It’s September, and while there are plenty of important questions hanging midair around the state of college sports, rosters are nonetheless popping up in advance of (hopefully) the 2020-21 swim season.
The University of Tennessee’s roster is now live, and an eye-catching 18 freshmen appear. Not 18 freshmen on the men’s and women’s programs combined, but 18 freshman among just the men.
This is easily one of the biggest classes since the 2010-11 season when Michigan added 20 freshman boys in the season after graduating three-time NCAA Champion Tyler Clary. Michigan won the NCAA title two seasons later.
Between scholarship money, coaching staff capacity, pool space and other key factors, major NCAA Division I programs typically don’t have many more than 10 swimmers or divers per class. For 2020-21, Cal’s men have 10, Texas’s men have 11 and NC State’s men have 11, but it’s pretty common for classes to sometimes dip well into the single digits. 18 is a hefty number, and Tennessee associate men’s head coach Lance Asti gave us some insights into why their men’s class of 2024 is so large.
To better understand this year’s freshman influx, we have to go back to two years ago when Tennessee decided to split its combined program.
“[In 2018], we had a seasoned and experienced group of women with their sights on their first SEC title and a young and eager group of men that needed experience and lots of teaching,” said Asti. “To give each team what they needed, we restructured roles with most of our coaches giving their undivided attention to a single gender.”
According to Asti, that meant Matt Kredich and Ashley Jahn began to focus primarily on coaching the women while Asti and Rich Murphy took over the men’s program. Jahn, previously an assistant on the staff, was promoted to associate head women’s coach, and the same went for Asti on the men’s side. Josh Huger, another assistant, splits his time between the programs.
Asti adds that he and Murphy wanted to make some changes to the men’s team culture in this new era of Tennessee’s program.
“When we were asked to lead the men’s team, Rich [Murphy] and I knew we needed to make some enhancements to our team culture,” said Asti. “With the help of the team, we began to solidify the type of men we were going to strive to be and put a huge emphasis on being ‘ferocious men of integrity’ in and out of the pool… we felt it was time to add a different level of work, toughness, and expectation to the team.”
With this new structure came heightened attention to recruiting, and the timing lent itself to Asti’s and Murphy’s increased focus specifically on the men’s class of 2024.
“We spent considerable time looking for men that would fit in our new training system and enhance our culture. We looked for athletes with more versatility, athletes that loved to work and compete, athletes that would look for any possible way to improve (no matter how small the improvement would be), and guys that believed in our long-term mission.”
Asti goes on to describe a Tennessee recruiting approach that has pivoted to bringing in a larger number of capable, versatile athletes with a mindset that fits their newly delineated team culture. This differs from another popular recruiting strategy, which prioritizes ‘blue-chip’ recruits but usually pulls in smaller classes. The key distinction between these two methods has to do with risk; a larger class might risk not improving enough to be nationally relevant, while a smaller and faster class might falter due to attrition or some heavily relied-upon athletes plateauing, getting injured, or some other obstacle.
Asti says that the new structure, which began in the 2018-19 season, led to immediate results. As for recruiting, the buy-in was apparent from the class of 2024 recruits making campus visits, which helped form the current freshman class.
“Our young team competed with a different swagger, and beat a number of teams that, on paper, we probably shouldn’t have been able to beat. Our men expected to win no matter the competition. We saw similar results in recruiting: nearly every recruit we brought to campus and offered a position took that offer.”
The more is not necessarily the merrier, of course. A huge team without proper organization and athlete commitment can quickly deteriorate, and like on any team, if most of the athletes don’t feel like they’re getting attention or improving, this system can quickly backfire.
“We knew the growing numbers would be a challenge,” says Asti. “Having 18 freshman brings a ton of enthusiasm to the team, but it also comes with some growing pains. Recruiting two years out, we knew some of these challenges were coming so we were able to plan and try to set the expectations early.”
While it may take some adjusting over time, the world is currently undergoing monumental turmoil politically, environmentally and from a public health standpoint. In other words, why not make change happen now?
“The Class of 2024 is one of the most talented recruiting classes Tennessee has had in a decade and an integral part of a special team,” says Asti.
“Even better, these are wonderful people that desire living a life of integrity and are willing to hold the men around them to a high standard. We are excited to support and help these guys navigate their college career.”