Remember Stanford? It's that palmlined country club for the well-tanned, well-heeled scions of California society, the red-tiled academic oasis that gave the world a talking gorilla, the one-handed jump shot, Sigourney Weaver and Herbert Hoover. Athletically, the Cardinal has a band that can't play football. The sons of the Stanford red do, however, excel at the old suburban standbys, tennis and swimming.
And water polo. UC Irvine coach Ed Newland complains, "Stanford always gets most of the top players from Orange County. All the mothers in Newport Beach want their sons to go to Stanford. I guess they like to tell their bridge group where the kids go to school."
Sure enough, Stanford's best player, David Imbernino, comes from Newport Beach. Imbo, 21, is captain of a 33-0 squad that will defend its NCAA title this weekend in Long Beach. But Imbernino was not the sort of kid who went to water polo practice after his violin lessons.
Imbernino, whose parents were divorced when he was five, was into "sex, drugs and punk rock" by the time he was in junior high. He fought, smoked pot and was arrested once for trespassing. When Imbernino was in the eighth grade his probation officer advised David's mother, Nancy, to send her son to a military school. This was hardly the kind of chatter to bring up at the bridge club.
Nancy can talk now. Her son is the best college water polo player in the country, an All-America in and out of the pool. In last Saturday's Big Splash, the water polo equivalent of the Big Game, Imbo scored two goals as Stanford beat California 11-6 to finish a perfect regular season. The Cardinal's 42 consecutive wins (including nine from last season) are the most in a row since the NCAA championships began in 1969. Should Stanford win the title, and the Cardinal is heavily favored, the question will be, "Is this the best college team ever?"
Three years ago the question was, "Why is this team even in the pool?" In 1983, the Cardinal finished 11-13-3 and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1973. Then, in 1984, Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger announced a restructuring of the school's varsity programs that would have eliminated scholarships and travel outside the Bay Area for the water polo team. (Geiger later rescinded the program cuts.) "It was kind of the low point of the program," understates Stanford water polo coach Dante Dettamanti.
Dettamanti started five freshmen in 1983 and, with one exception, they played like freshmen. The exception was Imbernino. He scored 40 goals and was named second-team All-America.
Pretty good for a guy who played in the first water polo game he ever saw, and who was almost sent away to military school when he was 14. Before that happened, he pleaded his case to his mother, promised to improve his grades and was spared having to wear a military uniform. His first quarter at Corona del Mar High he got straight A's and began playing water polo. He still wasn't walking the straight and narrow outside of school, but, as he says, "I stopped getting caught." The real metamorphosis came during his junior year when Imbo became deeply religious. By his senior year, he was generally considered the top high school water polo player in the country. The one-time troublemaker, now an excellent student, was accepted by Stanford.
Opponents have said that guarding the 6'3", 180-pound Imbo is "like guarding Jell-O." Cal captain Bill Schoening says, "He has an unorthodox [swimming] stroke. He's kind of slimy." Says Imbernino, "There is a lot more finesse involved in my drives, a lot more improvisation. A couple of weird moves and I can be by somebody."
During his sophomore year at Stanford, Imbo drove his team to the national finals, where the Cardinal fell to Cal. The offense was still Dialing for David: Imbo scored 63 goals that season.
Stanford is no longer a one-man band. Indeed, the Cardinal's strength is in its balance. Imbernino, frequently double-teamed, had 55 goals this fall, while junior Erich Fischer led the team with 81 and senior two-meter man Craig (Touch of) Klass scored 77.
The 6'5", 210 Klass, the Pac-10 Player of the Year in '85, is the most intimidating holeman, or playmaker, in college. But he was not always so. After a game three years ago, Dettamanti exploded at his freshman holeman: "With a body like yours, you can't be a pansy the rest of your life." Klass says, "I came to college and all of a sudden all the guys were bigger and quicker than me. They made me look stupid."
No longer. Klass now takes two-meter guards to school. He not only intimidates them, but he exhausts them: Up and down the pool, he is faster than anyone else on the Cardinal squad except Pablo Morales, and Morales is the world record holder in the 100-meter butterfly. Stanford has also struck a fine balance on defense, where sophomore Todd Kemp and junior Obi Greenman split time as goalie.
Dettamanti, 44, has been adept at keeping his teams happy. "We have two team rules," he says. "Don't be late for meetings, and don't be an ass." Short and sweet, like Dettamanti himself. In his 10th year at Stanford, Dettamanti has won four NCAA championships and has a 249-38-6 record. He now has a chance to become the first coach to win two NCAA titles with undefeated teams; the unbeaten Cardinal also won in '81. Stanford trailed in only two games this season and outscored opponents 440-175, an average of 13-5.
"The '81 team had more talent man-for-man," Dettamanti says, "but this team has more speed. This team would beat some of the teams that Stanford swims against. This team has been the most fun. The old team chemistry—this team has it."
Perhaps no one has as much appreciation of the team chemistry as senior Chris Thompson, who suffered a collapsed lung at the end of August. By early September, doctors decided to remove a bit of the lung. While he was being sewn up, his heart stopped working for 45 seconds. Twenty seconds of heart massage finally revived him.
"In the hospital, when they told me I couldn't play, I got really upset," he says. "It wasn't just that I couldn't play, but that I couldn't be with these guys. They are the whole reason I came back."
Thompson played in his first game 42 days after his operation. He isn't bothered that classmate Greg Ocasek has taken his spot. He is just happy to be back with Imbo and Klass and the rest of a Cardinal gang that in three years has come a long way indeed.