The search for the perfect coach

By Sam Adams

The candidate arrived on campus a little before 8 a.m., dressed in a Sunday best navy suit and sporting slicked-back hair. He couldn’t be late to first period history class. Not if he wants the job, that is. Well into his 30s with an Olympic silver medal on his mantle, the Chalmers quad is not exactly where one would expect to find him.

But it’s all part of the process. When a coaching position opens up at Harvard-Westlake, as did the water polo program head slot with the resignation of Larry Felix in March, the athletic department often begins a nationwide search. After considering candidates from all area, levels and ages, an elite short list is created. Only then does the grueling interview process start to find the person who will be the right match for the team.Sitting down to Dr. Leslie Rockenbach’s 1st period World and Europe II class, the candidate was astounded by the atmosphere.

“It was the most interactive high school class I’ve ever seen,” the candidate said.But what is the point of showing a potential water polo coach a sophomore history class?

Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas believes that it makes candidates realize the pressures that face Harvard-Westlake student-athletes. One of the most important qualities that make for a good fit between the candidate and the school is the understanding of the unique atmosphere nestled in Coldwater Canyon.

“Academics are first here, and it needs to be that way at the high school level,” the candidate said.

After class lets out at 8:45 a.m., the candidate begins his marathon interview session that will span the next seven hours. The first stop? The coaches’ office next to the weight room, where the candidate speaks to his potential colleagues. Afterward, he takes a campus tour led by a student water polo player. Several meetings later, the candidate is taken to the middle school campus, where he meets with President Tom Hudnut. The two have known each other for years; the candidate was on the U.S. Olympic squad with Hudnut’s son, Peter ’99.

Next, the candidate meets with even more members of the school department. A return to the Upper School three hours later marks the final leg on his journey. At 4 p.m., the candidate walks out of Head of Upper School Harry Salamadra’s office, still interested in the job despite his marathon interview.

“It’s a very, I guess you could say, intriguing position,” the candidate said. “Water polo is a big sport in California but really it’s a small sport. The amount of resources this school puts into water polo and the way they hold it to a high standard here, it’s really unbelievable. There’s nothing like it, and I’ve been at all levels, playing and coaching. It’s one of the premier places to be. It’s an honor to be here and be interviewed. “

The candidate, the third and final member of the short list to be brought onto campus, departs, and the brain trust of Harvard-Westlake can get together and evaluate the prospective coaches.

“All of us ar.e smarter than any one of us,” Barzdukas believes.

All of the faculty and administration members with whom the candidates meet get together and compare notes. Only with the assent of the school brass: Hudnut, Salamandra, Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts, Head of Middle School Ronnie Cazeau and Athletic Directors Darlene Bible and Terry Elledge are the key players, will a final decision on a hiring be made.

“The collective wisdom of that group, I think if you look at our track record, has produced some very good results,” Barzdukas said. “We believe in and trust our process. So let’s trust it and see who pops out. Sometimes relatively young has popped out—say [volleyball]coach Adam Black—sometimes relatively experienced has popped out—[football coach]Vic Eumont for example. But the process, we believe in it and we think it works.”Whoever ends up “popping out” of the hiring process will no doubt be exhausted by the process, finally victorious over the competition. Then, it will be time to do the same thing in the season itself.