How Eddie Reese Became The Most Successful College Coach In Swimming

by Matt Rees 12

May 09th, 2020 Big 12, College

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2016 College Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

Eddie Reese, the legendary head swim coach at the University of Texas, has won more Division 1 national titles than anyone else in the history of men’s college swimming. But his most revealing moment as a coach has nothing to do with winning an NCAA championship.

His Texas team had just won the 2001 Big 12 championship meet, but there was one piece of unfinished business. A distance swimmer with a name straight from a Dickens novel – Jim Pullin – had finished the mile with a time that was likely to be just outside the margin needed to qualify for the NCAA championship meet. So immediately after the awards ceremony, with the whole team on the deck, Reese arranged for Pullin to swim the mile again in a time trial. A few seconds faster and he’d be guaranteed a slot at NCAAs.

While Pullin started strong, it slowly became clear he wasn’t going to maintain the needed pace. Reese didn’t want Pullin to continue, but given the stakes, he thought it would be disrespectful to terminate the race the traditional way – dipping a kickboard into the lane as the swimmer approached the wall. And that’s when Reese did something that as far as anyone can remember, he’s only done once in his 38 years as head coach at UT: he jumped in the pool – fully clothed – and stopped Pullin’s swim.

“It was a powerful moment for the whole team,” recalls Ian Crocker, who was a UT freshman at the time and present for Reese’s plunge. The gesture caught everyone by surprise, but sent a powerful message. “If Eddie was going to be ‘all in,’ then every team member was going to be ‘all in’ as well,” says Brendan Hansen, who, like Crocker, was a UT swimmer at the time and would later win Olympic medals. An emotional team meeting followed in the locker room, with tears flowing as swimmers bared their souls and revealed just how much UT swimming meant to them. While the team didn’t necessarily need a boost – it had just won the conference meet and was the defending national champion – the meeting had an electric effect on the swimmers. They rolled into NCAAs with fresh energy and steamrolled the competition. And Pullin? He ultimately qualified for the NCAA meet, swam well, and scored points for UT.

The story helps illuminate why Reese’s current and former swimmers are so devoted to him. And that devotion has contributed to his extraordinary success as a coach. During his 38 years in Austin, his teams have won 12 national titles. They’ve also been runner-ups 11 times. And they’ve finished in the top five 36 times. Even with these achievements, there’s no evidence Reese is resting on his laurels. His Longhorns have won the national title the past two years, and they’re favored to repeat this year. At the 2016 meet, UT swimmers set American records in six events while walking away with the team title by the largest margin of victory since 2004.

While it’s depth that delivers NCAA team titles (Texas won in 1996 with only one relay victory and no individual victories), and divers can help too (they made the difference in UT’s 2002 title), Reese has had no shortage of individual standouts through the years: Ricky Berens, Rick Carey, Ian Crocker, Josh Davis, Jimmy Feigen, Brendan Hansen, Shaun Jordan, Aaron Peirsol, Neil Walker, Garrett Weber-Gale, and others. They’re all Olympians – at least one of Reese’s swimmers has been on every Olympic team since 1984 – and four current UT swimmers competed in Rio: Jack Conger, Townley Haas, Joseph Schooling (representing Singapore), and Clark Smith.

Reese’s winning ways have made him a celebrated figure at UT. The school’s Hall of Honor (equivalent to an athletic hall of fame), which typically only considers retired coaches for membership, waived its rules for Reese and inducted him 20 years ago. He’s won six more national titles since then, and the dozen he’s won altogether account for close to one quarter of all the national championships UT sports teams – men and women – have won since 1949.

Like countless other successful swim coaches, Reese spent much of his youth in a pool. He was a standout at Daytona Beach’s Mainland High School and upon graduating, he, like another Daytona Beach water wonder named “Lochte,” took his talents 100 miles northwest to the University of Florida. Gainesville was good to Reese. He won multiple SEC titles, but the national powers of that era were Ohio State and Michigan, and so NCAAs were something of an afterthought. His highest place came in his senior year, in 1963, when he tied with an SMU swimmer for 10th in the 400 IM. The identical times were “4:36 something,” says Reese (4:36.7, to be precise), who still recalls that the water temperature in the North Carolina State pool was a shivery 71 degrees.

