NCAA Post-Season Big Question #1 – Is Michigan the Greatest Program Ever?

There were lots of big, philosophical questions that popped up during these last two weeks of NCAA Championship meets. They’re questions that there is really no “right” or “wrong” answer to, there are only opinions. Some opinions may be more popular than others, but they’re all just opinions.

Throughout the weekend, we asked some of these questions over Twitter and got some great responses. Over the next few days, weeks, whatever, we’ll take some time to dig a little deeper into all of the questions and give our thoughts on the matter.

All commenters are welcome to disagree with our opinions and those of other readers, but this is meant to be civil, interesting, and informed debate. Because everyone will have an opinion (and it will be hard to definitively say who’s is right), fair warning: anyone who doesn’t adhere to those standards probably won’t make it by our moderators.

1. Is Michigan the Greatest Program Of All Time?

With their 12th NCAA Championship last night, the Michigan Wolverines moved past their rivals from Ohio State for the record of the most in history. Michigan also won three additional individual event titles, and their 163 is by far the most in history.

So does this make them the greatest program ever? Without a regular season, we have to focus primarily on NCAA Championship results, and the raw numbers indicate a clear “yes”.

If you qualify those numbers, though, does the story change? Are either Ohio State or Michigan the greatest program? Often times in these sort of sports rankings. titles from the early days of the NCAA are weighted less-heavily. That’s because when the sport was less developed, it was easier for one or two teams to dominate it. That would seem to be fairly true in swimming: Michigan won the first 5 titles, and from 1937-1959, the same three teams (Michigan, Ohio State, and Yale) won all of the titles.

To use a basketball analogy: UCLA has the most titles, with 12, but ten of them came between 1964 and 1975.Comparatively, Kentucky has won 8 titles, spread across the 40’s, 50’s, 70’s, 90, and most recently 2012. Which is more impressive?

Yale is the example of what we’re talking about here. They’ve got as many titles as Cal, and as many titles as Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee combined. Does that make Yale, all-time, a better program than Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee? Some would say yes, some might say no. See where the debate comes from?

Stanford sits 2nd behind Michigan for the most ever event titles with 145, and just this year (thanks largely to two brutal medley relay DQ’s) snapped a streak of 31 consecutive top-four finishes at NCAA’s. Nobody has been consistently that good for such a long time.

Then there’s the Texas program, who has the legendary diving to add to it and is probably the best program of the modern era. They were in the top two for the last five consecutive years before this season; and who could forget the legendary squads of the early 2000’s that was effectively an Olympic lineup on a pool deck? In 2001, Texas won 11 out of the 18 event titles! The year before, the dominated the scoring even more significantly, beating the then-defending-champs Auburn by 153 points.

Eddie Reese has been getting it done since winning his first title with the Longhorns back in 1981.

The legend of Doc Counsilman from the 1960’s and 1970’s in Indiana lives on nearly half-a-century later.  He and USC’s Peter Daland are the two names from that era that still are well-known even by more casual swim fans. Those Indiana teams with legends like Charlie Hickox, Don McKenzie, Jim Henry, and the big two: Gary Hall Sr. and Mark Spitz.

Auburn has certainly entered the conversation in the last decade, winning 8 titles in the last 15 years and had some teams in the late 2000’s that were really just incredible (their average margin of victory in those 8 titles was just over 123 points, including 2003 where they won by just shy of 200 points; the following year they were an incredible 256.5 points ahead of 256.5.)

For all of that though, in my humble opinion, Michigan remains the greatest of all-time.  Many of their 12 titles came early on, but they’ve won across the eras. They won under Matt Mann in the 30’s and 40’s; Gus Stager in the 50’s and 60’s; Jon Urbanchek in the 90’s; and now Mike Bottom in 2013. No program in the country has spread their titles over such a huge period of time. That establishes a culture of greatness that transcends one really good coach, a really good run of recruiting, or even just the support of the athletic department.

And, if there were a need for a tie-breaker, don’t forget their affiliations with the great Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps for a few seasons in the run-up to Beijing.

Four different coaches have won titles at Michigan. No other program has won titles under more than two coaches. Mathematically, no two teams can have won titles over a further span than Michigan’s 76 years, but nobody is actually close (Stanford won a title in 1967, and their most recent in 1998, Texas won in 1981 and again in 2010).

If I had to make a top 10 greatest programs of all time in men’s swimming, here’s what I’d go with:

1. Michigan (12 titles)
2. Texas (10 titles)
3. Stanford (8 titles)
4. Auburn (8 titles)
5. USC (9 titles)
6. Ohio State (11 titles)
7. Indiana (6 titles)
8. Cal (4 titles)
9. Florida (2 titles)
10. Arizona (1 title)

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Mike Bottom did something that Bob Bowman was never even close to doing during his stay at Michigan. I think that was one reason why he left and went back to Baltimore.


I think Bowman helped build Michigan for some of Bottom’s success, but at the end of the day, Bowman had too much to focus on with Phelps and his other post grad group preparing for Beijing to truly have Michigan compete for a title. Different coaches with different focuses.


Training Phelps at U of M’s pool had something to do with it also…wasn’t just there for Michigan although he did take them to a good spot


Urbanchek’s last year Michigan was 5th and Bowman never had them in top 5 so not so sure Bowman had them in a good spot. Maybe didn’t go downhill but still didn’t climb the mountain like Bottom did this year!


More consideration/respect should be given to Yale in this article, especially the Kiphuth era in which the Bulldogs earned a record of 528-12. It’s easy to lose sight of dominant programs of the past. Yale certainly was one of those programs. Massive changes in training and “technology” associated with swimming aside, the Yale program was without question one of the most (if not the most) impressive programs of its time and still produces the occasional national-caliber athlete today, even without scholarships. Not necessarily arguing for a top-10 place, but given the history, Yale shouldn’t be cast aside in these considerations.

Yale out of the top 10 is crazy talk.


Agreed Yale should be in there.


No… I do give Mike Bottom the credit for setting his team up for doing the job this season. He positioned his athletes into scoring potentials. Just look at the pre-meet psych sheet. California did not make it easy for the Wolverines. The Bears were true warriors and did one heck of a job! Kudos to Tom Shields – he did a valiant job!
Each year is a different journey… its how the athletes and coaching staff prepare and respond to each situation… there were many winners in 2013… 2013 was the year of the TEAM

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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