CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Harvard University head coach Ted Minnis has already made a name for himself in the Collegiate Water Polo Association, and now the press is noticing as the second-year men's and women's water polo coach of the Crimson is featured in a story by Joseph Pak in the April 25 edition of the Crimson, the official school newspaper of Harvard University.
Now the Rocky Balboa-esque Minnis will seek to cap off another standout women's season with Harvard by guiding his squad to the 2012 CWPA Eastern Championship at Brown University this weekend on Friday-Sunday, April 27-29.
Minnis Forges Unlikely Path to Harvard
The alarm clock rings at 2:00 a.m. on Friday morning.
Twenty-three-year old Ted Minnis rolls out of bed, gets dressed, and kisses his three-year-old son Josh goodbye before stepping out into the crisp morning air in Menlo Park, Calif.
It’s now 2:10 in the morning. Minnis is off to work at Durham Meat Company, where he lifts hundreds of pounds of meat into a truck and makes deliveries to locations all over the Bay Area.
At 11:00 a.m., Minnis drives down in the meat truck to Lynbrook High School in San Jose. He arrives in the parking lot just as his team is starting to warm up and blows his air horn to let them know the coach has arrived. He runs to the pool, gathers his team, and gives them a few quick last-minute words of encouragement.
It’s now 12:10 p.m. Minnis has a quick post-game meeting with his players and then rushes out again to finish his deliveries.
At 2:00 p.m., Minnis returns to coach his second game of the day. Afterwards, he finishes up his final deliveries and then returns home to play with his son before going to sleep.
Nearly two decades later, Minnis finds himself in a very different place in his second year as the Harvard water polo coach. But it’s a place he always imagined he would end up.
“I think I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be a pro athlete,” Minnis says. “But I loved sports, and I wanted to be involved in something to do with sports with my life. Everyone said that I was good at coaching.”
Now standing at 6’5”, the Menlo Park native was always taller than most of his peers growing up. His athletic career began on the basketball court, where he was known for his low-post game. But in eighth grade, one of Minnis’ friends introduced him to a different sport: water polo.
“It’s funny because, I’m almost 6’5”, but for a basketball player, I’m not tall,” Minnis says. “I couldn’t handle, I couldn’t dribble; my basketball career was short-lived. I was trying to decide if I was going to play football, because I’m a big man, or water polo; all my friends were going to play water polo, and I had a swimming background.”
His decision to return to the pool turned out to be a defining point in his life.
Minnis jumped right into the sport, joining the Menlo-Atherton high school team, where he played in goal.
But Minnis did not graduate from Menlo-Atherton, leaving the school after the birth of his son, Josh. In order to provide for his family, Minnis found a job making deliveries for a local meat company.
“I had a son, so I had to make money,” Minnis says.
But Minnis did not stay away from the pool for long, though, returning to coach the men’s water polo team at his alma mater at age 21. It was a position he held for the next 11 years of his life.
“I worked, coached, and then came home to sleep,” Minnis said. “Then I got up, played with my son. We did that for a while.”
Juggling a job at the meat company, duties as a father, and a coaching position was no easy feat.
Working at the meat company was grueling, physically demanding work.
Minnis regularly woke up at 2 a.m. to get in early shifts so that he could get off work early enough to start coaching in the afternoon and see his son.
Five years after his son Josh was born, Minnis filed for divorce from his wife, and when Josh turned 10, he gained full custody of his son.
“I was off and on with my mom and dad until I was 10 years old,” Josh Minnis said. “After 10, I started staying with my dad during the week and visiting my mom on weekends. He didn’t raise me by himself, my mom also helped, [but] my dad has always been there for me. He made sacrifices like not going to college because he had to make sure there was food on the table.”
While Minnis found himself a single father at an early age, he stresses that he had help along the way.
“I was very lucky because all my family is in the Bay Area; I was lucky to have that support,” Minnis says. “[My ex-wife] would see him every other weekend. It wasn’t like she was a deadbeat mom. Yeah things were cramped, we probably got on each others nerves, but [Josh is] a very good kid, and he always made it easy on me.”
Although his situation was difficult at times, Minnis seems to have kept a positive outlook on his life.
“For me, I just did what came naturally as a dad,” Minnis said. “People were always amazed that I had full custody of him and he lived with me. My friends always tell me ‘your life should be a movie.’ And I always respond, ‘I don’t know, I’m just doing me.’”
One day, opportunity came knocking at Minnis’ door. The Castilleja School, an independent girls school in Palo Alto, offered him a full-time coaching gig.
“I decided that I couldn’t throw a hundred pounds of meat on my shoulder for the rest of my life,” Minnis said. “I wanted to get paid for what I could do and not what I could lift, [so] I actually went back to school and [received] an opportunity [to work] at the Castilleja School.”
Minnis arrived at the Castilleja School in the late ’90s. There, Minnis coached everything from middle school softball to high school basketball for 11 years. He served as the middle school director athletic director and before he left Castilleja, he served as the interim high school athletic director while athletic director Jez McIntosh was on a sabbatical at Stanford helping out with the Stanford women’s basketball team.
“Ted rebuilt the water polo program at Castilleja,” McIntosh said. “We had a strong program in the 80s, but it kind of deteriorated. [Ted] was brought in in ‘98 and reestablished a competitive program here. He was a true ambassador for the sport; he probably approached every girl on campus to try water polo.”
While working at Castilleja, Minnis also coached for the Stanford University women’s water polo club team with current Stanford women’s water polo head coach John Tanner while attending classes at San Jose State University.
Taking classes at San Jose State was a sign of recommitment to education for Minnis, who had struggled with dyslexia at a young age.
“School was difficult for me,” Minnis says. “Once I realized [getting my college degree] was what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to be, things started to open up for me.”