The 400 IM tie would be consigned to the dustbin of swimming history, except that the other SMU swimmer was a guy named Richard Quick. And Quick would also become one of the most celebrated swim coaches of all time, winning 13 national titles while coaching women at Auburn, Stanford, and Texas.

Reese’s Florida teammates kidded him that he should be their coach, because he always wanted to do more stroke work and more yards (this was in the era of one practice per day, topping out at about 2,500 yards). The ribbing became reality when Reese graduated, as he stayed in Gainesville for two more years and served as an assistant coach while earning a master’s degree. Following a one-year detour to coach at a high school in Roswell, New Mexico, Reese returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1967, where he stayed until 1972. The environment for coaching was, says Reese, “primitive.” Another description would be “penurious.” His salary during the final season was just $1,000 – not monthly, annually.

In 1972, Reese was hired away from Florida and named the head coach at Auburn, where he stayed until 1978. Throughout this early period in his career, Reese developed into a swimming scholar. While in graduate school, he researched all of the studies that had been done on swimming (there weren’t many beyond those done by legendary Indiana University coach Doc Counsilman) and then he started conducting his own. He also tapped into the brains of that era’s swimming visionaries – figures like Counsilman, George Haines, and Don Gambril. Reese would seek out Gambril at the banquet that preceded each year’s NCAA championship meet and pepper him with swimming questions throughout the event. While more than four decades have passed, Reese remains grateful: “Don treated me better than I deserved to be treated.”

The persistence paid off. Reese transformed the Auburn program, which in the year before his arrival did not qualify a single swimmer for finals or even consolation finals at the SEC championship meet. During his six years at Auburn, the team finished in the top 10 at NCAAs four times and, in his final season, rose all the way to second. These achievements led the University of Texas to hire him away – hungry for some hardware (it had not won a conference championship since 1955) and individual NCAA champions (it had won none).

Both came quickly. In Reese’s second season, UT finished second at NCAAs, moving up from 21st the season before. Reese had recruited a number of standouts, such as Clay Britt, and brought one with him, Scott Spann, from Auburn. Britt won the 100 back at NCAAs, and he and Spann were part of a 400 medley relay squad that set an American record. The following year, the Longhorns won their first team title. “As long as Eddie was there, you knew there were going to be a lot more titles coming,” recalls Britt. “The only question was how many.”

What’s followed has been one of the most impressive runs of any coach in any Division I sport.

But the mild-mannered Reese – swimmers say they might only see him yell once in their four-year careers – is deferential when asked about team titles. After the 2016 championship, he said that his swimmers had “overcome the coaching… Everyone thinks I’m a good coach and wave a magic wand. The only magic is in the swimmers.”

While it’s true that countless swimmers have arrived in Austin over the past few decades with magical times to their names, there’s no guarantee that age-group prodigies will become collegiate champions or Olympic medalists. So what are the keys to Reese’s success?

Recruiting stars . . . and emerging talent

Among the many reasons Reese-coached team have won 12 national titles, there’s one key ingredient: a roster littered with many of the country’s best (and some of the brightest) swimmers. And Reese has a big advantage when he’s recruiting. First, the University of Texas is a first-rate institution located in a bustling, first-rate city. Second, the UT swimming facility is one of the most commanding natatoriums in the country, with modern facilities and seating for as many as 3,000 spectators. And third, Reese himself is a selling point. “There was nothing intimidating about him” says Rip Esselstyn, a UT swimmer in the 1980s, recalling his first meeting with Reese. “There was no arrogance and he wasn’t aloof.”

But perhaps most important of all, Reese can simply point to all of the successful swimmers who have come out of the program (pre-Rio, Reese had produced 35 Olympians, who had won a combined 64 Olympic medals). “When I came on my recruiting visit,” recalls Ricky Berens, an Olympic swimmer who graduated from UT in 2010, “all of the Texas swimmers were on top of their game. They had world records in multiple events. I wanted to be a part of that empire Eddie had built with them.” Esselstyn echoes the sentiment: “If you want to be the best, why not train with the best?”

