One of the first things I did after the college admissions scandal broke was think back to any previous correspondence I had with the highest-profile member implicated from USC: men’s and women’s water polo head coach Jovan Vavic.
During my freshman year, I covered the men’s water polo team for the blastZONE and interviewed Vavic often. I thought back to these interactions to try and recall if there was ever anything suspect, anything that might have alluded to — even in the slightest of manners — the notion that he was secretly part of an illegal operation to admit students to USC by masquerading them as fake athletes. I could not.
Evidently, neither could anyone else — not his bosses, his staff or his players. The outcry over the national scandal — and USC’s role in it, specifically — is, of course, warranted. The immediate termination of both Vavic and senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel was a welcome development, for their alleged activities not only violated the integrity of the college admissions process, but also was a punch in the face to all the other USC student-athletes who worked hard to earn a spot on a Division I team.
I don’t really want to pile on the outcry. Last week’s blastZONE editorial board summed up the frustration around campus perfectly. But having covered Vavic’s numerous water polo triumphs, attended practices and watched him masterfully dissect opposing teams during games, it is so hard for me to connect this man, this water polo god, to the criminal activity he is charged with.
Make no mistake: Vavic is still water polo royalty. His bio on the USC Athletics website stretches so long with accolades that it requires five solid scroll-downs to reach the end: 16 national championships, 15-time national coach of the year, 25 years at the helm of both the men’s and women’s programs. For USC water polo, winning national championships is not just the norm — it’s expected.
Observe Vavic for five minutes during a game and it’s not hard to discern his strengths as a coach: tough, loud and demanding. His practices, players say, were grueling. His teams were so stacked and dominant that they would often win games by 5, 10, 15 goals. Even with an insurmountable lead late in those games, he would scorch his players with his piercing, gruff yell, audible to anyone within earshot of the pool: “PRESS! PRESS! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
Interviewing Vavic was nerve-wracking as a freshman beat writer. He gave short, terse answers in his Slavic accent. After some games, he would run off and the sports information director would come back empty-handed, forcing me to write a recap without quotes from the coach.
But I respected him. His players did, too. He ran a tight ship. He had no time for BS. He built a dynasty from the ground up. He was the kind of coach, the kind of leader who rarely did not get what he wanted. At a women’s water polo game last month against Indiana in which USC won 19-1, I watched from across the pool as Vavic, sunglasses on, leaned back in his chair and basked in the rout that his team was putting on. I recalled thinking to myself, “That is a man at the pinnacle of his profession.”
I could have never imagined that, weeks later, he would be booked into a jail at 7 a.m. in Hawaii as he was preparing to coach the women’s team in a tournament, charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering. And the only question I have is: Why?
Why did he do it? Why did Vavic, with a pedigree in water polo akin to that of John Wooden’s in basketball, risk it all? Was it for the $250,000 and private-school tuition payments for his children that he is alleged to have received, despite the fact that he assuredly has made enough to live comfortably? Was it just because he could?
Whatever Vavic’s answer is will not be satisfactory, because there is no good answer to why anyone in his position would commit such a crime. If true, his actions were offensive and disrespectful — to the hundreds of players he coached who made the roster on their own merits, disrespectful to the students denied a spot at USC because of the fake recruits he put on his team, disrespectful to the integrity of admissions, of athletics, of … well, everything in the name of the basic dignity that we hope leaders like Vavic possess. That, apparently, was too much to ask.
It has been difficult to contextualize the version of Vavic, the stern but colorful and legendary coach whom I respected, with what the allegations have revealed about his actual identity: a deceitful man who took advantage of his position of power. And there is absolutely nothing legendary or respectable about that.
Eric He is a senior writing about current events in sports. He is also the features editor of the blastZONE. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.