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Former Cal Women’s Water Polo head coach Rich Corso sues Cal for wrongful termination

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Apparently, Hall of Fame coach Rich Corso did not quietly go into retirement after stepping down last August.

Rich Corso is seen here coaching Cal Women’s Water Polo during the 2011 NCAA Championship Match
Cal Women’s Water Polo Facebook

As first reported by Bay Area News Group last week, former Cal Women’s Water Polo head coach Rich Corso is suing UC Berkeley and the UC Regents for wrongful termination. Corso is asking for $1.38 million for lost wages and other benefits.

Richard Corso, who coached Cal’s women’s team from 2006-16, alleges in an Alameda County Superior Court suit that school officials created a hostile work environment in order to force him out last year.

According to the suit, administrators wanted to hire a younger woman to run the water polo program that Corso had built into one of the nation’s best.

Cal officials disputed the claims Wednesday in a statement issued to this news organization, adding that the school has been penalized by the NCAA for a rules violation committed during Corso’s tenure.

“Many of the allegations in coach Corso’s lawsuit are demonstrably false, and statements that the lawsuit attributes to Cal athletics administrators are entirely fictitious,” the school’s statement read.

Corso, 62, charges age and gender discrimination against Cal athletic director Mike Williams, senior women’s administrator Jenny Simon-O’Neill and Jay Larson, associate athletic director of compliance.

It was announced on August 24th, 2016, that Rich Corso was stepping down as the head coach of Cal Women’s Water Polo - the youngest and least successful of Cal Aquatics, outside of diving (which only got a competitive facility with the opening of Legends Aquatics Complex last year). Cal Aquatics, the “crown jewel” of Cal Athletics given all the Olympians produced and national championships won (I consider Cal Rugby and Men’s Crew more of the “heart and soul” of Cal Athletics), is easily one of the better funded and supported parts of Cal Olympic/Non-revenue Sports. Cal eventually replaced the 62 years old Corso with a 39 years old Coralie Simmons, an ex-UCLA Bruin who had been a mainstay on the US Women’s Water Polo National Team during her playing career. Simmons had also recently served as the coach of the U.S. Junior National Team in addition to being the head coach of Division II Sonoma State University.

As a part of the lawsuit, Corso claims that Cal fabricated the self-reported violation concerning the NCAA’s 20 hours a week training limit. The program had to suffer a reduction of 48 hours of practice time penalty as the result. The two sides apparently agreed on a new contract despite this, before Corso was forced to step down.

Like most Cal non-revenue sports and women’s sports, Cal Women’s Water Polo program have had a really great (100%) graduation rate. Since stepping down, Corso is now serving as the youth technical director at the Westlake Village Pride Water Polo Academy.

While Corso is clearly the most successful coach in Cal Women’s Water Polo history (227-98 record), his Golden Bears have only played for the national championship once (in 2011 when they lost to UCLA). Cal is a perennial mainstay in the top 10 in the country during Corso’s regime, but there was a clear gap between Cal and their California Pac-12 counterparts at UCLA (7 NCAA championships), Stanford (5 NCAA championships) and USC (4 NCAA championships) - the only schools to have won the NCAA championships in women’s water polo since this championship was founded in 2001.

Rich Corso, a former US National Team head coach in the 1996 Olympics (a squad that included current Cal Men’s Water Polo head coach Kirk Everist), was voted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2015. His Cal tenure did include mentoring Calympian Elsie Windes - a 2008 and 2012 Calympian on the USA Women’s National Team. When I spoke with Coach Everist about Corso stepping down back in September, Everist had nothing but good things to say about his old coach:

Ruey Yen: Speaking of women’s water polo team, Head Coach Rich Corso has recently announced that he is stepping down. How much have you guys work together.

Kirk Everist: Yep, Rich and I have worked together for a long time. He coached me on the [USA] Olympic Team in 1996 [Atlanta]. I played for him at the Junior Worlds at the age groups of 17 and under in 1985 and then the 19 and under championship in 1987. I played club water polo with him for awhile as well.

He’s done a great job with Cal Women’s Water Polo. They have a very good year last year and a lot of those players are returning. I think they have a bright future.


OPINION:

While Cal Women’s Water Polo have had Olympians, all 3 of the current Calympians came from Europe (Dora Antal and Anna Illes are from Hungary, Roser Tarrago is from Spain). Unlike Men’s Water Polo where those mediterranean European countries reign supreme, Women’s Water Polo has been dominated by the United States. Rich Corso’s lack of recruitment from the US National Team pipeline has put the Golden Bears program at a disadvantage for years. Given the success of the rest of the Cal Aquatics, particularly in the time period since 2001 when Cal Men’s Water Polo has won 3 NCAA championships, Women’s Swimming (and Diving) has won 4 NCAA team championships, and Men’s Swimming (and Diving) has won 3 NCAA team championships, there probably existed pressure within Cal Aquatics backers to replace Corso. Unfortunately, the procedure to “fire” Corso (while saving face and have it looks like that he’s retired - and possibly save money in the buy out) has turned ugly.

On the scale of Cal Athletics lawsuits, this one is nowhere as egregious as the one by the Cal Field Hockey players after their field was taken away suddenly (that one cost Cal Athletics over $7+ million and counting). Sadly, this is nonetheless another black eye for Cal Athletics after all the recent talks of debts and the possibility of cutting sports. Being one of the non-CGB lawyer here, I sense this lawsuit will probably be settled sooner than later. Regardless, one has to question the competency of Cal Athletics further by the existence of this lawsuit.

There is little question that Rich Corso had a pretty good run at Cal, building and maintaining the Cal Women’s Water Polo program during the bulk of its competitions since the establishment of the NCAA championship in the sport. Unfortunately for him, the expectation for a Cal Aquatic program is much higher than that of some other athletic programs at Cal. I wish him the best in his future endeavor, which could easily be retirement after such a long career in coaching.

Cal Women’s Water Polo is having another fine start (9-1 with a close 10-7 loss to No.1 Stanford) as the clear 4th ranked team in the country. The jury is still out whether the new coaching staff lead by Coralie Simmons, with the staff of 2016 Rio Olympics USA Women’s Water Polo assistant coach Christopher Lee and US Calympian great Heather Petri, will bring the program to the promised land. What will be the most telling would be the quality of the Cal recruits in the next few years.

For those commenters who are sometimes complaining about why Cal doesn’t change coaches in whichever Non-Revenue program, maybe a coaching change is not so easy to maneuver after all.

GO BEARS!