There’s another dimension to Reese’s recruiting that helps produce champions: he’ll sometimes recruit two standout swimmers who compete in the same event, figuring that they will push each other to even greater heights. A contemporary example is Joseph Schooling, a junior, and Jack Conger, a senior. At the NCAA championship meet earlier this year, they finished first and third in the 100 fly, and first and second in the 200 fly. Similarly, Ricky Berens and David Walters – both of whom graduated in 2010 – pushed each other in the 200 free. Invariably, the whole team benefits.

But like an investor who’s looking for undervalued stocks, Reese finds his share of swimmers who are under-the-radar in high school and then blossom once they’re in Austin. “He had a great eye for swimmers with a good feel for the water who could also work with the team,” recalls Aaron Peirsol, a UT product whose world record in the 100 meter back, set in 2009, still stands. An early example of a diamond-in-the-rough was Shaun Jordan, who arrived as a walk-on in the fall of 1987, but by the following summer had qualified for the Olympic team in the 400 free relay (and did the same four years later). A contemporary example is John Shebat, who only started swimming year-round as a sophomore in high school. This summer, following a strong freshman year at UT, he made finals in the 100 back at Olympic Trials.

A calming presence

Many college coaches – swimming and non-swimming – seem to believe that spewing invective at their athletes is a precondition of success. Not Reese, who only provokes eye rolling among his athletes when he tells his trademark corny jokes. He sometimes says that he’s the only one on the pool deck who can be negative – and then he’s all positive. He’s not a disciplinarian, though he does insist that when the team travels, its members wear dress shoes, as well as coat and tie, and be clean shaven. “You dress better, you act better,” says Reese, adding that, “we paid for the tickets, so they do it our way.”

He builds camaraderie by joining his swimmers in the weight room, doing lat pulls or working on the rowing machine. But he also knows when to leave them alone. There’s a long tradition of post-practice meetings on Fridays, where every swimmer speaks and compliments another member of the team, and then they all go out to dinner together. While Reese isn’t present, his positive energy is felt among all the swimmers. “He’s like the sun that pulls all the orbits together,” says Britt.

In addition to revering Reese – he’s often referred to as a “father figure” – there’s also a strong dose of respect. “We always wanted to please him,” recalls Crocker. “And that drove us to do extraordinary things.” But the “extraordinary things” were kept in perspective. Says Berens: “It was about more than swimming with Eddie. It was a relationship. He made sure you were always at your best. Swimming always came second.”

Creative conditioning

Reese works his swimmers hard, particularly in October (“Rocktober” to UT swimmers), but that’s a given at pretty much every program. What distinguishes Reese is his ability to tailor workouts not just for different groups (sprinters, distance, etc.) but also individual swimmers within those groups. At any given time he will be running 5-8 different workouts, and within each lane, he may be giving different swimmers different times they need to hold. “If you’re doing the same workout with two groups of swimmers,” says Reese, “half of them aren’t getting what they need.” He’s also legendary for never repeating a workout and never writing one down. Akin to a swimming savant, he commits multiple sets to memory and then tells each group what they’re going to do, following his well-honed instinct for getting each of his athletes to swim their fastest at the NCAA meet. “He has the ability to look at someone and identify precisely what they need,” says Conger.

While Reese puts his team through annual challenge sets – 20 x 50 fly on :35 is standard – he strives not to make his workouts a chore for his swimmers. During the middle of particularly grueling sets, he’s been known to intercept one of his swimmers in the few moments they have at the wall and ask, “Is this the most fun you’ve ever had?”

Weight training is also an essential element of UT training. The swimmers typically do “dryland” three times per week. Will Licon, who set the American record in the 200 yard breast earlier this year, has said his speed is partially a byproduct of his weight training. The other benefit to dryland? “Swimming can be so monotonous,” says Esselstyn, “that to the extent you can mix things up, all the better.” 

