Eddie Reese is arguably the most successful American swimming coach in history. In 41 seasons as the head coach of the Texas men, he has led his team to 14 NCAA team titles, 12 NCAA runner-up finishes, and 33 top-three finishes at the NCAA Championships. He is a 3-time CSCAA National Coach of the Year, 8-time NCAA Coach of the Year, 4-time ASCA Coach of the Year, has coached Texas to 40 consecutive conference titles and 40 consecutive top 10 finishes at the NCAA Championships, and through the 2018-2019 season has coached athletes to 73 NCAA individual titles and 50 relay titles.
The Eddie Reese era alone, considering only swimmers, at Texas ties the USC men as the 4th most successful men’s program in history in terms of NCAA event titles.
And while it seems like Reese has been at Texas forever, there was a time where he wasn’t the head coach of the most successful men’s collegiate program of the last 4 decades.
Reese started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Florida, while earning his master’s degree. A standout swimmer for the Gators, Reese was part of 3-straight SEC Championship teams for Florida in 1961, 1962, and 1963. As a co-captain his senior year, Reese became the first Florida swimmer to win 5 SEC titles in a single year when he won the 200 breast, 200 IM, 400 IM, 400 free relay, and 400 medley relay.
Like many swimmers then and now, he was able to use his reputation in the pool to quickly climb the coaching ladder. After spending 2 years as a teacher at Roswell High School in New Mexico, he returned to Florida where he spent 6 seasons as an assistant from 1967 through 1972. There he was part of a Florida rebuild that saw the team climb 14 spots in the national rankings during his tenure.
NCAA Finishes by season, University of Florida:
- 1967 – 21st (tie)
- 1968 – 18th
- 1969 – 9th (tie)
- 1970 – 17th
- 1971 – 14th
- 1972 – 7th
At the time, Florida was just forming into the powerhouse program that we know it as today, and the 7th-place finish in 1972 was the team’s best-ever placement at the NCAA Championships.
That effort earned Reese his first-ever collegiate head coaching job at SEC rivals Auburn University.
What Texas is to the 2010s, auburn was to the late 90s and 2000s: an absolutely dominant program. Starting with a title in 1997 and 1999, the Auburn men won 8 titles in 13 seasons, with Reese’s Texas men winning 3 of the remaining crowns in that span.
But, when Eddie Reese took over in the 1972-1973 season, the Auburn Tigers are not the powerhouse we know them as today. The program swam at its first SEC Championship meet in 1970, where the Tigers scored 70 points to finish in last place. The next-lowest scoring team was Georgia with 99 points, and Reese’s former Gator team won the title. They weren’t much better in 1971 or 1972, finishing 8th out of 8 teams in each of those seasons.
In 1972, Auburn was so bad that they didn’t qualify a single individual swimmer for the championship or consolation final at the SEC Championship meet.
But when Reese took over the program, it was as if a switch was flipped. Auburn suddenly jumped up to 4th place in the conference in 1973. A year later they were 3rd. The Tigers would remain in the top 3 of the conference every year until 1986.
Auburn Finishes at the SEC Championships, Eddie Reese era:
- 1973 – 4th
- 1974 – 3rd
- 1975 – 3rd
- 1976 – 3rd
- 1977 – 3rd
- 1978 – 2nd
The climb at the NCAA level was even more remarkable. The Auburn men made their first NCAA Championship appearance in program history in 1974, finishing in 17th place, and in Reese’s last season in 1972, they were the national runners-up behind Tennessee. The SEC held 4 of the top 7 places at that year’s NCAA Championship meet, with Florida 6th and Alabama 7th.
Auburn Finishes at the NCAA Championships, Eddie Reese era:
- 1973 – Did Not Participate
- 1974 – 17th
- 1975 – 8th
- 1976 – 8th
- 1977 – 5th
- 1978 – 2nd
Now, at Florida and Auburn, two programs today that are known among the best in the country, where Reese had a direct hand in their construction.
In the 1978-1979 season, he began what turned out to be his final program build at the University of Texas. The Longhorns weren’t in as poor of a position as Auburn was when Reese took over. In 1978, they finished tied with Stanford for 18th place at the NCAA Championships.
The team had placed as high as tied for 5th in 1939 at the NCAA Championships, albeit in a very different era of swimming. They scored a few other top 10 finishes in the 1950s, but for much of the 1960s and 1970s were a non-scoring team at the NCAA Championships. In fact, at the time Reese took over, the University of Texas-Arlington was the state’s dominant swimming program (the school was part of the Texas A&M system until 1965 before shifting to the University of Texas system).
Once again, though, Reese worked his magic to turn the program into a dominant program. In 1979, Reese’s first season leading Texas, they finished 21st at the NCAA Championships. By year 2, in 1980, they were 2nd, just 14 points behind Cal (with whom their primary modern rivalry is). A year later they won the whole thing in a 70-point runaway ahead of UCLA (2nd) and Florida (3rd). Reese’s current and former employers held 3 of the top 5 spots at the NCAA Championships that year, with Auburn placing 5th.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The remarkable career of Eddie Reese as an NCAA swimming coach is the thing of legends. Careers like that don’t get forgotten. He has had success throughout eras where the sport has changed and where the athletes have changed. Among that change, his success has been a constant.
It’s one thing to take over a historically-successful program and continue that success, and another to build a legendary program from scratch. Reese was a part of that 3 times.