Head coach Luis Nicolao is in his 15th season in charge of the men’s water polo team. Also head coach of the women’s team, Nicolao just finished his most successful year ever at Princeton after leading both squads to the Eastern title and the NCAA Championships in 2011-12. Before the Tigers open Eastern Championships against Brown at 1:30 p.m. today at DeNunzio Pool, Nicolao sat down with the ‘Prince’ to talk about Princeton’s rivalry with Navy, “Lord of the Rings” and bonsai trees.
Q: Where are you from, and what is it like there?
A: I’m from Santa Fe, Calif. It’s like any normal town; it’s a great place to grow up. I grew up a Raiders fan, Giants fan — love the Bay Area.
Q: How did you get into water polo? I hear you were a top player at Navy.
A: I was a swimmer first. Polo was always just a release from swim season. So I played high school polo at Bellarmine Prep, in San Jose, and as I got older through high school I became less and less of a swimmer and more and more of a polo player. When I got to Navy, I stopped swimming completely and played polo year-round.
Q: How did you come to Princeton?
A: That’s the weird thing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. [My wife and I] were expecting our first child. I was getting out of the Navy, and really, I took this job really on the premise that I was going to get my MBA, go do something in the business world and within a year or two transition out of the Navy, and here I am 16 years later. It just became one year turned into two, two into four; before I knew it, I’m at 10 years and we’ve been here ever since.
Q: What has the highlight of your coaching career been here at Princeton?
A: My highlight? Oh, wow. You know, I don’t know if I can say a win or loss is a highlight. Just the relationship with the kids has really been the most enjoyable part. Seeing my kids go on now, get married, have their own children and be successful. There’s been a lot of great wins and a lot of tough losses; I don’t think one sticks out more than the other. But I think just the relationship of getting the chance to coach these kids, it’s been a privilege.
Q: You coached under Navy’s Mike Schofield for a few years, and now you’re the coach of Navy’s archrival. How is that relationship going?
A: You know what, I respect the man a lot. I adore Mike; Mike’s been a big part of my life. But like anything, I think we’re very competitive people. I think when we play each other, it brings the best out of me. I think probably the few times I see myself maybe get more emotional is in the Navy games because it is Mike, it is Navy, I went there and all kinds of stuff. When I took this job, I knew that for us to be successful, that was the one team that we had to beat. Every year Navy was in the Eastern Championships; every year, Navy was in the top of the East. If we ever wanted to be successful, we had to beat Navy. And so we’ve been able to do that a few times, and I think anytime we play Navy it’s always fun. It’s just a battle. No one wants to lose that game.
Q: So do you think you’re going to play Navy this weekend at Easterns?
A: I don’t know. I mean, it’s weird the way it sets up. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do at Southerns, but I tell our guys since the day that happened, we have to beat Brown and St. Francis at some point, so if we can’t beat Brown on Friday, well, we have to beat them on Sunday. Navy has to beat St. Francis, and I think if that happens, who knows what could happen. But Eastern Championships is always a battle. I think there are six, seven teams that could win this thing this weekend, and I wouldn’t be surprised if anybody does that.
Q: Looking at Southern Championships two weeks ago, what do you think are some of the challenges the team has to overcome?
A: We just gotta relax! I think all year we’ve had a situation where there’s guys been sick or injured, just not playing to our ability or potential. It’s a three-game season. Everything that’s happened up to now doesn’t matter; we have to go out and win three games this weekend. We can play well, and it comes down to playing good team defense. The games we’ve lost this year, defensively we have not done a good job. We let teams score double digits, and we’re losing 14-13, and that’s just not us. [Last] Sunday against Navy, we played good team defense, and we got a good result. The focus this weekend is on defense, and we’ll see what happens on the offensive end.
Q: If you didn’t coach water polo, what sport would you coach?
A: I would coach basketball! It’s very similar to water polo. The concept is very similar in terms of the offensive style, and, uh, their coaches make a lot more money.
Q: Do you have any pregame rituals?
A: I like to try and work out before a game. I think it kind of helps me get my nerves out. I feel like it’s harder to coach than it is to play because if you watch it you have no control of what’s happening in the water. I bite the hell out of my nails. I’m always biting my nails before the game. But I don’t have any one particular ritual. I don’t like to get superstitious and stuff.
Q: Do you still get in the water and play?
A: I used to a lot, years ago, but now I’m over 40; it’s been a lot harder. And every time I’d get in the water I’d hurt something. They’re faster, bigger and stronger than I could ever remember, and I think they like picking on me. They like kicking me, hitting me, so I have not done it as much, but when I do I like to talk some trash and see what happens and have fun with it.
Q: Who is the quirkiest player on the team?
A: Oh wow, we have a couple of quirky players. That’s a tough one, because there’s a couple of guys who I have in mind. We like to joke because we have an organization called “La La Land,” where we have some guys who are just kind of in La La Land. We have [senior attacker] Tim Wenzlau, who is the mayor of La La Land. And we have [sophomore center] Matt Weber, who is the doorkeeper of La La Land because he’s always smiling. So he’s the greeter of the people who come in. We have some other guys who are also in that La La Land. I think Tim and Matt are definitely my two quirkiest guys that you just laugh and shake your head at them and the things they say and do, and it’s like, “Really, guys?” I always joke with my guys that if there was a common sense part of the SAT, they would fail. They could get the book smart, they could do the math and science, but common sense, they’d be in big trouble.
Q: You also coach the women’s team. Which experience do you like more? What are the pros and cons to each?
