Sports

USC’s Legendary Water Polo Coach Allegedly Found Time to Take Bribes While Winning National Titles

6 Dec 1998: Peter Janov #4 of the University of Southern California in action during the NCAA Water Polo Championships Finals First Place Match against Stanford University at Marian Bergeson Aquatics Center in Newport Beach, California. USC defeated Stanford 9-8. Mandatory Credit: Donald Miralle  /Allsport
As the head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams, Jovan Vavic had an incredible amount of control and autonomy.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

There’s no secret,” USC water polo head coach Jovan Vavic said in 2017. “Anybody can be successful in anything if they just put in the time and work.” Apparently money helps, too.

Vavic was arrested Tuesday as part of an alleged nationwide college admissions conspiracy that included celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The scandal, according to the federal affidavit, featured doctored tests, faked learning disabilities, and multi-million-dollar bribes. It also included the best water polo coach in the country.

Wealthy families allegedly bribed Vavic to help their children get into USC as athletic recruits, even though many of the students didn’t know how to play the (rather difficult and physically demanding) sport. Potential contributions to an athletic program are weighed during the college admissions process, and an endorsement from someone like Vavic could make up for some academic shortcomings. Authorities indicted Vavic on a charge of racketeering conspiracy, and USC fired him shortly after the news broke.

The “Varsity Blues” scandal may be built around counterfeit achievements, but Vavic’s success at USC was the real deal. As head coach of both the men’s and women’s water polo teams, he won 16 combined national titles. He was named Pac-12 Men’s Water Polo Coach of the Century in 2015. He’s the John Wooden of water polo, and he did it all while allegedly wasting time on unathletic vineyard heirs and the children of wastewater CEOs.

The federal affidavit outlines just how hapless some of his “recruits” were, and how little that mattered when it came to earning Vavic’s support. In one recorded conversation, a cooperating witness (reportedly the scam’s ringleader) assured a parent that everything would be fine, even if his daughter didn’t belong in the pool.

HUNEEUS: Because I und–, you understand that [my daughter] is not worthy to be on that team. 

CW-1: No, no, [Vavic] he’s my guy… . [A]nd he knows [s]he’s not coming to play, he knows all that. 

HUNEEUS: Okay. …. 

HUNEEUS: And is there any risk that this thing blows up in my face? 

CW-1: Hasn’t in 24 years.

Vavic was an active participant, according to the affadavit. When the son of a private equity magnate’s transcript came under scrutiny, Vavic vouched for the student in an email to the university: “[He] would be the fastest player on our team, he swims 50 [yards] in 20 [seconds], my fastest players are around 22 [seconds]. this kid can fly.” That information came from a made-up athletic profile, but the student wouldn’t have to back it up.

Vavic was, in many ways, the perfect person through which to run this type of scheme. As the head of both the men’s and women’s teams, he had an incredible amount of control and autonomy. Plus, he was simply a tremendous coach who almost never lost. As of his firing on Tuesday, his women’s team was undefeated this season and had a 19-0 record. If a coach with two decades of sustained success signs off on a recruit’s potential, would someone in the admissions office feel confident in questioning him?

Perhaps most important is that water polo is not a marquee sport. Its most basic elements are widely misunderstood, even by the parents who were using it as a Trojan Horse to smuggle their kids into USC. It wouldn’t incur the kind of scrutiny as, say, the football program (though the affadavit also alleges a fake long snapper got through the admissions process).

Applicants often had to include photos of the students in action, and these photoshops and staged shots weren’t always convincing. In one recorded conversation included in the affidavit, the cooperating witness recalls with a parent a particularly embarrassing example.

CW-1: It’s totally cra– like, last year I had a boy who did the water polo, and when the dad sent me the picture, he was way too high out of the water. That nobody would believe that anybody could get that high. 

McGLASHAN: Yeah– 

CW-1: So I told that dad, I said, “What happened?” He said he was standing on the bottom! I said, “No no no no no.” 

One might think that a parent would brush up on water polo basics while preparing their child to join the most prestigious program in the country, but why do the extra work? That’s what the money is for, to keep everything looking good on the surface. “What no one sees,” Vavic said in 2017, “is the battle taking place underwater with grabbing, pushing and intense legwork.”