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.