Already established as one of the top collegiate coaches in water polo annals, UC San Diego’s Denny Harper recently added to his formidable legacy with career win No. 500, Sept. 20, against Cal Baptist. His 2008 club has positioned itself for a November run at an unprecedented 15th Western Water Polo Assn. (WWPA) championship which would bring with it a berth in the NCAA Final Four. The Tritons are 14-9, ranked seventh nationally and own victories over Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Navy, among others. Now in his 29th season at UC San Diego, Harper took time recently to talk about his team, his career and his sport.
Q: What did win No. 500 mean to you?
HARPER: To be fair, I think if you do anything for over 25 years you’re going to have 500 of something. In this case it’s 500 wins, which is certainly better than 500 losses or 500 disciplinary moments. It has made me a tad more reflective, but not much more. It does cause me to spend a moment thinking about how many great players we have had here at UCSD.
Q: Will you be around for another 500? What are your career plans at this point?
HARPER: Doubtful. If we do the math it took me 28 years to get 500 wins, if it takes another 28 years that will make me around 81. And don’t think I will (or should) be coaching at 81. As far as when I may be done, as long as the University wants to continue to have me in this role, I can see myself going for quite a while longer as it still is one of the greatest jobs a person could ever have and I think our teams remain year-in and year-out very competitive, despite not competing on an entirely level playing field.
Q: What motivates you to continue coaching?
HARPER: I get hooked on the players. I think I’ve accomplished a great number of team and individual goals over the years, but the one thing that never changes is I get connected with my players and their families over a two-to-four, sometimes five-year period, and I get overwhelmed with wanting to see them through to graduation and then beyond. Corny perhaps, but that’s the deal.
Q: Has the 2008 UCSD team played up to its capabilities so far this season? What is the potential of this team?
HARPER: We have had a good season to date, I would not say great. I anticipate that the greatness will emerge now for the final run to and through WWPA’s leading to the Final Four. We have all the pieces needed to be a championship team.
Q: As always, the conference tournament is the key to your season. What will be the team’s focus between now and the WWPA Championships?
HARPER: There is tons of parity this year both nationally and within our conference. It could literally come down to who made a play or two at crunch time or just some good old-fashioned luck to crown our champion. We have been there more than any other program in our conference’s history and hopefully we can draw on that tradition and be in a position to be great when we need to be. We will, of course, focus on extra man offense and defense as that seems to dictate the outcome of most games these days.
Q: What are the biggest differences between Denny Harper circa 1980 and today’s version?
HARPER: I’m probably much calmer about the chaos around me these days. There is something to be said about experience (regardless of what you do) and I definitely have plenty of that. I did realize some time ago that if a coaching career at this level was going to last over the long haul you had to walk that fine line of not compromising what you believe in, but at the same time realize that the kids you teach and coach now are not of the same generation as those when you started. When I first started it was 30 players will adapt to one, now it is much more about collaboration than a dictatorship. Being more mindful of that is probably the difference. Don’t get me wrong, however; I’m still pretty “old school” with how our program’s culture is.
Q: What do you feel have been the biggest changes in the game of water polo since you started coaching at UCSD?
HARPER: For starters, there are many more quality teams in the top 25. On any given day an upset can and does happen with much greater frequency than in years past. Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is it’s the same giant scholarship programs year-in and year-out that are consistently contending for the national title. We helped (I think) make believers out of many other programs when we made it to the national title game in 2000 vs. UCLA.
Q: What rules changes, if any would you like to see implemented in the college game?
HARPER: We spend way too much time mirroring the FINA (Olympic) rules for our sport. About 1% of the guys who play NCAA ball go on to the National/Olympic level. We need to be more mindful and purposeful of doing what is right for the 99% knowing that any player who ultimately makes it to our National Team will be able to adapt to what ever the deal is at that time internationally.
That being said, there really are too many rule ideas to list. I will tell you one, however, that I happen to think is a great one that would help our sport grow. It is not my idea (possible rule change) but rather from Dan Smith, an Associate AD at Loyola Marymount. His idea could be referred to as the “Non-Hording Rule”. Simply put, all NCAA Men’s polo teams will have a roster limit of 25 or so. There are several programs known to horde players far beyond those limits. This would “free up” approximately 125 to 150 players, allowing other schools to garner more athletes and better athletes and improve the caliber of competition across the board.
Q: Who have been your coaching mentors? What coaches in other sports do you admire?
