In 1981, with most of its NCAA championship-winning roster returning from the year before – including four first-team All-Americans – expectations were lofty for the Stanford University men’s water polo team.
“The team basically had no weaknesses,” said Dante Dettamanti, who started his 25-year career as Stanford’s coach in 1977 and won eight NCAA titles there. “We were strong in every phase of the game – we had great offense, defense, goalkeeping and great depth off the bench.”
The expectations and pressure might have been high, but the Cardinal never wavered, entering the NCAA tournament with a perfect regular-season record of 28-0. However, Stanford started the NCAA tournament slowly with an 8-5 opening-round victory in Long Beach, California, against a Brown University team the Cardinal had whipped, 25-6, in the regular season. After handling the University of California, Irvine, 13-6, in the semifinals, Stanford would match up against the host 49ers from Long Beach State University for the NCAA title.
What seemed to promise to be a great contest was almost over before it started. The Cardinal opened a 4-1 lead after the first quarter, increased it to 8-3 at halftime and finished off the 49ers by a score of 17-6, the largest margin of victory in NCAA title game history.
“My memories of that game are so vivid in some ways, and in other ways it is just a blur,” said John Tanner, a junior on that team and now the women’s water polo coach at Stanford. “The tempo of the game was really fast. We pressed them, and whenever they missed a shot it seemed like we were able to score on a counterattack. Before you knew it, the score was spiraling out of control.”
Dettamanti, the legendary coach and Hall of Famer who has been around the game since the 1950s, said he can’t imagine a team challenging the 1981 men’s margin-of-victory record anytime soon. In the past 14 years, no team has won the NCAA title by more than three goals. In fact, 10 of those contests have been decided in overtime or by one goal.
“No one will ever break that record,” Tanner said of the 11-goal margin. “Our team was extremely talented, prepared and determined. But the bigger obstacle to a comparable blowout is defense, which has evolved substantially over the past 30 years, and it’s inconceivable anyone could score 17 goals.”
The 1981 championship game wasn’t just a record-setter; it still represents the only time in the 46 years of the NCAA National Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championship that the title has been decided by double digits.
“Our style was real simple and real direct, but there was a sense of purpose for each of the players,” Tanner said. “Everyone was capable of doing multiple things and playing different roles. Offensively, we had a ton of team speed, and then on defense, we had so much skill and desire.”
If the record for margin of victory is never broken, it may be because the level of talent in the 1981 Cardinal squad can’t be matched. Stanford had three players who would go on to represent the United States in the Olympic Games, including Jody Campbell (1984 and 1988), James Bergeson (1988) and Alan Mouchawar (1988). All three were first-team All-Americans in 1981, as were Chris Kelsey and Vince Vannelli.
In addition, Bill Taylor was a second-team All-American, making six of the seven starters either first- or second-teamers.
“It is almost impossible to compare teams across eras,” Dettamanti said. “But I would put the 1981 Stanford team among the best of all time, certainly in the top three.”