17-Time ACC Title-Winning NC State Coach Don Easterling Dies, 90

Correction: Easterling was 90 years old at the time of his death.

Legendary North Carolina State swim coach Don Easterling died early Saturday morning. He was 90 years old.

According to an email sent to NC State swimming & diving alumni, he had been battling illness for weeks. While that email didn’t specify, other program alumni have said he was hospitalized within the last week while battling pneumonia and COVID-19.

“A coaching legend in the swimming world, Coach E had been battling illness these last couple of weeks and fought valiantly until the very end – one more day, one more lap,” Grant Johnston wrote in the email.

Easterling coached the Fort Worth Panther Boy’s Club and Burford Aquatic Club from 1952-1970 in Texas, and led the University of Texas at Arlington to national prominent from 1966-1970, including an NCAA runner-up performance in 1969.

He is most synonymous, though, with the team at NC State, where he coached for 24 years. There he led the Wolfpack to 17 ACC titles, 15 for men and 2 for women. That included 12 consecutive men’s titles from 1971 through 1982.

He had a career dual-meet record of 329-128 (.720) winning percentage), and coached five Olympians to seven Olympic medals.

Easterling retired mid-season in 1994, at the time saying that he was “tired and worn out” amid a 5th knee operation and ongoing back problems.

John Grzeszczak, a club coach in Florida who was an ACC Champion and record-breaker under Easterling, remembered their “great fights” in the pool. “He was a great coach, a great friend, and a lot of fun, but you better have put in the work,” Grzeszczak remembered of Easterling’s coaching style.

He was named the ACC Coach of the Year four times, the National College Coach of the Year in 1993, and is a member of the Texas Swimming & Diving Hall of Fame, the NC State University Athletics Hall of Fame, and the American Swimmming Coaches’ of America Hall of Fame.

He remained a lifelong supporter of the program; in 2010, he combined with with Phil Truluck, Ann Wrobleski, Walker Truluck to donate for a new scoreboard for the NC State natatorium.

Late in Easterling’s career, he was found negligent in the death of swimmer Onno Johannes Schild, who died during a training run in 1987. As reported by The Los Angeles Times in 1990:

A state commission ruled that swimming Coach Donald Easterling was negligent in pushing Schild during a seven-mile run in 86-degree heat when he knew Schild was on a strict diet to lose about 30 pounds.

The ruling said the coach, in the presence of the team, strongly ordered Schild to lose weight, calling him a “fat pig” and “Pillsbury Doughboy,” but gave no specific instructions on how to do so.

In the complaint filed with the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the Schilds’ attorney described Easterling’s coaching style as “a pattern of sadistic and ‘win at any cost’ behavior.”

NC State was ordered to pay $100,000 to the estate of Schild after his death. Easterling remained on as the program’s head coach for seven years after that death.

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2 months ago

Just browsing and came across the death of Don Easterling on Swimswam.
I remember reading about the Schilds” case years after I left the mens team in 1980. It was eerily similar to an experience of my own when we were on a 6 mile run when half way through my knee started swelling and Easterling yelled at me to continue. My knee blew up and my season with it. I never understood that decision. (and in fact why I followed it). I remember feeling horrible about Onno at the time and what he must have gone through. This is the first time I have mentioned this since 1980. Easterling was an enigma in many ways but I chose… Read more »

6 months ago

Good for you swim swam! Mention the BAD with the bad. There is so so much more here that many don’t know about.
Fat lists posted on the bulletin boards for everyone to see, but only of the girls team. Girls being lined up in front of the men’s team,( who all sat in the stands and watched this happen) to be weighed in.
Verbal harassment. I believe one of the quotes he said to me was “where I come from women don’t chew gum, they only speak when spoken too, and they certainly don’t get tattoos!”
And who can forget Don calling on his select cronies (on the men’s team)who would follow him blindly off a… Read more »

Reply to  Elke
6 months ago

Thank you for speaking the truth and for pursuing justice, Elke.

Alice Wright Belknap
1 year ago

I was the Assistant Swim Coach 1975-1977 under Don Easterling, hired to coach the women’s team and told to stay on other side of pool with the women as he stated “I do not believe in Title IX”. Our girls swimmers and 1 great diver finished 13th in national AIAW 1976 and 7th in AIAW 1977. I think he believed in Title IX after those performances. I moved back to KY as my husband finished graduate school. U of Louisville did not have a girls team and the AD was backwards about Title IX until mid 80s. Coach Easterling was at times degrading and condescending to the swimmers, nothing how I was coached growing up with my father Ralph Wright,… Read more »

pete kennedy
1 year ago

Don was a good fit for a program formally run by Willis Casey. He stood his ground with the best of the
coaches of that era. A coach for all seasons – both good and human but loved by many of his athletes.
May the Good Lord bless his soul.

Mark Elliott
1 year ago

I was young and fairly naive when I got to State from Oklahoma City. I felt like I had a better relationship with Coach than a lot of the swimmers and he treated me more gently than a lot of the guys. He had a lot of regrets in his life as many of us do, a lot of them in his personal/family life. He was far from perfect but you can’t argue his dedication to success or his outstanding coaching ability. He got the most out of me and he took me to heights I could only dream about. Thanks for that Coach! God Bless you and your family, RIP.

Steve Harrison
1 year ago

I felt honored to be recruited by Easterling and able to swim for him in his last two years. It’s disgraceful that this is how his legacy is being shared. Red legend pride forever

David Fatzinger
Reply to  Steve Harrison
1 year ago

Agree Stick! Totally not necessary to post that. 35 years old and the man died. Disgraceful SwimSwam! Shame on you Mel!

Demarrit Steenbergen
Reply to  David Fatzinger
1 year ago

It’s important to acknowledge all of a person’s legacy, good or bad and not to ignore the past.

Grumble tunvle
Reply to  Steve Harrison
1 year ago

Imagine being more outraged for the guy found negligent in an athlete’s death than *a literal athlete’s death.”

People are complicated. Legacies are complicated. I don’t see any reason to sugarcoat it. Onno deserves to be remembered just as much as coach Easterling does.

May they both rest in piece.

Reply to  Steve Harrison
6 months ago

What is disgraceful is the cover up!!!
Please feel free to message me or post on here and I will be more than happy to explain how many of the women on the women’s team were treated!

shannon barras
1 year ago

It is true that a swimmer died under his care, and that is a horrible thing. He carried that sadness to his grave. You leave out the part about what a truly wonderful coach he was and how many lives he touched in a positive manner. I feel you could have written a kinder article about this wonderful man who was loved by many. He was extraordinary.

Grumble tunvle
Reply to  shannon barras
1 year ago

Uh, I see multiple people quoted about the positive impact he has on their lives.

Do y’all have some kind of alumni group chat where you didn’t bother reading the whole article and just got enraged about the part in the chat?

Gard W
Reply to  shannon barras
7 months ago

Please read my response below to David Fatzinger.

Dr Deluxe
1 year ago

In the early 70’s young Don Easterling would hit regional NC STATE alum meetings with the young Lou Holtz, new football coach hired away from William & Mary. The swimmers were never able to attend , but word has it that
between Easterling’s “ ribald “ story telling and Holtz’s magic tricks , the crowd was getting top notch entertainment and more importantly, opened up their wallets. During that time span , both sports reached the pinnacle of success with swimming and football being ACC CHAMPIONS and nationally ranked.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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