When Ted Bresnahan agreed to take his Gilman School water polo team to Johns Hopkins University for a scrimmage nearly 30 years ago, the coach had no idea that decision would change his life.
"Back then, there weren't as many NCAA rules," Bresnahan said, "so Hopkins called and asked us to come over and scrimmage with them. I think we beat them like 13-3."
That showing by Bresnahan's team was enough to convince George Kennedy, the legendary Hopkins swim coach, to contact Bresnahan and see if he was interested in coaching water polo and helping with the swimming program at Johns Hopkins. Bresnahan said yes, and 27 years later he is still coaching at Hopkins.
"I didn't even really apply for the job," said Bresnahan, who took over the program in its fourth season in existence. "I think the pay was like $1,000 a year. I did it for the love of the sport. I took swimmers and taught them how to play water polo. After about three years we started doing well, and then after about 12 years I guess they figured they couldn't get rid of me."
Bresnahan has established the NCAA Division III Blue Jays as one of the nation's top water polo programs -- at any level.
Bresnahan is closing in on his 400th career win and has coached 93 percent of the Blue Jays' all-time victories. Under Bresnahan, the Blue Jays have defeated every Division I program in the East at least once.
"He's really the heart of the team," said Hopkins senior goalie John Wilson, one of 60 All-Americans Bresnahan has coached. "I don't think a lot of the guys really see it when they are underclassmen, but as you get older, and for me as a captain, you start to realize how much he cares and is thinking about the program at all hours."
Bresnahan's success has come despite the fact he is considered a part-time coach. He works a full-time job with local engineering firm Whitman, Requardt & Associates in addition to his coaching duties.
"After working all day and then practice, my nights are often spent recruiting," Bresnahan said.
Bresnahan's players have received numerous individual accolades. In addition to 60 All-Americans, he has coached five national Players of the Year and five academic All-Americans. He has been named national Coach of the Year three times.
"I don't know how he does it," Wilson said. "Everyone who knows him can see how much he really cares about us and the program. The team's culture kind of typifies that, and it comes right from him."
Bresnahan is a master recruiter, using the institution's academic reputation and the team's culture of accountability to attract players from top programs in California. Ten of the 13 players on this year's roster hail from the Golden State.
"About 12 years ago, Hopkins made the decision to try to open its doors to more students from the West Coast to help balance the student population," Bresnahan said. "That really helped me out. I went to the finest programs and players and threw my name in the hat and told them they could come to one of the finest undergraduate schools in the country and do what they loved."
Wilson said Bresnahan's recruiting skills and the competitive schedule are the reasons top players commit to Hopkins. He said the coach does a great job promoting the quality of a Hopkins education while also allowing the recruits to interact extensively with the team and become enveloped in the program's culture.
"We love it," Wilson said of the challenging schedule his coach assembles, which this season includes contests against 16 Division I opponents and six teams currently ranked among the nation's top 20. "Most of us are from California, so it's nice to play against the same level of competition that we are used to. We don't get the level of support that a lot of the other programs get, but we really accept that challenge and enjoy pushing ourselves to compete at that level."
That level of competition doesn't always lead to a sparkling record. Hopkins' four wins at the Navy Open Sept. 2-3 are one shy of what the Blue Jays earned playing one of the nation's toughest schedules last year. But in 2015, the team went 21-10 and became the first Division III program to play in the Collegiate Water Polo Association championship, coming within one goal of advancing to the sport’s final four. That season the Blue Jays concluded the year ranked 12th in the country.
There is no Division III national championship for water polo, but the CWPA does sponsor a Division III Eastern Championship, which Bresnahan's teams have won a record 16 times. It has been a long, successful run for Bresnahan and his Blue Jays in the pool, but as much as he relishes competing against and knocking off the sport's giants, that's not what makes him proudest.
"We've had close to a 100-percent graduation rate and one of the highest team GPAs on campus," Bresnahan said. "I'm much more proud of that than I am of any wins or rankings. You can come here and do something you love and get a diploma from one of the top schools in the country."
Kennedy, his longtime poolmate, had a front-row seat for many of Bresnahan's successes.
"Ted is a sparkplug who has boundless energy and is at his best when someone needs help or is struggling,” Kennedy said. :It was a gift to me to be able to see him in action firsthand."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics