Lessons From Legends: Coach Ray Bussard, An Independent Mind

Chuck Warner, the author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Is your approach to competitive swimming as a coach, athlete or parent out of the mainstream? Do you think differently…outside the box? Then consider your perspective to what Coach Ray Bussard injected into the sport during his relatively short, 21-year coaching career.

Ray Bussard entered coaching swimming from the outside. He attended Bridgewater College in Virginia where he starred in football, basketball, and especially, in track and field. Ray won the National AAU all-round championship in 1952, for his achievements in a wide range of events including the half-mile, shot put, discuss, javelin, broad jump and the high hurdles.

Ray became “Coach Bussard” when he started coaching those sports in six Virginia High Schools, and later, two high schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A success? His teams’ collective record was 252-20.

From 1959 through 1967 the University of Tennessee (UT) hadn’t had a single swimmer qualify for the NCAA Swimming Championships. So since a ‘swimming coach’ didn’t seem to be able to get them where they wanted to go, they hired Ray. A high school basketball and track coach is hired at a major university to coach the swim team. How about that for independent thinking?

The 1968 UT team was made up of all freshmen. (One has to wonder if that’s the way Coach Bussard wanted it, and was smart enough to recognize that it would be easier to change the team’s results by creating an entirely new team culture, with a new group of individuals.) The following year, in 1969, UT ended the University of Florida’s string of 13 straight Southeastern Conference championships. Ray was in his second year of coaching swimming. His approach to training and competing continued to become more innovative from there.

While the 1970s tended to be an era of exploring mileage limits in training for most of the world, Coach Bussard went down a different path. He never touched the 20,000 a day temptation for success. This was a man with an independent mind. He saw the value of technique and skill to the success of an athlete. And his capacity to instruct and institute his vision of perfect technique and skills was simply phenomenal. The term “Tennessee Turn” is still thrown around in some programs today because of the precision he taught his swimmer’s to use.

Coach Bussard also approached team building differently. Stories permeated out of Knoxville about the use of ten-meter tower jumps and team activities at the bottom of the diving well that generated team bonding. When the UT team walked on the pool deck for warm-up at a meet, or even an open practice, people turned and looked. Each swimmer had a towel folded around their neck, and under their warm-ups, exactly the same way. They wore coonskin caps from the lore of Davy Crockett and uttered not a word, since they were either completely focused on the task at hand or compliant with their coach’s request to simply be unique. Ray instituted the team tradition of completing one perfect start to begin practice, calculating the total number of starts that his swimmers would execute during a season compared to jumping into the pool for practice. And the UT swimmers developed great starts.

Every detail mattered to Coach Bussard. He encouraged his swimmers to shave their heads to go just a little bit faster. For a period of time, SEC teams had a rule about not shaving down for a duel meet to keep teams from gaining that edge on one another. Coach Bussard was known to mimic the feeling of a shave by having his swimmers sand paper their forearms instead.

In the 1970s most elite swim programs slugged out training through great fatigue and swam slowly during the middle part of a season. But the UT team swam fast multiple times during the year, much like a lot of programs do today.

During the 1970s one of the most successful coaches of swimmers internationally was Dick Jochums at the Long Beach Swim Club in California. Even though he trained several great distance swimmers, Coach Jochums had an instinct about the value of training with speed. Jochum’s version of it helped Tim Shaw break nine world record and his other swimmers like Bruce Furniss broke several more. But Jochum’s pondered publicly what was happening in what Coach Bussard called “the ole water hole” down in Tennessee. Jochums considered there might be a better way to train and said, “There are people that are able to get their swimmers to swim fast several times a year, yet still have them ready for a conference championship and do a hell of a job at NCAAs. I sure wish I knew what Coach Bussard does at Tennessee because his kids are continually ready.”

…and ready they were. With Coach Bussard’s approach, UT’s Dave Edgar became the fastest sprinter in the world and had a small platoon of teammates right behind him.
Between 1969 and 1978 Bussard’s boys never finished worse than 4th at the NCAA Championships. Matt Vogel won two gold medals in the 1976 Olympics and in 1978 UT won it all in collegiate swimming: the NCAA Team Title.

From the smallest detail, to the grandest showmanship Coach Bussard’s independent thinking brought new ideas into a sport that seemed to struggle to escape it’s image of humdrum teenagers and coaches grinding out work. Although he had never been involved in a “water sport” he instituted a tradition of bringing UT water in a bottle to an away meet and pouring it into the opposing team’s pool. For home meets he had his team walk onto the deck through a massive “T” they erected at the exit of the locker room. Ray took a page from the cheerleader concept in basketball when he announced tryouts for the UT “Timmettes.” Beautiful UT female undergrads came out in droves to win a spot on that squad that timed for home duel meets.

The results during his 21 year career at Tennessee were remarkable, where Coach Bussard led his teams to a record of 178-20 and nine undefeated seasons.

Great accomplishments can often be noted by what’s left behind from a life lived. Coach Bussard passed on in September of 2010. But in addition to a litany of traditions and ideas he passed on to swimming, in 1987 Coach Bussard started a tradition at NCAAs of passing a Baton of Victory from the coach of one NCAA Championship team to that of the next. That tradition still stands today.

Ray Bussard saw swimming differently, with a mind independent from the norm and separate from virtually anyone of his era. For his contributions to fast swimming, in 1984 he was named an Olympic Coach for the USA Team that competed in Los Angeles. For his contributions to the sport as a whole, in 1999, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Legend has it, that in his entire life, Ray Bussard never actually competed in a swimming race. He just taught everyone around him how to.

Lessons from Legends, book cover (Courtesy of Chuck Warner)For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go towww.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

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Ken Knudson
10 years ago

Ask anyone who swam for him. We loved him, we hated him, we respected him. He taught us much more than swimming. I am a better man after swimming than I would have been without his life lessons. I remember him every day.

10 years ago

Coach Bussard was one of a kind. His ideas changed the sport of swimming forever. Committees changed rules because of what he developed. A master motivator, coaches in the SEC ganged up against him so he wouldn’t keep the edge he had. He entered relays with no time, so he could get outside water. Saw it with my own eyes.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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