In my decades of sportswriting and countless interviews with coaches in all sports at myriad different levels, from pros to pee wee, longtime Newport Harbor High water polo coach Bill Barnett was the most no-nonsense coach I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Barnett died Dec. 24, 2018, following a brief battle with acute leukemia. There was no funeral or memorial service, per his request. His ashes were to be spread at sea. He was 76.
In honor of Barnett, there will be a kickoff to name the aquatics facility after the legendary coach, in conjunction with the Newport Harbor Alumni Water Polo Game at 11 a.m. Sept. 24.
That day, fans, alumni and friends will be invited to sign a petition to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board to forward the facility naming project. Following the alumni game, the celebration will continue at Trenta Pizza and Cucina in Costa Mesa.
According to the school district, construction is expected to begin next summer to upgrade the aquatic facility, a project that includes shade structures, replacement of bleachers, addition of sports lighting and relocation of the scoreboard. An additional phase may include pool plaster and deck repairs, remodel of locker rooms, restrooms, showers and coaches’ offices.
The Bill Barnett Aquatic Center has a nice ring to it.
“Over the last year, we have increased engagement with Newport Harbor High School water polo alumni, boys and girls, and have had good turnouts at our alumni games so we see this as a kickoff to the naming process and a chance to show the school board that there is widespread support for the initiative,” said Alan Slutzky, who is spearheading the Barnett Center naming initiative through the Newport Harbor Water Polo Alumni Association.
Barnett retired from coaching in 2015 after 49 seasons at the school, creating a CIF-Southern Section powerhouse in boys and girls water polo. Barnett coached the Harbor boys to 10 CIF Division 1 championships and the girls to five section titles. He coached the Newport boys for three decades, beginning in 1966, and transitioned to the girls team in 1996, when the sport began to soar in popularity for girls.
Barnett’s coaching career at Newport Harbor produced Olympians Kaleigh Gilchrist on the U.S. women’s team and Eric Lindroth, Kevin Robertson and James Bergeson on the men’s team.
In 1988, Barnett coached the U.S. men’s Olympic water polo team to a silver medal at the Seoul Games, and guided Team USA again at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
Barnett’s Olympic success elevated in magnitude over the years as the U.S. did not earn another medal until a silver at the 2008 Beijing Games.
After Barnett died, USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey posted on Twitter: “Sad hearing that Bill Barnett has passed away. Bill was a giant among American coaches.”
According to former Harbor player Eric Oberg, playing for Barnett “gave you instant credibility. It was like saying you played football for Vince Lombardi.”
Barnett, considered a master at strategy and fundamentals, was hired at Newport Harbor out of college at Long Beach State, where he graduated with a degree in physical education. Barnett has been inducted into the Long Beach State Athletics Hall of Fame and USA Water Polo Hall of Fame.
To sign the petition or get more information on the alumni game or post-game celebration, contact Slutzky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Dunn, a longtime sportswriter, writes the Dunn Deal column regularly for The Orange County Register’s weekly, The Coastal Current North.