It’s Christmas Eve of 1999, and Scott Russell’s family is gathered together at his house.
The phone rings, and it’s Fritz Seyferth, Michigan’s senior associate athletic director. He asks Russell to abandon his family gathering and come down to his office.
Russell, the men’s and women’s club water polo coach, is expecting to get an early Christmas present from the Michigan Athletic Department – a promotion. He expects to become Michigan’s first varsity women’s water polo coach.
“I was elated,” Russell said. “I walked out of the door on cloud nine. It was Christmas Eve, so of course I thought he was calling me to offer me the job.”
But when Russell met with the officials of the Michigan Athletic Department on that fateful day, there was no welcoming committee, no contract to sign, and no one to congratulate him.
They informed Russell, the man who had devoted his life to Michigan water polo, that his alma mater had decided to look elsewhere to fill the coaching position.
Hundreds of letters written by Russell’s supporters to the Athletic Department were not enough. Ten years of tireless devotion to the program without one cent from the University was not enough (club programs receive no funding from the University).
“I was devastated, absolutely devastated,” Russell said of the news. “Everybody who knew me knew that coaching Michigan water polo was one of the biggest things in my life. I lived in Ann Arbor my whole life, grew up there, graduated from U of M. I even moved back to my old neighborhood.”
The timing of the decision is what has been criticized most by members of the program – not the eventual hiring of Amber Drury-Pinto as Michigan’s head coach.
“I felt like the way they went through the whole process was not taken care of very well,” said Eric Lancaster, who Russell coached for four years on the men’s club team. “You don’t call someone on Christmas Eve and tell him that he’s not going to get the job. That’s not very professional.”
Michigan hired Drury-Pinto because of her experience as a player and coach in California, which also meant that she had the connections to recruit the top players from the west coast. Russell did not have the reputation or the recruiting capabilities that Drury-Pinto could bring to the program.
“I knew Michigan was into big names,” said Delia Sonda, junior captain of the women’s team. “He is a good coach, but I knew they could get people with bigger names than him.”
Russell assumed that the reason he found out on Christmas Eve was so that he wouldn’t have to read it in the newspaper the next morning – he thought it was courtesy. But the hiring of Drury-Pinto was not officially announced until the middle of January, calling the timing of the Athletic Department into question.
“Let’s just say I won’t ever be exchanging Christmas cards with (former Athletic Director) Tom (Goss) or Fritz,” Russell said.
Although Russell was obviously disappointed that he didn’t get his dream job, he didn’t become bitter, and did not turn his back on his team or his beloved University. He even continued to coach the team in 2000 knowing that he would not be the varsity coach, demonstrating his commitment to his players and the program he started in 1988.
“Too much of my life was devoted toward Michigan water polo for me to be bitter to them,” Russell said.
After forgiving the program, Russell made the ultimate sacrifice to remain a vital part of Michigan water polo. Once Michigan announced Drury-Pinto’s hiring, Russell asked her if he could stay on as a volunteer assistant coach – unpaid once again.
“For me, just to even be on her coaching staff, at least I could still be a part of the program that I built from the ground up,” Russell said. “I didn’t need for her to give me a salary. I just wanted to stay in contact with the program. I had hoped that I could help Amber in her transition from California to Ann Arbor.”
But Drury-Pinto, an established and respected coach nationally, declined Russell’s offer. Coming into Canham Natatorium with Russell’s presence hanging over her head would not have made her transition any easier.
In crunch-time situations, Drury-Pinto wanted to make sure that her players knew that she was the coach of their team.
“It’s a new program and we’re going in a new direction,” Drury-Pinto said. “I just felt like we needed to start brand new. We were going to be carrying over players (from the club team), and I didn’t feel it would be good for anybody to have him carry over with us.”
“She didn’t feel comfortable having me on the coaching staff,” Russell said. “It was at that point that I felt I was really being turned away from the program for good.”
After being turned away for the last time, Russell’s life took a new turn – in the direction of West Lafayette and Purdue.
“I never wanted to leave Ann Arbor, but I realized that coaching water polo is really what I want to do,” Russell said. “When I didn’t have an opportunity to do that in Ann Arbor anymore, I needed to go some place else. I wanted to stay in the Midwest.”
Russell is currently the coach of the men’s and women’s club water polo teams at Purdue, where the athletic department is planning to make women’s water polo a varsity sport within the next few years. Russell accepts the possibility that he could be turned away from the Purdue varsity coaching position just as he was at Michigan.
“I’m hopeful that if the team goes varsity, I’ll have more success than I did at Michigan,” Russell said. “There may be an applicant who comes along and in their mind, is a better fit. I hope not – I hope I’m the right guy for the job.”
Today, Russell is happy with his job at Purdue, but the transition to life in West Lafayette has not been an easy one.
“The difficulty is that I am still closer with the U of M athletes than the ones at Purdue,” Russell said. “I still feel very close to the athletes that I left behind, but I know that with time here at Purdue, I’ll establish the same kind of relationships.”
Russell’s accomplishments as Michigan’s women’s water polo coach are very impressive. He pioneered the program in 1988, and just one year later, Michigan won the Big Ten title, starting a string of 11-consecutive Big Ten championships. At one point, Russell’s Wolverines rolled off 127-straight victories over their conference opponents. In 1995, Michigan finished the season as the No. 5 team (varsity or club) in the nation.
But these accolades and records are not why Russell will be remembered as a great coach. His dedication and love for the sport, along with his ability to form “relationships” are what made him so special.
“He was a friend and a coach,” said Christy Lilley, a senior captain of this year’s team. “He loves the sport, he loves bringing it to people, especially women. It’s rare to have a male coach so interested in getting females involved. If you love something you might as well share it.”
And share it he did. In his 12 years as coach, he shared his time, heart and money with his players. Being a varsity coach would only be icing on the cake for this pioneer of Midwestern water polo.
“It was not in my wildest dreams that a kid from the Midwest would be a varsity water polo coach,” Russell said. “You don’t really start thinking about varsity status the first day that you take the job as a club coach. All you’re really doing is providing an opportunity for athletes to compete in the sport that they love. And for me, it was an opportunity for me to coach the sport that I love.”