It would normally be cliché to say the Michigan water polo team is sticking to the script in its second year under Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. But in this case, it’s actually true.
In the second weekend of the season, the seventh-ranked Wolverines swept four ranked opponents en route to their best start since 2011. The culture and vibe around the program is notably different than in seasons past, and it’s all a part of Leonardi’s plan mapped out in his dissertation years ago.
When Leonardi — the only Michigan head coach with a Ph.D. — composed and defended his thesis in educational leadership, the focus was on motivation, a winning culture and manufacturing team success. He was serving as the head coach of Cal State Northridge at the time, and hypothesized six pillars of a successful program: culture, teamwork, leadership, accountability, communication and respect.
They are common-sense attributes that stem from business, philosophy and athletics, but fail to mention talent, goal-scoring or conditioning.
So when Leonardi was hired in 2014 to coach the Wolverines — a team that was in its 12th season as a program, had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and lacked the oodles of talent that the top California schools had — he knew his pillars could still stand tall.
Of course, the well-educated Leonardi also knew it was a project for the same reasons.
“I felt like I had to start from scratch,” Leonardi said. “Last year, you want to win games, but it’s kind of not the priority. You need a baseline.”
To minimize turbulence, Leonardi decided to roll out teamwork, leadership and culture last season, and save the rest for this season.
But even that prompted a rocky start. Leonardi began practice and saw a team that lacked what he was looking for — from nutrition to work ethic to culture.
“We’re even talking about working hard in practice,” he said. “That was a surprise.”
Some struggled. Others quit the team altogether. Leonardi had no intentions of cushioning the blow, however, only to abandon what his decades in school taught him would promote long-term success.
“You always go back to ‘Who do you have on the bus?’ ” Leonardi said. “If you have the right people on the bus, you’re going places. Last year, we had a lot of kids in and out of the bus, people not wanting to be on the bus, wanting to be on the bus, trying to figure out what the culture really is.
“If I’m going to change, I’m going to change it all. Grand-scale change. If people are on the bus, they’re on the bus.”
So he did. The coach meticulously tweaked everything he could, from out-of-pool attitude to drills to even the water polo terminology used.
Does introducing new terms and drills to Division I athletes that have been playing at an elite level for years seem overbearing? Sure. But to the players, the motive was clear.
“It’s just a whole new different way of looking at water polo,” said senior attacker Kelly Martin. “It was an adjustment, but we knew it could work.”
The 2015 season produced little improvement in the win-loss column, but Leonardi had a feeling that would happen. To him, the important thing was that he had his group, and could introduce the three other pillars.
Practices got harder, and conduct was more closely monitored, but Martin said everything was smoother. The path was clearer, the trust stronger.
And so far, it appears to be translating to in-pool success. Michigan has yet to face a unranked team, sits at 7-2 and very well could be in the top five nationally later this week.
The metaphorical bus is full and in motion, validated by an undefeated weekend at home.
“Now they’re driving it,” Leonardi said. “What you see in the water is not just practice, it’s our culture of the athletes in general.”
According to Leonardi’s pillar philosophy, the final step after establishing pillars is perennial talent. Leonardi admits the Wolverines don’t have the same talent as No. 1 Stanford — their next opponent — but is focused on being in the conversation first.
“They already have the culture,” he said. “They already have the tradition. Everything’s in place as well as the elite-level athletes that have already been going through that cycle of recruiting.
“I feel we’re getting to that next tier.”
Just how he wrote it up.