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament.

“My dad gave a speech, and I remember at that moment knowing I would never physically be capable of playing against my father,” she says. “He was apologizing to the girls for how hard they’d worked to come up short, and I just thought that there was nobody I’d ever seen in the world display so much passion for a sport. For anything, really. I felt like I wanted to become part of that.”

Nikola, on the other hand, believes that competing for his father “was predestined.” “I never really had a choice,” he deadpans. There are commonalities in Nikola’s and Monica’s games and those of their younger brothers, Marko, 16, and Stefan, 15—a creativity, strong work ethic, selflessness, and intelligence that transcend any physical gifts. They are rooted in lessons Vavic learned decades ago in Montenegro. “I looked up to the wrong people,” he admits. “I wanted to shoot the ball all the time and get the glory. As you get older, you realize how much of a dumbass you were, and I didn’t want my kids to be like that.”

The opportunity to nurture their talent is why he’s resisted an overture to head the men’s national team. At a time when most parents were adjusting to losing their kids, he saw Nikola and Monica more than ever. “I’m living the dream,” he says.

He hopes that his children, not the championships or his coaching style, will be his ultimate legacy. Yet he acknowledges that there will be some who regard him solely as the ruthless taskmaster on the pool deck who will do whatever it takes to put another title on his mantel.

That’s OK, he says. “I think it’s more interesting when they see you as a total asshole.”

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