The World’s Greatest Coach Is Not Who You Think
Ratko Rudic, the water polo coach whose teams won four Olympic gold medals, retired this month. The pool’s Bill Belichick shares lessons from a legendary career.
By Joshua Robinson and Ben Cohen May 19, 2020
One of the greatest coaches in the history of sports has conducted his last eight-hour workout. He’s done barking multilingual orders that pushed his players to the brink of hallucination. No one will puke in his practices anymore. Now the retired taskmaster spends his time working on abstract paintings inspired by Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock while listening to Charles Mingus and Wynton Marsalis.
“This,” he says, “is an excellent combination.”
If most Americans have never heard the name Ratko Rudic, it’s only because most Americans don’t follow water polo. He’s as feared as Bill Belichick but as beloved as John Wooden. He’s as stirring as Vince Lombardi, as enduring as Mike Krzyzewski, as worldly as Gregg Popovich and the only legendary coach whose practices involve training burly men in Speedos to drown and be drowned.
Rudic has the most Olympic appearances (9) for the most countries (5) with the most medals (5 as a coach, 1 as a player), the most gold medals (4) and the most longevity (28 years between his first and last gold) of any coach, according to Olympics historian Bill Mallon.
And his former players say he’s the most inspiring leader they’ve ever met.
“He always knew that he could get more out of a player than the player even knew,” said UCLA water polo coach Adam Wright.
After stints coaching the national teams of Yugoslavia, Italy, the U.S., Croatia and Brazil, it took a pandemic for Rudic to retire at 71, leaving the Italian club team Pro Recco and returning to Zagreb with his paint brushes and jazz records.
But whether or not retirement sticks—he’s unretired twice before and plans to keep advising Recco—he will never be done dispensing his lessons. At a time when the world badly needs a pep talk, Ratko Rudic still has wisdom to share.
“Sometimes,” Rudic said in an interview last week, “you have to be a little bit different than others.”
After stints coaching the national teams of Yugoslavia, Italy, the U.S., Croatia and Brazil, it took a pandemic for Ratko Rudic to retire at 71.
The low point of Rudic’s career was the 2000 Olympics. His team didn’t medal and he berated the referees with such Rudician fervor that he was suspended by the sport’s governing body for one year. The winningest coach in water polo was persona non grata on pool decks.
When the suspension lifted, he was desperate for a job. There was one country desperate for a coach. This is how Rudic found himself in charge of a U.S. team with graduates from Stanford and Berkeley. “He looked at us as these privileged, snot-nosed, apple-cheeked kids,” said Layne Beaubien.
But their impressions of each other quickly changed. The Americans got their first glimpse of Rudic’s fierce commitment to his new team on their very first trip. They had traveled overseas to train with the Italians, Rudic’s former players, and the two national teams were having dinner together when calamity struck.
“They got a certain vegetable,” Wright said, “that we didn’t get.”
This one perceived slight was all it took to make Rudic apoplectic. The American players couldn’t understand what he was screaming in Italian, but they were pretty sure he wasn’t
offering his compliments to the chef. “It was like the end of the world,” Wright said. “It was very clear at that point that he would do anything and everything to protect the team.”
Croatia coach Ratko Rudic jumped in the pool to celebrate his team's 86 victory over Italy during the men's water polo gold medal match at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Sink or Swim
Ratko Rudic’s water polo workout plan is legendarily insane.
Before he learned what it was like to play for a tyrant, the longest Beaubien had ever swum in a training session was 3,000 meters. The weekly baseline test under Rudic was 4,000 meters. There was one day when Team USA’s players swam 14,000 meters.
“The training is training, and it’s very difficult to tell them: ‘OK, die,’” Rudic said.
A player’s life under Rudic was simple: train, sleep, eat. “I would eat with my wife and I would just keep eating and keep eating and keep eating,” said former U.S. captain Wolf Wigo, now the coach at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “She’d be done. An hour later, I’m still eating.”
Two-a-day practices lasted from 8 a.m. till 12 and 5 p.m. till 9 p.m. “We need to suffer,” was Rudic’s mantra. A favorite Rudic drill was something his players described as “no-holds-barred wrestling” in the deep end. It was quite literally sink or swim. “You can be drowning a guy, holding him under water for 20 seconds... then he’ll escape and do the same thing to you,” Wigo said. “You just keep going till someone submits.”
Rudic actually had more in common with a player of that era than another coach. He delighted in ridiculously intense practices. He came out of retirement—twice. He was so dedicated to
mastering his sport that he told players he wouldn’t marry a girlfriend because he was already married to water polo. He’s even known for his iconic shrug. Rudic is Michael Jordan with a better mustache.
Nearly two decades later, Team USA’s players talk about their years under Rudic as if they experienced war.
“Only a few of us really know what we were put through,” said Beaubien, who owns an insurance firm. “But I believe I can do anything now—physically, mentally, spiritually. I’ve looked over the edge.”
On the morning of the 1992 gold medal game, Rudic heard an alarming rumor about some of the players on his Italian team: They had started packing their bags.
U.S. coach Ratko Rudic reacts to a call during the 2004 Olympics. PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREYASSOCIATED PRESS
In their defense, it was the last day of the Olympics, and they were going home regardless of how they did against heavily favored Spain. Rudic didn’t care. “When I saw this, I was very angry,” he said. He told his players that preparing to go home was preparing to lose. And then he made them unpack.
“I obliged them to put everything back,” he said. “So you have tension.”
Italy won gold in an epic game that went to triple overtime and included Rudic squabbling with Spain’s players and Spain’s coach—who happened to be one of his childhood friends. His strategy worked. “We needed this kind of motivation,” Rudic said. “This mental toughness is maybe the most important thing if you want to have the winning team.”
His players say this was another part of Rudic’s coaching genius. “He created the common enemy,” Beaubien said. “Which was him.”
’Use This Time’
The Italian national team players were on a trip to Bilbao when their coach made them a rare offer. Rudic, who abandoned architecture studies to play water polo, would take them on a guided tour of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.
The players did not want to go to the museum. Then he told them they could either go to a museum or come to practice. Suddenly they all wanted to go to the museum. “After the museum, everyone was very satisfied,” he said.
Rudic wouldn’t allow his teams to waste a single minute. If they weren’t in the pool, he wanted them in a museum. If they weren’t working on their superhero bodies, he wanted them working on their minds. It’s a lesson that he believes applies to this strange time when museums are closed and swimmers can’t wrestle in pools.
“It’s a good occasion to read a lot, to listen to music, to educate yourself,” Rudic said. “So use the time well.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ben Cohen at email@example.com