A: That’s a loaded question. They’re so different; I think it’s refreshing to finish the men and go to the women, because they’re a much different experience. There’s much more communication during the women’s season, much more talking, dealing with emotion, than you do with the men’s season. I can’t say I enjoy one more than the other; they’re just so different. I enjoy both equally. I have fun coaching both, but I always joke about one day writing a book about how different it is coaching two teams.
Q: Who do you think would win if they played each other, the men or the women?
A: We have some pretty mean girls. We have some emotional guys too. I think it’d be a pretty good battle. But, wow, who would win? That’s a tough one to say. I don’t know, I think score-wise the men may win, but I think the women would get their legs in. I think the women would hold their own.
Q: What’s the dirtiest play you’ve ever seen?
A: Oh god, it was probably my third year here. Queens was playing UMass, and one of the Queens players during a whistle actually got out of the water and hit a kid in the face. Opened him up from the lip to almost his eyeball, and his face just completely exploded open. UMass coach tried to run after the player; they had to call the cops. It was crazy here, I’ve never seen anything like it. The kid had to get like 100 stitches in his face, and the guy denied doing all of it, until we had it on video. You just see him come out of the water and just cold pop the kid.
Q: So I assume you discourage your players from playing that dirty?
A: You know what, we don’t like to play that way at all. There’s a fine line. We play a very physical game, but I really don’t have any patience or tolerance for any physical closed-fist. I think if you get to that point you’ve lost the game. You’ve lost your composure, you’ve lost your cool, and our sport is all about composure. I always tell everyone, there’s no trick play, there’s nothing fancy, water polo’s very simple — either you can swim or you can’t, shoot or you can’t. It’s about how you execute the plays.
Q: [Sophomore attacker] Sam Butler wanted me to ask you about team bus rides and movies. How do you feel about “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy?
A: I much prefer the movies the girls have on the buses. The guys kill me with these high-tech, talking trees, you know, all that stuff. I just don’t get into the science fiction stuff, I hate it. Right now the joke is to try and do “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and I refuse to have it on the bus. They did one “Lord of the Rings,” and I thought I would shoot myself it was so bad. The girls have much better movie selections, movies I can handle. The guys are horrible at their movie selections.
Q: Can you tell me about the time you fell into the pool twice in one day?
A: Yeah, that was at Stockton. I don’t know what happened. The pool was not very wide where the bench was, in the corner of the pool. And I was trying to talk to my goalie, and I kind of cut the corner over the pool, trying to overstep it, and lost my balance and fell in the water. It was so embarrassing.
Q: During the game?
A: During the game. I tried to catch myself mid-air, and I fell on the lane line, and my phone was in my pocket. That was the morning game. So, we come back, another game, and damn if I don’t do it again. And I had had my phone in my pocket again ... The bench couldn’t stop laughing, my players in the water couldn’t stop laughing. The host team brought me a little life jacket I could wear on the bench. It was so embarrassing, I couldn’t believe it, that I’d fallen in twice in the same tournament. So now I’m very careful, I’m very cautious of the edge of the pool and where I’m standing.
Q: What about dressing up as Batman at Ivy Championships in 2010?
A: It was Halloween day, you know, and it’s Halloween, with a game, what more do you need to do? Be Batman, and dress up! I want to win every game we play, but I want our kids to have fun doing it. We have an Ivy Championship, and it’s a great tournament, a fun weekend. I think I made some coaches we were playing mad because they thought I wasn’t taking it seriously. But, you know, I coach a game, and I want our kids to have fun doing it, and I want to have fun doing it, and it was Halloween. And I’m sure the next Halloween, if it falls on the same weekend, I’ll dress up again as something.
Q: What’s the most embarrassing song on your iPod?
A: Oh god, it’s gotta be a few because with iCloud I have my kids’ playlists now on my iPod. It’s gotta be probably Miley Cyrus, “Party in the USA.” I get caught listening to that once in a while on the bus, and the guys hear it through my headphones and say, “Is that Miley Cyrus?!” and I’m like, “Crap.”
Q: Your assistant coaches wanted me to ask you where you got your beehive hat from.
A: It’s a hat that I wear, that I’m very proud of, when we go to California. It keeps my neck from getting sunburned; it’s got a ring. I got it on an online website, and I can’t tell you how many people ask me about it because they want the same hat. For us guys that don’t like the sun, it protects my ears, my neck, and I think they’re just jealous. A lot of my guys are very jealous about the way I dress, my hat, the things I do. I just tell them, it’s one thing to be jealous, it’s another thing to show it. Sam’s probably the most jealous guy on the team. He would definitely like to be like me.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not coaching water polo?
A: I love watching sports. I’m a sportsaholic ... I have a little bonsai tree collection, and I like to trim my bonsais. I’m in a house full of women, you know: wife, two daughters. I like to take my dog on walks when the tension gets a little high. But I don’t have any one hobby in particular. You can say I’m not a big runner anymore. Primarily I love watching sports. Whenever any sports are on, I watch it. I drive my wife crazy because I cannot not be watching sports.
Q: I hear you have the players over to your house for dinner a lot?
A: Yeah, we try and do what we can. We have the kids over for Halloween, because it’s always over fall break. This year we obviously didn’t get to have it because of Sandy. It’s always a great night where the guys dress up and answer the door, and the kids love it. I really believe that our teams are a family. We want them to do well, but we want them to have fun doing it. I spend more time with these kids than anyone does on campus. The more we do together out of the water, the better.