Harper reaches 400 wins

    The Triton men’s water polo victory on Oct. 8 in overtime against BYU-Hawaii marked the 400th career win for coach Denny Harper.

    Courtesy of UCSD Athletics
    Legacy: In his 23-year tenure, Denny Harper has won 13 WWPA titles.

    Harper’s career as a coach began in the fall of 1972 as a junior in high school, coaching girls high school water polo in Orange County.

    “”I found that my competitiveness as a player kind of carried over to the way that I coach. I wanted to do well. I liked it and did it for two more years,”” Harper said.

    Harper took a break from coaching to play at Santa Barbara City College before transferring to San Diego State University, where he was once again called to duty.

    “”There happened to be a number of girls at San Diego State that [had] played for me in high school, and they asked me if I would start coaching the team at SDSU. That was January of 1976,”” Harper said.

    In 1980, when Harper assumed the role of head coach at UCSD, he was faced with a lack of adequate facilities and a team that he still dubs “”the transition team.””

    “”They never really played any of the top teams,”” Harper said. “”That year, we had four games on one weekend, and I took them to play UCLA and Long Beach State Š and we just got killed. We went from a small, indoor pool to a giant thirty meter, all-deep one and just got killed. But to this day, almost 25 years later, those guys are pretty stoked that they were part of what is referred to as the Œtransition team.'””

    Harper’s talent as a collegiate coach became quickly visible, however, when just one year later, his 1981 squad placed 10th nationally. This was the first of several achievements that decorate Harper’s career.

    “”I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a lot of really neat things that have happened in the whole water polo world, so I just have a tendency to lump it all into one feeling of overachieving,”” Harper said.

    That overachievement includes five women’s national titles, eight senior women’s national club titles, 13 Western Water Polo Association titles, several appearances at nationals, two gold medals from the western women’s water polo team at the United Sports Festival and, according to Harper, “”a lot of great wins against teams that spent a hell of a lot more money on their water polo programs than we did.””

    Though he is careful not to call it his best victory, Harper repeatedly mentions his team’s quarterfinal upset over University of Southern California at the 2000 national tournament, as one of his greatest moments as a coach.

    “”That’s about as David-and-Goliath as you’re going to get,”” he said.

    When asked about his favorite teams or best teams, Harper declined to single out any group, saying that each team he coached was entirely unique in its character. According to Harper, each team is strongly influenced by the one that preceded it and will have a strong influence on the one that follows.

    Harper holds many traditions.

    “”You could write a book on that,”” he said. “”The traditions are sort of within the program and to me that makes it special. One of our major traditions is that once you make the ball club, we have double workouts, and every afternoon we go to a different beach for six straight days. There is a lot of bonding that goes on through pain, torture and agony.””

    With regard to personal traditions and superstitions, Harper has a few that have continued from his days as a player into his coaching life.

    “”I would say that maybe a half a decade ago, I got a handle on it, thinking, this is crazy. I could turn into an obsessive-compulsive coach, but I still have a few,”” Harper said. “”There is only one urinal here [at Canyonview pool] that I have ever peed in. It’s my lucky urinal, second from the far end and I’ve never peed in any other urinal. If I go in and someone is there, I’ll wait.””

    But Harper’s accomplishments are not tallied on a wall in years, titles or victories.

    “”At the risk of sounding a little corny, it wouldn’t have anything to do with beating so-and-so or winning all these conference things, but for me, the greatest accomplishment is now seeing the alumni that I have,”” Harper said. “”It’s a very tight group. There are so many of them that are still here and still participating, playing master’s polo. These are guys I was only a couple of years older than when I started coaching.””

    His connection with the alumni as well as with his current players is evident in Harper’s fatherly take on his role as a coach.

    “”Those guys don’t mind, to this day, telling me what it meant to play water polo at UCSD and the influence that I had with their development in a pretty key developmental period,”” Harper said. “”I am happy to say that our water polo program has provided the discipline and direction and moral values that I think young men need at a pretty critical time.””

    Chronology has never played a significant role in the life of Harper. He knows that he has achieved remarkable tenure from his players and students at UCSD, but that only encourages him to continue.

    “”I grew a beard when I was 18, so I never had issues with getting carded for beer or anything like that,”” Harper said. “”It was around that period that I never really thought about my chronological age. There have been a lot of benchmark things that have happened in my life, and I think that may have something to do with the fact that I don’t think about not doing this.””

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