JOVAN VAVIC BUILT A WATER POLO DYNASTY AT USC—AND THE PERFECT MECHANISM TO ADMIT FRAUDULENT RECRUITS
IN 2008, Michael Rosenthal graduated from high school as arguably the best water polo player in Florida. A first-team All-America, he had won the state title, but, Rosenthal says, "I wasn't a top recruit.... I'm not saying I was completely off the radar. But the best water polo player in Florida, in a given year, is probably an average player in California."
The Golden State is the hotbed of American water polo. It's where the best players come from and where the top college teams reside: Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC. Rosenthal ultimately chose the Trojans and their legendary coach, Jovan Vavic. You could call Vavic the John Wooden of water polo—and its Geno Auriemma, too. Since 1995, Vavic won 16 national titles (10 with the men, six with the women) and 15 National Coach of the Year awards.
That meant Vavic could recruit practically anyone he wanted, and USC would give him leeway to sign a large number, especially on the men's side. The NCAA mandates that teams can only carry 16 players in the championship tournament and limits schools to 4½ scholarships for men and eight for women, to be divided however the program wants. But the NCAA does not have a roster limit. Often, Vavic would bring in hordes of male recruits, apparently just to see who would pan out.
In 2008, for instance, Vavic signed 22 freshmen, bumping the men's roster up to 51. Only six of those freshmen received playing time that year. The other 16, including Rosenthal, redshirted.
Now, why would Vavic carry a roster that large? Well, know this: Everything about his program had a purpose. Vavic drew from other coaches he admired: Phil Jackson. Tom Osborne. Wooden. "He'd take these philosophies," Rosenthal says, "and then put his own Eastern European water polo twist on it." After learning about his alleged involvement in the college admissions scandal, we now know his purposes weren't always above board.
Vavic, a UCLA grad and former pro in his native Yugoslavia, made players evaluate themselves in front of the team and attend regular meditation sessions. He studied film obsessively and was constantly coming up with innovative play designs. And like many successful coaches, he was also paranoid. Vavic would practice his best plays in the summer, and then shelve them until the NCAA tournament. "We always had very specific plays, almost like a football team," says Matthew Burton, another freshman in 2008. "That was very different from a lot of the coaches in the collegiate system."
Vavic would often work with his top players at one end of the pool, while his assistants schooled the redshirts at the other. He would weed out the weaker players with his grueling practices, his grating coaching style and hours of "punishment" swims.
The redshirts who stuck around acted as the team's cheering section at games and were given odd jobs, setting up goals and filling Gatorade coolers—like ball boys, Burton says.
Vavic got results—USC's men finished their season ranked No. 1 and the women are currently No. 1—but on March 12, Vavic was arrested as part of the bribery scandal and promptly fired. He is accused of signing two fake recruits, who had never played competitive water polo, to help them get into USC, in exchange for bribes from their parents. According to an affidavit filed by federal prosecutors, Vavic worked with Donna Heinel, a USC associate athletic director, and a man named Rick Singer, who operated a college counseling business and a purported charity.
According to the affidavit, Singer would create an "athletic profile" for a student, complete with falsified stats, doctored pictures and even fake awards. Then Vavic or Heinel, accepting money from Singer, would present the profile, along with those of actual water polo recruits, to a USC admissions subcommittee that reviewed incoming athletes.
It appears USC took Vavic at his word, not that abnormal in collegiate water polo. One former D-I coach says that when he submitted his list of recruits, his superiors just accepted it. Not every school has the time or resources to conduct background checks on small-sport recruits. There is no centralized database for water polo recruiting, either.
Vavic could be convincing too. In one case, he e-mailed a USC athletics administrator that one of these fake recruits "would be the fastest player on our team," that he could swim 50 yards two seconds quicker than his fastest. It was a total fabrication. USC admitted the student two days later.
It's unclear whether either of the fake recruits saw the pool or where the money paid on their behalf—the going rate appeared to be between $220,000 and $250,000—ended up. Singer allegedly made private-school tuition payments for Vavic's children. But Singer also told a parent, in a wiretapped conversation, he believed that Vavic used the money to "subsidize" the salaries of his assistants, who did so much work to keep his dynasty going. (None of Vavic's assistants have been charged.)
It seemed like the perfect crime. If one of the fake recruits left the team, no one would've noticed because of all the usual attrition. Says Burton: "I'd say there were usually five to six guys [that dropped out] every year."
Rosenthal stuck it out and played four seasons after his redshirt year; two of the other 15 who redshirted with him in 2008 completed their eligibility. They ended up leaving USC having won five consecutive national championships.
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD