Since accepting the head coaching position at Michigan in late May, Dr. Marcelo Leonardi hasn't had much chance to rest. Between moving from his southern California home, recruiting, finding an assistant coach and his duties as USA Water Polo's women's national youth team coach, which will compete at the Youth World Championships later this month in Madrid, Spain, Leonardi has enjoyed a summer busier than most.
He comes to Ann Arbor after five years as head coach at Cal State Northridge (2010-14), where he compiled a 115-64 overall record with four 20-win campaigns and top-20 final national rankings each year. He guided his student-athletes to 23 All-Big West accolades, including 10 first-team citations, and eight All-America honors. Prior to moving into the head coaching role, he spent four years as an assistant coach for the Matadors (2006-09).
Leonardi took a short break from a series of department meetings earlier this week, on his birthday no less, to sit down and chat about his attraction to Michigan, a little of his coaching background and his excitement to see a packed Big House and snowfall during the upcoming year.
Q: What were some of the things that attracted you to Michigan?
A: There were a number of things. Obviously, the academic institution was one of the biggest things. Michigan is a brand that is known worldwide. The facilities here are fantastic; they are almost second to none. But the probably the biggest thing is: this job hasn't been open for 12-13 years. When I was coaching high school water polo at that time, I remember thinking to myself, 'Could you imagine if you were at Michigan?' The resources, the facilities and the culture of winning and tradition of wanting to win and providing support to win -- that was the biggest factor. The next step in my coaching career was at a place like Michigan.
Q: You've had a busy summer since accepting the position; what have the last several months involved?
A: Between moving, coaching and national team responsibilities, I've had a lot. The moving part was huge, and I've got to give a lot of credit to my wife, because she probably did 90 percent of it and I did 10 percent. I've been busy all summer with the youth national team, between training camps, selection camps and finalizing the roster. The moment I found out I would be the Michigan coach, it became doing the things necessary to start officially recruiting, because the summer is really the time to identity who that next crop is going to be.
Q: You've worked with several different age groups within water polo. Does that provide greater insight or broader perspective as a coach?
A: Absolutely. I've had experience coaching different age groups from cadet and youth to college. Before I became the head coach here, I also taught high school for 14 years. So, I feel like I can relate to kids and athletes at different age groups. I think it allows me to connect, build strong ties and maximize their potential.
Q: Do you think your background in education and your education in education influences your coaching style?
A: Yeah, it does. I feel that teachers make great coaches. If you can't teach somebody how to do something -- a certain skill, a technical component -- how are you expected to teach the tactical components? There are a lot of different learners at different levels, whether it's visual, kinesthetic or auditory, and if you don't know how to teach, how can you coach? It doesn't matter how great a tactician you are, if you can't teach the fundamentals or certain skill sets or relate to your athletes, you'll never be able to produce that maximum potential that you're trying to reach.
Q: From your handful of visits to Ann Arbor, how have you and your wife enjoyed exploring Ann Arbor and the restaurants and neighborhoods and community here?
A: As compared to Los Angeles and southern California, things move a little slower, people are a little nicer and friendlier, it's greener. The atmosphere is completely different.
Q: Are you excited for that total change of scenery?
A: Before I say yes, I want to say that the water polo is water polo. No matter where I go and what I do, the way I teach and coach water polo -- that's the one thing I know won't change. But I'm excited to see what 100,000 people looks like at the Big House. I'm excited to see basketball and other sports that are fully funded and supported like any other sport at Michigan. I excited to see what it looks like in the winter; I've never experienced living in snow. There are a lot of changes coming, but I'm excited because everything will be a first.
Q: You come from a strong West Coast background; how do you transition to an eastern program? Do you do the same things as you did there, or do you adjust and evolve?
A: My mentality to teaching and coaching does not change. A friend once told me that there's a reason that I've been successful at the institutions that I've been at, and that's because of how I teach things, how I do things and how I prepare. Now, can I add the Michigan culture to it? Most definitely. Can I add some traditions that are embedded within it? Of course. But the water polo doesn't change. I feel that if I can be successful at where I've been, with limited resources and opportunities, then I can come to the east coast and hopefully create a dynasty.