USC Contends With Newest Scandal: A Water Polo Coach Allegedly on the Take

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Jovan Vavic

As the college cheating scandal widens, the university finds itself — yet again — at the center of a controversy, this time involving its legendary water polo coach, Jovan Vavic.

The growing college entrance exam scandal has not only implicated top Hollywood actresses and businessmen but cast yet another unfavorable light on the University of Southern California, with the most recent scandal engulfing USC’s athletic program. 

In the small and insular world of collegiate aquatics everyone pretty much knows everyone. So when news spread Tuesday morning that USC’s head water polo coach Jovan Vavic was arrested as part of the sprawling bribery scandal — and then fired hours later by USC brass — the community of former players and alumni, many of who live and work in Southern California, reacted with astonishment.   

“To be honest I’m still kind of processing the information — but this is shocking to me. Never have I heard anything about any of this,” says J.W. Krumpholz, a former Olympian who won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and played for Vavic from 2005 to 2009, winning several national championships. 

USC’s aquatics program, which includes swimming, diving and water polo, has long been considered one of the best in the country and boasts prominent alumni along with dozens of Olympians. Actor Timothy Olyphant swam there while producer Sean Stuart played on the water polo team.

“It’s a bummer for the water polo world because [Jovan] was such a good coach. But if it’s true what they say he did … maybe he didn’t think it was illegal activity,” says Johnathon Hewko, a former attorney who played for Vavic from 1995 to 2000, winning one national championship. “He was intense and always demanded perfection, but I really respected his ability as a coach.”

On Tuesday, USC’s senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and Vavic, who coached both the men's and women's polo teams, were fired after allegedly receiving bribes totaling more than $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, in a sting that prosecutors are calling Operation Varsity Blues. The bribes were part of an alleged scheme to admit students to a number of universities including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas and USC by falsely tagging them as recruited athletes. 

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday indicted dozens of people — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — in connection with a plan orchestrated by a for-profit Newport Beach college admissions company that helped get the children of wealthy parents into elite colleges. In some instances such "help" involved parents paying William "Rick" Singer, the founder of the college prep business, to have someone take the SAT for their children, according to authorities. Prosecutors also alleged that Singer paid around $25 million in bribes to coaches and administrators to pretend clients' children were athletic recruits, helping guarantee their admission. 

Vavic — who is one of the most decorated water polo coaches in the country with 16 combined national titles (10 men’s and six women’s) — was reportedly in Hawaii with the women's team when he was taken into custody. (Disclosure: I was recruited to play water polo at USC by Jovic in 1994 but opted to attend the University of California, Berkeley, which is one of USC’s major water polo rivals.) Two former USC women’s soccer coaches were also named in the indictment.

Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of paying $500,000 to USC, in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the college's crew team — even though they did not participate in crew — according to documents. The couple faces charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

“USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation,” read a statement released by the university on Tuesday. “USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”

For the last several years USC has been trying to get out from under a string of scandals. The school is currently searching for a new president after its former president, C.L. Max Nikias was forced to resign after the school’s longtime campus gynecologist, George Tyndall, was accused of sexual misconduct over several decades by hundreds of women. Before that USC’s medical school dean, Carmen Puliafito, was stripped of his license to practice medicine after a state agency said he showed “an appalling lack of judgment” in his use of drugs and association with addicts and criminals.