Thursday, September 21

Behind the scenes with water polo’s assistant coaches

UCLA water polo assistant coaches (from left) Brandon Brooks, Matt Flesher and Adam Wright look to lead the Bruins to a fifth consecutive NCAA title.

UCLA water polo assistant coaches (from left) Brandon Brooks, Matt Flesher and Adam Wright look to lead the Bruins to a fifth consecutive NCAA title. Michael Chen

The blue caps clashed against the white ones at the Sunset Canyon pool. Both teams were focused, one relaying defensive assignments while the other rapidly shifted the ball from player to player. But it was not a real match, only a scrimmage between players on the No. 3 UCLA women’s water polo team, with two gigantic, broad-shouldered exceptions.

“Who’s got ice water in their veins?” one of the two broad-shouldered players said, as if the scrimmage carried important implications.

The 6-foot-plus outliers are Matt Flesher and Brandon Brooks, former UCLA men’s water polo standouts. And no, they are not playing on a coed team. The role of Brooks and Flesher, along with fellow ex-teammate Adam Wright, as simulated competitors is just another part of their work as UCLA assistant water polo coaches.

“As a coach, a lot of times all you can do is stand on the deck and yell,” Brooks said. “But we do whatever we can to help the team.”

The UCLA women’s water polo program might be the most consistently dominant on campus. The team’s quest for its fifth-straight championship will conclude this weekend in Maryland, where the Bruins have the third seed in the eight-team NCAA Tournament.

Coach Adam Krikorian is undoubtedly the face of the program. One of the nation’s most successful collegiate coaches in any sport, Krikorian is the architect behind six NCAA women’s championships, boasting a 263-38 overall record, and was recently named the coach of the U.S. women’s national team. But behind Krikorian at every game and every practice are his three assistants, and with them lies the foundation of Bruin water polo.

On paper, Brooks, Flesher and Wright have almost everything in common. All three were stars for the UCLA men’s water polo team, each winning at least one national championship while grabbing multiple All-America honors. All three have experience playing for the U.S. men’s national team, and all three continue to remain close to UCLA water polo and Krikorian after their collegiate playing days have ended.

But in terms of coaching style, they couldn’t be more different.

Brooks, a Hawaii native and a goalie for the U.S. Olympic team this past summer, possesses a laid-back perspective toward coaching.

“Brandon is the most levelheaded and least emotional among the three of us,” Flesher said. “There is a famous John Wooden quote that says everyone needs pats on the back. Some people need them softer and higher; others need them harder and lower. I’m a harder and lower guy. Brandon is definitely softer and higher.”

Krikorian deems Brooks the “eternal optimist,” a jokester who lightens the team atmosphere ““ something that has not changed since his college days.

“When Brandon was a player here, he would give the funniest quotes,” Krikorian said. “He would throw out these random history references that had nothing to do with anything and wouldn’t make any sense. But they would be there the next day in the Daily Bruin.”

Apparently, Brooks hasn’t changed all that much.

“What do I really do? The answer is nothing,” Brooks said. “I joke around, eat lots of food, show up for most practices … but sometimes I sleep in and nap.”

All kidding aside, Brooks, a 6-foot-6-inch natural athlete who led his high school basketball team to a state championship, believes coaching has become a natural outlet for his love of being outdoors and working with young people.

“The best part (of coaching) is that I get to be more personal and less discipline-oriented,” Brooks said. “I definitely do a lot more one-on-one conversation and teaching.”

On the other hand, Flesher, whom Krikorian considers his “right-hand man,” is the most authoritative of the trio.

“Matt is a fierce competitor, one of the hardest workers that I have ever coached,” Krikorian said. “He was a great leader in that respect. He brings a really intense work ethic and a no-B.S. type of attitude, which is great.”

The Diamond Bar native is known to be particularly demanding of his players.

“I’m more of a stickler on certain things,” said Flesher, a self-described pessimist. “That is just how I operate. As far as game management, for me, the glass is always half empty. The way I think is, “˜We’re great right now, but what can we be doing better?’”

While Brooks tends to have a relaxed coaching style and Flesher a meticulous one, Wright is almost a perfect combination of the two.

“Adam Wright has an incredible amount of energy and knowledge of the game,” Flesher said. “He’s definitely a hybrid of sorts between myself and Brandon.”

