It was an unseasonably warm day in March, and Michigan water polo coach Matt Anderson was out with his team while it ran laps around the soccer field.
“All the snow had just melted, and there was this big puddle of mud,” said freshman Megan Hausmann, remembering the incident. “And he said to Rachel (Burkons), ‘You don’t have to come to morning practice tomorrow if you dive head first into that puddle.’ And Rachel just ran face first and plopped into it. Then Matt said, ‘Anybody else not want to go to morning practice?’ “
After this tempting invitation, Anderson’s entire team proceeded to dive into the mud puddle, not caring what mess awaited them.
“The killer part is that Matt did it too!” senior Delia Sonda said. “He went back to (his office) and changed clothes just so he could dive in the mud with us.”
Anybody who knows Anderson well would not be surprised that this 37-year-old man would jump at the chance to share in his team’s romp in the mud. He’s the kind of guy who will one minute have his team doing practices that would rival the USA National Team and the next will jump in the pool with them, splashing around with foam noodles and telling jokes.
“He has the potential to make people blossom,” sophomore Sheetal Narsai said. “He finds lots of potential in people and helps them grow as a player.”
The Road to Ann Arbor
Hired last November, after former coach Amber Drury-Pinto left to take charge of the University of California-Berkeley water polo program, Anderson has had an enormously positive impact on the team in his first season at Michigan.
“I am truly blessed that I am able to interact with these (players),” said Anderson about becoming the new Michigan coach. “I just want to allow them to enjoy their college experience.”
But Anderson’s water polo days began long before he reached his ultimate goal of becoming a collegiate head coach.
Born in West Germany where his father was stationed in the Air Force, Anderson then endured six moves across the U.S. until finally settling in San Diego.
Anderson was first introduced to water polo in high school when he played on club teams in the summer. A couple years later, when his college roommate at San Jose State asked if he would join the school’s team with him, he didn’t hesitate to sign on.
Although San Jose State’s team had just been bumped from varsity status to club because of Title IX, the team still had the privilege to play against other varsity teams and even the national team.
By senior year, Anderson’s coach, Vaughn Kublecheck, saw potential in him to become a successful coach, too, and suggested that he start at the high school level. Anderson, who was planning on beginning a career in journalism, decided to take Kublecheck’s advice and began coaching a high school team.
“I was going to be the next great sports reporter,” said Anderson jokingly, “but that all changed (when I began coaching water polo).”
For the next 10 years, Anderson continued to coach at high schools in California, until 2000 when he jumped up to the collegiate level as assistant coach for his alma mater, San Jose State. A year later, he made a much bigger move – across the country to join Indiana’s program as assistant coach.
After just one season, the opportunity of being head coach at Michigan presented itself, and Anderson beat out several other candidates to earn his spot in Ann Arbor.
“I think very highly of Matt,” Indiana coach Barry King said. “I think it speaks volumes on his coaching ability that he was only at IU for one year as an assistant and now he is the head coach of a team that went to the NCAA Championships last year.”
The Right Man for the Job
Michigan Associate Athletic Director Megan McCallister, who was instrumental in Anderson’s hiring, said he stood out as being the highest qualified person for the job.
“Matt has worked with outstanding coaches,” McCallister said. “He has worked with very successful programs in USA water polo and collegiate games. I spoke to many other coaches, and he was always mentioned as one of the top teachers of the game.”
Anderson has not only impressed Michigan’s athletic department, but also the players he’s coached this season.
Older team members who have been around long enough to see the team through two other coaches will tell you that Anderson is the ideal leader, combining the people-skills of former coach Scott Russell and the water polo expertise of Drury-Pinto.
“I think that Matt is more of a complete package,” Sonda said. “He’s the best coach that we’ve had.”
Anderson’s knowledge of the game is extensive, as he has coached at all levels and had the chance to study with some of the nation’s best water polo players.
“He’s coached both girls and boys, national team players, collegiate players, and high school players – he’s been an assistant coach and a head coach,” Sonda said. “I’m sure this has helped him to deal with the trials and tribulations of thirty college age women.”
Probably the most important assets Anderson brings to the team is his love of people and his wonderful way of communicating with his players.
“He has a way with relating to us that our other coaches couldn’t (achieve) as far as just bringing out the best in us,” senior Stephanie Morse said. “He knows how to make us laugh and how to stop fights. He knows how to get us to work hard and from that, we know when it’s time to get in the game and when it’s time to have fun and enjoy ourselves.”
When you enter Anderson’s office, his dedication to the team is immediately evident. Among the water polo paraphemnalia are pictures of him with his team – at Six Flags, at a pizza eating contest. And on his desk is a huge jar of candy – always filled – for players and guests to treat themselves to.
“I think the biggest thing he brings to the team is heart,” Narsai said. “We can trust him. He says that if anything ever happens to us, no matter if it’s three in the morning, we better call him. He’s kind of like family.”
Michigan in Good Hands
Anderson may have excellent qualifications to be in Ann Arbor, but are those qualities what it takes to steer Michigan to victory?
If this season is any indication, they certainly are. He has accomplished a lot in his first season. Battling the injuries of many of his top scorers, Anderson has still brought the team far. They have won every game in their conference, defeated a team ranked in the top 10 (which Michigan had never done before this year), San Jose State, and this weekend won the Southern Division Championships for the second year in a row. This win will put the team in good position for the Eastern Championships to be held April 25-27 in Boston. If the team triumphs there, it will earn another NCAA berth to the final four.
“To be a good coach, number one is communication with your players,” Anderson said. “Number two is getting the best out of your players. And number three is understanding the nuances of your game. I believe that if you are a good coach, you can adapt to whatever sport it is. I think Red (Berenson, coach of the Michigan hockey team) could come over and with a little bit of studying, could become a good water polo coach. If you’re a coach, you’re a coach.”
Anderson is now looking forward to what he can do with this team.
“The hopes I have (for the team) coincide with the Michigan tradition,” Anderson said. “My goal is to play for a national championship – because I’ve got to play for one before I can win one.”
Anderson has already made structural changes to the team in hope of putting it at a level closer to that of top-ranked West Coast teams.
“He’s doing more of a ‘let’s win’ rotation now than an ‘everybody plays’ rotation – it’s not about seniority,” said Hausmann, who is a freshman driver for the team.
Team members said they don’t mind that Anderson sometimes takes players out if they aren’t playing their best. Narsai commented that Anderson has a good sense of when a player doesn’t match up with the other team. The goal is to win the game, and keeping the players that are at their best in the game is what counts.
Anderson has also made changes to the team’s practice schedule.
“This is the first year that I could say that we have had a ‘hell week’ – a week or two of very intense training,” Sonda said. “He had us do that a few weeks ago, and we were swimming four miles a day.”
And according to Hausmann, the general practices that the team does have also stepped up in difficulty.
It is likely that Anderson will continue to inspire his players in the future and maybe even lead them to a national championship. This goal will come not only from his in-depth knowledge of the game, but also his gift for motivating and relating to players in a special way.
“You can just tell by watching him at and during the games that he absolutely loves the sport,” Morse said. “He’s totally geeked about it. I’ve never seen so many victory dances. He enjoys himself everyday and if he’s not, he looks like he is. The positive attitude he brings to the pool every day makes us all want to be here.”