The rivalries in swimming tend to be biggest in extending beyond conference borders. Sure, the traditional collegiate rivalries exist – North Carolina/Virginia, Florida/Georgia/Auburn, Cal/Stanford.
But every few years, we roll into a new rivalry, a rivalry that steps outside of those intra-conference spats, and in the 2010’s, that rivalry is the Cal men vs. the Texas men.
And while in many college sports, especially football, those huge in-season rivalries are what drive the sport, in swimming, it’s the ones at the end of the year that accurately capture the mood.
In the 1930’s, the battle was Michigan vs. Ohio State. Then in the 1940’s, Yale joined to make that a three-way slug fest for the next 20 years or so.
In the 60’s, USC entered the battle, joined by a different Big Ten team, the Indiana Hoosiers (who with the likes of Mark Spitz won the title from 1968-1973, with USC placing as the runner-up for 4 of those 6 seasons).
In the later part of the 70’s, there wasn’t really a great rivalry, as USC dominated the scene for a few years, and then a rotating cast of the typical powerhouses cycled through from about 1978-1987, for a decade or so.
Then in the late 80’s, Eddie Reese and Texas rose to power, and for the next 10 years it was them and Stanford, until the late 90’s when Auburn showed they would be a force for some time to come, and then those three (Auburn, Texas, and Stanford) carried things up and through the supersuit era in 2009. Those years were quite bitter – Auburn was the “foreigners,” Texas was the “no-foreigners,” and Stanford just did its own thing out on the West coast.
Since then, Auburn and Stanford haven’t really been in the team title conversation, though both remain top 10 programs, and it’s become Cal vs. Texas.
This rivalry may have seen its peak last weekend in Austin, where the two teams were deadlocked at less than a 10 point margin going into the meet’s final day – after a couple of years of blowouts and runaways, there was some excitement in the final session for a change. That excitement is what was badly needed to show just how great this rivalry has become.
Statistically, the two teams are the dominant of this decade so far. They have owned the top two spots at NCAA’s every year since 2010 except for one (2013), with Texas winning one of those titles and Cal winning three.
The two teams were the overwhelming fan bases in attendance as well. Texas, as the host team, turned out great support not just from parents, but from young alumni and even the student body. Cal travels better than anybody in the country and complete with about a dozen grown men dressed as grizzly-bears, they matched Texas’ volume.
The result was a chamber of deafening noise throughout the meet, which brought alive the other parent groups. For anybody who had never been to an NCAA Championship meet before, this was about the finest example of what the event can bring.
Searching even deeper reveals more clues about what makes this rivalry so good. Texas has an unbelievable diving group, whereas Cal has none – but Cal has brought in a big freshman diver for next season, because they know that time is thin where they can compete with the Longhorns without one.
Texas men’s coach Eddie Reese is on the tail-end of his career. Longhorn fans never want to hear it, but at 72-years old, there’s only so much longer that he can remain at the helm of the warship that he’s built, be that 2 years, 6 years, through Rio, through Tokyo: at some point in the not-so-distant future, he will step back and find a different and less taxing way to be involved with swimming.
Dave Durden, on the other hand, is the ‘new kid on the block’ at Cal. When he got the Cal job, to be totally frank, there were a lot of vocal Cal alumni who didn’t get it, who didn’t like it. From 2005 through 2007 at Maryland, things were pretty lackluster. But Durden has more-than-proven his worth in 7 years at Cal, as the only coach in that period to win more than one NCAA title.
Both teams are built similarly – much depth everywhere, with some fragileness in their breaststroke groups. They build their seasons similarly two, as the two were the two programs which had the most improvements as compared to seed at NCAA’s – showing that the philosophy of ‘save it all for nationals’ rides in both programs.
Even on a macro-level, the two are a great matchup. Both are located in hipster paradises (Austin and Berkeley) and are academically two of the best public universities in the country.
Focusing in with a microscope, they got the two super-recruits in the high school class of 2013: Ryan Murphy and Jack Conger. Murphy got the upper-hand, both individually and in a team sense, in year one, but that rivalry has been on-going for years, and it’s fitting now that they swim for rival programs at the NCAA level.
At the end of the day, though, it’s exciting meets that builds the interest, and these two are doing that. With neither team having glaring weaknesses in their lineups, It’s hard for either team to build a lead early enough that the meet’s out-of-touch after the first day or two at NCAA’s.
There will be other title winners. There always has been, even through the years of the big rivalries, and the existence of the big rivalries around them is what makes those one-off or two-off winners more exciting. Michigan last year, Michigan in 1995, Cal won a couple in 1979 & 1980, and those titles become highlights.
But for now, college swimming is riding the Texas-Cal rivalry, and if the meets continue to be anything like the one we saw last week in Austin, who knows: maybe they’ll even be able to get Indy rocking again in 2017 when the men’s and women’s meets go back there after some pretty lackluster crowds (and results) in 2013.