Wright, who played professionally in Sicily, mainland Italy and Russia between 2004 and 2007, translates his knowledge of the game into getting the most out his players.

“Adam was one of the most intelligent players that I’ve ever coached,” Krikorian said. “He had this energy and enthusiasm about him that was infectious. Adam has the unique ability to be very tough on players, but he can also be very playful.”

Though their coaching styles may be different, the assistants and Krikorian have a relationship that extends beyond practices and games.

“We are all friends outside the water,” Brooks said. “It is one of the great facets of working for Adam, in that you feel you’re working with him, not for him. It’s a tribute to his personality.”

Among all aspects of coaching, Krikorian believes that Brooks, Flesher and Wright are particularly helpful in working with players on a one-on-one level. Whether it means challenging the players by practicing against them, or giving them tips on how to shoot better, the three are particularly helpful to Krikorian as he leads games and practices.

“As an assistant, you work a lot more directly with the players,” Flesher said. “For example, say we are running 6-on-5 offense and working on a specific play. Adam (Krikorian) has got to make sure the plays execute correctly, whereas I watch the actions of one or two players.”

In 2007, a reorganization in the UCLA water polo program’s staff meant all three would work with the women’s team as well as the men’s, meaning all three assistants now work year-round.

Although each of them has other water polo commitments as well, perhaps the busiest of the three is Wright, who juggles his coaching at UCLA with playing for the national team. Consequently, it can be especially difficult to balance his playing career ““ he played a crucial role in the United States’ silver medal finish in last summer’s Beijing Olympics ““ and his coaching duties at UCLA.

“There is no doubt that there are long days,” Wright said. “I don’t want to disrupt (UCLA’s) training, so I get up early to train myself. Some days my alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., and I usually come home at 10 at night.”

With the constant recruiting cycle, youth summer camps and preseason training, the coaches rarely get a breath. Sometimes during the spring, Krikorian and Brooks will run the women’s practice late in the day, while Flesher and Wright lead the men’s team’s offseason workouts in the early afternoon.

“The great thing about being here for them is that essentially, they are getting a chance to be a head coach in the off-season by running practices,” Krikorian said. “All three of them are going to be great head coaches, no question.”

The experience each is gaining by running practices is intriguing considering that this will be Krikorian’s final season at the helm of the women’s team because of his new role as coach for the women’s national team. All three assistants are under consideration to take over the coaching role for next season.

Each stated their head coaching ambitions down the line, but they genuinely emphasized their focus in helping the women’s team in the lead-up to this weekend’s competition.

As assistants, their relationship with the players is much more different than it is as a head coach. Flesher believes that a large part of their roles involves lifting player morale.

“At times, you get to play the role of putting the pieces back together, like the stereotypical matriarch of the family,” Flesher said. “Maybe your dad rips you apart, and your mom boosts you back up. I would say sometimes, the assistant coach plays that motherly role, with Adam being the dad.”

Krikorian’s faith in his assistants’ ability to manage the team allows him to take time off to recruit, but he consults each of his assistants throughout the process.

In one case, Brooks’ efforts were a critical factor behind freshman KK Clark’s decision to choose UCLA over USC.

“During the recruiting process, they were really helpful,” Clark said. “I told Brandon I was struggling to choose where to go. He sent me back the longest e-mail comparing the two programs, and ultimately, that was part of the reason I came here. I was really impressed.”

In the end, there is unique coaching work that defines the roles of Brooks, Flesher and Wright for the water polo program. Their successes at the highest levels of the game, along with their approachability, make the three assistants key assets to the program.

“They are a group of characters,” sophomore defender Megan Burmeister said. “They all bring something so special to the table, keep our spirits up and ultimately make us be better players for it.”

Most assistant coaches wouldn’t be mentioned or quoted in press releases or game wraps. They aren’t publicly lauded when a team is successful, or criticized when it is not. But according to Krikorian, Brooks, Flesher and Wright are critical facets to UCLA water polo.

“We wouldn’t be nearly as effective as we are without them,” Krikorian said. “It would be different on every level. When a team is successful, the players and the coach usually get credit, but the assistant coaches don’t. Our success had a lot to do with them.”

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