Retaining a loyal partner

There’s one other key to Reese’s success: the long-time associate head coach, Kris Kubik. The two met at Auburn (Kubik was a student assistant during Reese’s final year there) and they came to Austin together. With the exception of one four-year period (1981-85), Kubik and Reese have always been colleagues at UT. And throughout their partnership, Kubik has had a big hand in everything that’s contributed to the team’s success, and one role in particular he’s played is motivator-in-chief, given Reese’s more taciturn style. As a result, he’s been a hallowed figure among the UT swimmers (he served as a groomsman in the wedding of Crocker, the former UT star). He’s also been inducted into the school’s Hall of Honor. Given UT’s success, Kubik has had opportunities to become a head coach elsewhere. It speaks volumes of Reese that he kept his deputy by his side for so long.

Brendan Hansen, the celebrated former UT swimmer, has said that, “Eddie is the quarterback who can’t win the game without Kris, his All-American offensive lineman. Kris won’t get the attention because he doesn’t have the ball in his hand. But what makes Eddie ‘Eddie’ is Kris. And, just like a quarterback in a postgame interview, the first thing Eddie will say is, ‘I want to thank my offensive line.’”

A few years ago, Reese said that Kubik “makes sure I make the right decisions. It would have been a challenge without him, and fortunately, I never had to find that out.” Reese will face a fresh challenge this year, as Kubik announced in mid-July that he’s retiring. While everyone connected to UT swimming says the program won’t be the same without Kubik, Eddie remains Eddie, and with a stacked roster the team should do just fine.

What’s striking about Reese is that even with all that he’s accomplished, he’s always looking for ways to improve “If someone has a team in the country that does well in sections and juniors,” he told me, “I call and ask them what they think worked. My only goal is to find a way to get better than last year.” He’s also pressed Esselstyn – the founder of an Austin-based company called Engine 2 that’s a leader in the sale of plant-based food products – for information about protein levels when consuming such food. His curiosity is a reminder that age and accolades notwithstanding, he’s not slowing down (he was also part of Singapore’s coaching staff for the Rio Olympics). Indeed, “he’s always changing the program year to year,” says former UT swimmer Ande Rasmussen. “He doesn’t get stuck in a rut, and that is one of his genius moves.”

Kubik’s retirement has sparked speculation that Reese may also step aside soon. Don’t count on it, say those connected to the program, but when that day comes, Reese will leave behind one of the most storied careers of any coach in any sport, with a legacy that will go beyond what his teams have achieved in the water. “At the end of this process, Eddie is focused on more than getting us to swim fast,” says Licon, who is starting his senior year. “He’s helping us to grow up as adults. You come to college as a kid. While you’re here, you become way more a man than you could imagine.”

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PsychoDad
6 months ago

>Kris won’t get the attention because he doesn’t have the ball in his hand. But what makes Eddie ‘Eddie’ is Kris. I will never forget Atlanta. What a meet! But one of the most memorable moments was after the last event. While Eddie and the team was accepting awards, Kris changed into shorts and was waiting at the diving pool for the team and Eddie to come for the celebratory swim. He was not with them at the podium. He wanted all spotlight to be on Eddie and the team. What a man! I believe he retired earlier because he wanted Wyatt to spend more time with Eddie being his right hand and doing things that Kris was doing. Wyatt… Read more »

PsychoDad
6 months ago

Well, you just knew I would be here with stories… You often hear about coaches who do not like dealing with parents. You can often see Eddie, even during meets, in the stands “schmoozing” parents. He told me he asks parents to tell him if swimmers complain about anything. He wants to know so he can help swimmers. Often swimmers do not know he tallked to parents. During our recruiting visit, I told Eddie I would go to stands and wait there, he told me “no, no, no, you sit right here with us.” What you see is what both parents and swimmers get. The way Eddie (and Wyatt) deal with you as a parent, makes you comfortable they will… Read more »

He Said What?
Reply to  PsychoDad
6 months ago

Why would this be downvoted? It’s a great story.

PsychoDad
Reply to  He Said What?
6 months ago

PsychoDad talking about parent involvement? Bound to get downvoted. And.That.Is.Okay. I am here to tell stories, and if you do not like them – it is your right to stop buying at Costco.

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
6 months ago

one comment about John Shebat. He did year-round swim as an age grouper and then took some time off before picking it up again in high school.