In a Decade at UC Davis, Leyson Bring Harmony to Aggie Water Polo

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UC Davis Head Coach Dan Leyson (center) is all in for victory when it comes to his Aggies. Photo Courtesy: UCD Athletics

Daniel Leyson has been all over the world for water polo, including an appearance at the Olympics—the highest level of competition for his sport. Along the way on a career that has taken him from club coaching with Rose Bowl to collegiate stops at his alma mater, USC (Class of ’92), and UCLA, to playing under the legendary Ratko Rudic with the United States Senior Men’s Team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, his guitar has always been along for the ride.

uc-davis-aggiesThe UC Davis head men’s water polo coach, Leyson isn’t shy about showcasing his musical talents. Whether it be to raise money for his nationally ranked men’s team, or using a song to bring his team closer together in the pursuit of excellence, the eighth-year Aggie head coach is as talented with his six string as he is coaching six players in the pool at any given moment.

“I’m not sure where my love of music came from,” he said recently to Jason Spencer, UC Davis Assistant Director, Athletics Communications. “Neither of my parents were really into music, but I was always drawn to it and obsessive about finding new bands and really listening carefully to songs.”

Clearly, Leyson not only has his players listening, they’ve mastered the nuances of harmony.

In seven seasons at the Aggie helm, the Southern California native has guided UC Davis to 127 wins, a commanding 41-3 record in the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA), six winning seasons, and three conference titles in the last four seasons. UCD has finished among the nation’s top 10 in each of those four campaigns and advanced to the NCAA men’s tournament in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

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A year ago he and his squad accomplished something that no UCD men’s program had done in 40 years: beat Cal-Berkeley. The 16-13 overtime defeat of the then #5 ranked Golden Bears—the Aggie’s first over Cal in since 1976—was the program’s biggest win ever under Leyson, and was a testament to his “blue collar” approach to playing polo.

“We need to work hard, we need to coach the right way, have a positive attitude, and we will attract the right type of players as we go on,” Leyson said. “If we want to build something here that’s really strong, it’s going to take extraordinary work. There’s nothing that is worthwhile to obtain that didn’t require a ton of sacrifice, so, that mentality is something that we embrace.”

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Livin’ the dream! Photo Courtesy: UCD Athletics

And, in a refreshing break from the oppressive tough-guy posture presented by successful coaches—think, Bill Belichik and his hoodie—the Aggie coach has no problem gathering his players around for a rousing rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s anthem “We Are Family”—or even John Denver’s country-tinged “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

“Something about multiple voices singing together moves me,” Leyson said. “When we sing, it’s fantastic. If it doesn’t put a smile on your face nothing will.”

Not that it comes easily; like with his polo instruction, the coach has to prod his players to get past their natural tendencies.

“All of us have to let down our guard because most people are self-conscious about singing, so we are building team camaraderie through song,” he said.

What makes this noteworthy is Leyson’s tutelage under the fanatically disciplined Rudic, known for pushing his athletes through endless hours of swimming to build up their mental toughness. Leyson’s coaching approach emphasizes team cohesion revolving around showing “love for each other in how we interact with each other and how we play alongside each other.”

Apparently, singing does reinforce this camaraderie.

“When we first started doing it, I was curious how it would go with the guys,” Leyson said. “I was so pleasantly surprised that they embraced it and, in some cases, have suggested it to me, which is just great.

“It’s been a really special, unique thing that we do.”

With reporting from UC Davis Athletics

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Mark

    Minor nitpick: Sister Sledge sang “We Are Family,” not Sly. You’re probably thinking of “Family Affair.”

    That said, I’d love to hear this team give “Thank You (Falttinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” a go.

    Great piece!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Mark:

      Thanks for the correction. I WANTED it to be Sly and the Family Stone – and simply didn’t look it up. My apologies to Sister Sledge (and, I suppose, the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates…).

      And, all credit on this piece should go to Jason Spencer, who wrote the original piece on Coach Leyson AND tied in the “More Cowbell” skit from SNL by referencing Bruce Dickinson (you gotta look THAT up!).

      Your correspondent

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