Indeed, more doors would open for the Bay Area native.
In 2005, Minnis received his college degree from San Jose State University and got asked to teach full-time at the Castilleja School.
"[It] was amazing for me because I was getting paid to coach water polo and teach,” Minnis said. “Even before I got my degree, doors opened up. Doors opened up because of water polo, they saw what I could do with the kids.”
In July 2010, Ted Minnis was hired as the men’s and women’s water polo coach at Harvard.
What began as an assistant coaching job with the boy’s basketball team at the Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park finally came to a dream fulfilled and realized.
“I always wanted to coach in college, but I couldn’t coach because I didn’t have a college degree,” Minnis said. “I thought I would spend the rest of my career at Castilleja. [Harvard] is the only place that would get me away from there.”
Word of Minnis’ employment reached Harvard senior attacker Lizzie Abbott particularly quickly. Abbott had played for Minnis at the Stanford club team from a young age and had been in contact with Minnis during his hiring process.
“He was my first coach for my club team. We took third at Junior Olympics when I was sixteen,” Abbott says. “When he got the job in June, it was really exciting. He just knows so much about me as a player and as a person. Not a lot of people can say that [about their college coach].”
For Minnis, working at Harvard as the men’s and women’s water polo coach is a culmination of years and years of hard work and focused dedication to his dream of coaching at the collegiate level.
During his time coaching and working as the middle school athletic director at the Castilleja School, Minnis gained an appreciation of the idea of the scholar-athlete, an idea that he has brought with him to Harvard.
“Castilleja is a school that is a very academic school,” Minnis said. “For me, I knew what it meant to coach an Ivy League athlete. [Although] I understand that we are scholar-athletes and that the academic part is always going to come first for [my team], I still think that we can be very competitive in the pool and be one of the top programs in the country.”
Minnis also gained valuable insights into the inner workings of an athletic administration.
“Being a college coach, there is so much of the administrative stuff that you have to do,” Minnis said. “Working as an administrator, working with budgets, helped prepare me to get [the water polo coach job at Harvard].”
From his time with the Stanford women’s water polo club team, Minnis learned how to conduct practices efficiently and effectively under the guidance of a highly successful mentor in Stanford women’s water polo coach John Tanner.
“When it come to coaching water polo, that’s where I cut my teeth and learned how to do what I do,” Minnis said. “[Tanner] really taught me organization and how to look at the game, how to go from the beginning and break it down into small pieces and bring it up to that total end. He taught me how to be a teacher.”
While picking up lessons in organization and leadership, Minnis also incorporated much of the Stanford water polo mantra into his own coaching doctrine.
Even now, the Harvard men’s and women’s water polo run many of the same offensive and defensive systems that the No. 1 Cardinal women’s water polo team employs.
“The system we run is [Tanner’s] system,” Minnis said. “We might attack it differently, but the general basics are what I’ve done at Stanford for the last 12 years.”
Minnis stresses that defense is where every aspect of his game plans start.
“Everything starts on the defensive end,” Minnis said. “We’re going to get a stop on defense, we’re going to transition, we’re going to score a goal, and then we’re going to come back and get another stop. I like the up-tempo game; we like to stretch the pool and make them defend us two-meter to two-meter.”
For Minnis, collaboration with other coaches and other experts has been key. He has gone so far as to integrate some parts of his game plan from other sports.
“He’s always learning and surrounded himself with college level coaches always picking up new drills,” McIntosh said. “Him being open to other people’s feedback and always trying to learn more has helped his development over the years.”
For example, Minnis has incorporated plays from basketball, a sport that he has stayed close to over the years.
“One of our timeout plays is something that I have seen Tara Vanderveer from Stanford run,” Minnis said. “It’s worked. It’s a thing that she ran for Candace Wiggins.”
Yet another example of this collection was his removal of the tradition where freshman players would carry the team equipment on the road at away games.
“I always had freshman carry equipment on the road and stuff like that,” Minnis said. “I talked to other coaches and they said, ‘We don’t do that’. If we are going to consider ourselves a family, you wouldn’t have your little brother or sister always doing all the chores. You’re going to have to do some of the chores too.”
Minnis still remembers his first coaching job at Phillips Brooks with coach Stan Drake.
“One of the biggest things that I took away [from coaching with Drake] is to always have a smile on your face when you’re playing the sport and have fun with it,” Minnis said. “It’s not a job; we’re not out here solving world problems. We play the game we love, and we’re lucky to be playing it. My kids have bought into that, and they compete.”
His positive outlook on coaching has carried over from his early days juggling jobs at the meat company and at Menlo-Atherton High School.
“Working at the meat company—that has all kind of built who I am,” Minnis said. “I’m a leader, and I know I’m a leader, but I think I can lead by example and lead with a smile on my face and make [my team] enjoy what they’re doing. I think that’s the line.”
Minnis wants the Harvard student body and community to be equally excited for Harvard water polo and is working hard to make sure his teams are successful.
“My dad’s just a workhorse,” Josh Minnis said. “One of the main things that he focuses on when he is coaching is building up the sport from the ground up.”
When he is not spending time watching and re-watching game film and thinking about how he can make his team better, Minnis has been working on starting a club team at Harvard to get local youth interested in water polo and aquatics.
“I’d always love to see more minorities in general to be interested in aquatics,” Minnis said. “Especially water polo. It’s been such a big part of getting me to where I am.”
During his long journey to Harvard, Minnis has displayed commitment and focus to developing his players and his sport from scratch, just as he has developed his own philosophy and style as a coach over the years through hard work and persistence.
As a single, African-American father from a humble background who gave up so much for his son and his dream of being a college coach, Ted Minnis has finally found a home and a dream fulfilled at Harvard.
Reprinted from the April 25 Harvard Crimson. All rights reserved.