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Interview with Caltech Head Coach Josh Moser

On July 12 Caltech made news not for its typically good-natured athletic futility, but for cheating. In fact, the highly regarded institution reported its own infractions to the NCAA after discovering that in past years several athletes were not technically enrolled in school while they competed - a function of Caltech’s practice of "class shopping," where students can try courses before signing up. For this crime the NCAA charmingly placed Caltech athletics on probation until 2015 and banned them from post-season competition. This punishment will surely put in jeopardy Caltech’s chances of winning the NCAA championship in 2012. Oh no, wait: Caltech hasn’t averaged more than a single victory per season in the past decade. Well done, NCAA.

Head coach of probably the brainiest water polo squads in the world, Josh Moser isn’t allowed to discuss the case directly. TWp cornered him anyway to ask him about his program and the kind of student-athletes that attend Caltech.

* Caltech is considered one of the most demanding academic institutions in the world. Tell us something about the student-athletes you coach?
Caltech certainly is the most demanding school around. Last year it was ranked as the number one school in the world. But on top of that the school pushes these students harder than any school I have been around or heard of. The curriculum is just insanely tough. Our undergrads are often on par with other top universities’ grad students in both course- and lab-work. So Admissions has to make sure they weed out the kids who are simply good at math and science and find the scientists and mathematicians. It makes recruiting very tough.
The kids themselves are great. They are just like students on other campuses, except you feel really dumb when they talk about their work around you! This summer I have students working at the top financial companies, at CERN in Austria, at NGOs in Africa, in labs all over the world...and none of them have even graduated from college yet!

* Your rosters are filled with players from throughout the US. Is that intentional, or mainly a function the kind of students Caltech admits?
The international students and the players from around the country are mostly a product of how Caltech admits students. The school has under a thousand undergrads, so each class is about 235 students. And of those 235 they want it to be as diverse a group as possible. So national and world-wide recruiting is a must, as is trying to get the swimming prospects to give us a try.

* How much experience does the typical Caltech water polo athlete have before playing for you?
A lot of the players come to Caltech with little to no water polo experience. A few have never heard of the game before someone tells them to come try it out. This is an area that I would like to improve upon somewhat, but to be honest I love the idea of taking a student-athlete with no experience and helping them become a great polo player. The flip side is we have a couple players with lifelong club experience, and we lean on them to be the leaders and help out with teaching skills. In one of the Men's victories last year, the two players who scored hat-tricks were first year polo players. That kind of progress really shouldn't happen! It is a testament to how smart and hard-working these kids really are.

* Last season the men won a game for the first time since 2004, and the women won three matches, the most in several years. How do you explain your recent successes?
The only way to explain our success is by looking at the work ethics of these student-athletes. Bouncing between morning practices to class, to the lab, to class to practice, to office hours, to working a job on campus, back to the lab, to putting in a 6- or 8-hour homework set. That is literally how packed some of their days are. But at the same time, we have done a good job growing as a group to the point where there are no excuses for missing practice. You don't get into Caltech by being unable to balance your schedule and work your butt off, so we demand nothing less than that. It was extremely gratifying to break that men's streak because those seniors had heard me chirp on and on for four years about how their work would pay off, and it finally did! The women grew so close as a group and work so hard in the pool and offseason that I struggle to keep up sometimes. They decided collectively that they wanted to compete. And when Techers decide something it usually happens.

* Recently Caltech’s practice of "class shopping" hit the news. What is it? How does it affect your student-athletes differently than those at other colleges?
It’s not really all that different from the way other schools operate. The only real difference is that our last day to add classes is a bit later than at other institutions. Therefore, students can hang out in a class for awhile, doing the work and getting graded and showing up every day without actually being officially enrolled. A great deal of our Sophomore and Junior level classes are on par with most universities’ first and second year PhD programs, so it is important for the students to get a grasp of the speed and workload of a course before they are locked in. It is a well-intentioned policy, but like everything else it creates problems as well as solutions.

* What are your goals for the program? What does Caltech water polo’s future look like?
My goals for the program are pretty simple: long term, I want to win a SCIAC Championship with each team. It is not going to be easy, and I will have to really have some lucky years with the admissions department, but we really are not that far off. The next step is believing we can win, having the horses to do so, and going out and earning some respect among the other teams in our conference. I am convinced it can be done, but there will be a lot of hard work, and a few lucky bounces.
This year is a big one for both programs. We graduate a ton of outstanding players and individuals, so it's the last hurrah for a good chunk of the men and women I have worked with here. That means that in 2013-14 it will be a lot of fun to see how a new group decides to put their stamp on the programs and move them forward.

* Where did you learn your water polo? Tell us about your stops along the way to your current coaching position?
I played high school and club ball for Carlsbad Water Polo and played for four years at Occidental College, graduating in 2006. I was familiar with Division 3 and the SCIAC conference, so when the Caltech position opened up in the summer of '08, I jumped at it. I was coaching at Flintridge Preparatory School for a couple years, where we made CIF's for the first time in 5 or 6 years and it was really tough saying goodbye to that group of guys, but the opportunity to coach literally the smartest water polo team in the world was impossible to pass up. For the last five years I have also been the Assistant Head Coach for Mid Valley Water Polo, a club team based out of Temple City, CA. I remember my first year there I had less than five kids at most practices, and this summer we are sending four teams to JO's! It has been really cool to jump in and help build from the ground up.