HARPER: My polo mentors were a mixed bag of characters. My first, Flip Darr was all about swimming in a time when over-training was the theme of the day. For four years I swam over 20,000 yards a day (two work outs) during swim season, only 15,000 during polo season. Yes, Flip was all about swimming, not much polo, but he did help define for me how important a good swim base is for polo.
The one polo coach I learned the most from, however, was from Dave Gray at Santa Barbara City College. I really think Dave, who was an All American swimmer and polo player from UC Santa Barbara, probably more than anything gave me the passion and intensity thing that I have on occasion been known for. Depending on where you come from, Dave can be given the credit or blamed for this influence.
Other coaches of influence of course are John Wooden, Bob Knight, Pat Riley and many other NBA and college basketball coaches, as well as a few of my own colleagues here at UCSD. I have also been influenced over the years by former teammates and certainly assistant coaches. I have also been influenced by playing for and/or observing some really poor coaches who showed me what not to do.
Q: How do you balance coaching and your family life? How do they complement each other?
HARPER: Well, like I mentioned earlier, there’s something to be said about experience. While I’m mostly known for coaching water polo, those who know me best know that what I have done best up to this point is probably be “dad”. I have 5 children, three boys ages 21, 18, and 10, and two girls 6 and 2. Yes, I am much more patient with my players these days, especially with the current generation I have as they are essentially the same age group as my two oldest sons. Coaching here and raising a family at the same time, while fiscally challenging, have complemented each other in ways I could never put a price tag on. Pair of water polo goals: $3,500, new caps: $1,800, suits $1,000, having your kids in the middle of a heated team meeting: priceless.
Q: What advice would you give a collegiate coach starting out today?
HARPER: Hopefully, you have picked a money sport! Hold onto your value system, but at the same time adapt over the long haul to generational changes. Get yourself a great assistant coach (you’re only as good as those you surround yourself with) and lastly, start saving your money (if you can afford too) from day one so you can hopefully afford to retire at a reasonable age and not end up getting scraped off the pool deck after 35-plus years of coaching.
Previous Q&A Articles:
Ron Larsen (USA Volleyball Assistant Coach) October 13, 2008
Jessica McGovern (Women's Soccer) October 6, 2008
Bre Schofield (Cross Country) September 26, 2008
Tony Fernandez (Men's Soccer) September 18,2008
Kimberly Carpenter (Women's Volleyball) September 12, 2008
A.J. Kotanjian (Men’s Water Polo) September 2, 2008
Peter Akman (Men's Soccer) August 21, 2008
Natasha Belak-Berger (Women's Soccer) August 15, 2008
Jake LaVieux (Men's Cross Country) August 8, 2008
Dr. Penny Rue (Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs) July 30, 2008
Michelle Torres (Women's Volleyball) July 15, 2008
Jon Pascale (Men's Soccer Head Coach) July 1, 2008
Julie Ertel (Athletics) June 16, 2008
Clint Allard (Men's Basketball) June 9, 2008
Jen Myers (Women's Crew) May 27, 2008
Casey Ryan (Men's Track and Field and Men's Basketball) May 21, 2008
Keith Noe (Baseball) May 13, 2008
Liz LaPlante (Women's Tennis Head Coach) April 30, 2008
Sydney Gstettenbauer (Women's Water Polo) April 22, 2008
Sarah Hendy (Women's Track and Field) April 17, 2008
Eric Leserman (Men's Volleyball) April 9, 2008
Danielle Lukk (Softball) April 4, 2008
Chris Franco (Baseball) March 24, 2008
Dan Perdew (Swimming) March 18, 2008
Evan Hsiao (Swimming) March 9, 2008
Eric Rubens (Men's Tennis) February 27, 2008
Melissa Ward (Softball) February 20, 2008
Cameron Sprowles (Fencing) February 13, 2008
Kim Hockett (Women's Water Polo) February 6, 2008
Trevor Decker (Baseball) January 31, 2008
Jordan Lawley (Men's Basketball) January 23, 2008
Jason Spangler (Men's Volleyball) January 5, 2008
Andrew Skewes (Men's Diving) December 26, 2007
Alexis Gaskin (Women's Basketball) December 17, 2007
Aubrey Panis (Women's Swimming) December 2, 2007
Andrew Hatch (Men's Basketball) November 26, 2007
Kevin Klein (Men's Cross Country) November 12, 2007
Kim Adams (Women's Volleyball) November 7, 2007
Ben Miller (Men's Water Polo) October 31, 2007
Alie Avina (Women's Soccer) October 19, 2007
Charity Elliott (Women's Basketball Head Coach) October 15, 2007