The College Swimming Arms Race

On the left, Ohio State’s McCorkle Aquatics Pavilion, to the tune of $25 million dollars. On the right, the Morcom Aquatics center at Florida State, which cost $10.5 million even without a building.

Last week, college swimming got a real blow to the you-know-what’s when the NCAA saw it’s first cut of a big 6 program this season. The Clemson Athletics Department announced that it would be cutting both it’s men’s and women’s swimming programs, as well as it’s men’s diving programs.

The Screaming Viking had an interesting take on the matter, that it’s particularly disturbing because it was the first program that didn’t HAVE to be cut. Clemson didn’t say it couldn’t afford to run the program, or that Title IX was forcing them to cut the program. They simply felt that they couldn’t compete without building a 50-meter pool, and they refused to spend that amount of money on a 50-meter pool, when all it would do is put them on an even playing field with the top ACC programs, and guarantee no level of success. And he’s exactly right, it is scary.

Similarly, Josh Schneider, the NCAA champ in the 50 freestyle, made some interesting public comments about Cincinnati’s decision to try and continue it’s swimming program without any scholarships. This has been a solution that has been thrown about  on many message boards as an alternative to  cutting programs.

A popular argument amongst the swimming community is that the reason these other programs are failing is because of the basketball and football arms race. “You mean to tell me that the Clemson football team had $22,000,000 in revenue, and they can’t afford a few bones to support swimming AND women’s golf? It’s because they have to spend $4 million a year for coaches, and build those fancy locker rooms, while the non-revenue sports get left in the dust.”

But is swimming caught up in it’s own arms race? The interesting comment from Clemson indicated that they were led to believe (either by the market, or their coaching staff) that they couldn’t compete without a 50-meter pool. And who can blame them. Virginia, who is the dominant power in the ACC, has a 50-meter pool. UNC and Florida State, also ACC powers, both have them. Virginiat Tech is building one off-campus. We don’t know what was said behind closed doors, but was the AD told flat-out by the coaches that they couldn’t compete without the 50-meter pool? And if so, given recent results, did the AD have any choice but to believe them?

We all know that swimmers deserve everything that football players and basketball players get, because swimmers work just as hard. But what does a swimming program truly need to be competitive? Is it greased palms and bowl rings? Massive facilities that cost tens of millions of dollars and can host national and international-level meets? Is certain water better than other water, when it comes to training? Or is it 9.9/14 scholarships, quality coaching, access to plenty of water time, and plenty of academic suport?

And furthermore, how far should coaches push? They have a duty to their swimmers to get them as much as they can out of the Athletics Deparment. But do they also have a duty to their swimmers to tip-toe that thin line and not let costs get out of hand, to where programs start to fall? Football and basketball can push and push and push, because they know that they have basically no danger of getting cut due to their huge fan bases. So let’s break it down, and see what a college swimming program actually needs.

  • Scholarships- Hopefully, Cincinnati swimming will regain its scholarship funding before we have to find out, but I have a bad feeling it will be a failed experiment. You might be able to still attract a few swimmers who would’ve had to swim for free at other schools, but you can never hope to have success. You won’t be able to attract the top talent, no matter how good the coaching is, because the writing is on the wall.
  • Coaching- Obviously, a program needs a great coach to be a great team. And not just a big name coach, a good coach. This needs to extend beyond the pool, as well. There are lots of people who have a great grasp of swimming training, technique, and racing, but at high levels, coaching is as much about managing athletes as anything else, regardless of the sport. Take, for example, our recent interview with Susan Teeter. She’s not at a big-name program, but she’s had a lot of success because she has been extremely effective at connecting with and understanding the mental and emotional aspects of the sport. These coaches need to be paid, but probably not as much as a football or a basketball coach. Swim coaches work just as hard as those coaches, but they have a lot more job security and a lot less pressure from the University to succeed.
  • Administrative Support- Like any other program, swimmers need some amount of administrative support. This includes tutoring, someone to ensure compliance, and support for logistics and travel.
  • Facilities- This is where it stops  being so simple. When the Clemson administrators look around their own conference, imagine the reaction to what they see. Virginia has a 50-meter competition pool built into it’s $18.5 million dollar health and fitness center. Florida State’s cost $10.5 million, and it doesn’t even have a roof over it. The new Virginia Tech facility, which is being built off-campus, is $14.5 million. And those are 3 of the top ACC programs. $14.5 million dollars would probably pay the entire operating budget for the entire Clemson swim team for around a decade.

But the question is asked why does a college program NEED a 50-meter pool, when all of the races are swum in yards? Perhaps the point is to attract international-quality swimmers, and convince them to stay and train with you in the college off-season. But quality programs can be built without Olympians.

50-meter pools allow for both programs to train at the same time, as well as allowing the general university population to use the facility while the teams are. It also allows, in a 25-yard race, a warm-up and warm-down space while the meet is going on, although this can be accomplished by adding a much smaller diving pool, like Clemson currently has.

So then what is the draw that leads to a high level of success from the teams with the 50-meter pools? I think the key has nothing to do with the length of the pool. It has to do with what attracts recruits. If a swimmer goes to Ohio State, or Florida, or Texas, or Texas A&M, and sees the massive facilities with all the bells and whistles- 50-meter pools, plus diving platforms, plus diving wells, plus elevated seating for thousands, plus meeting rooms and classrooms, plus office and media space, separate big fancy locker rooms, adjacent weight rooms, etc.etc, how are they ever going to choose to go to a program without that? To me, that’s the definition of an arms race.

If it were simply a matter of some utilitarian reason for needing a 50-meter pool to effectively train your swimmers, it can be done for a whole lot less money than what these Universities build. The host of the 2010 NCAA Men’s championships, the McCorkle Aquatics Pavilion, cost $25 million. To build a 50-meter pool, inside, with ventilation, some amount of seating at deck-level that would allow it to host local USA-Swimming meets, a good sized parking lot, and a few offices, quality ventilation, and acceptable locker rooms, it can be done for around $4 or $5 million dollars, depending on the area. I’m not making those numbers up, it has been done. It’s the bells and whistles that drive the costs up into the above $10-million dollar range. It’s the desire of University athletics departments to not build a facility unless they can tout it as “world class.” You can’t tell me that Ohio State didn’t have enough weight facilities on campus already, and enough offices and classrooms. If they can afford all of that, that’s great. But for a school like Clemson, who can’t, then scale back the expectations.

And the athletics directors know this. They know that they can build a 50-meter pool for a lot less than $15 million. And as much as the message boards like to throw around how “dumb” and “thoughtless” these guys are, there’s no doubt that they’re very intelligent, and give a huge amount of weight to any decision to cut an athletics program. They know that it can be done on the cheap.

The issue is that the coaches and Athletics Departments know the bells and whistles, that have little to do with actual training but are just nice and convenient, are what attracts recruits. We’d like for all 18-year old high school students to be infinitely mature, and be able to look beyond this stuff, but it’s a fact of life that most of them aren’t. Think back to when you were that age. You would’ve been impressed too. It’s only nataural to equate the quality of a facility to the quality of a program. I don’t think anybody can rightfully argue this.

And as youth and high school coaches, we can be shell-shocked as well. Why would we lead our kid to Clemson if we see the massive amount of support that these other programs receive? Building a $25 million dollar facility indicates a commitment by the athletics department to the program, which is in this day one of the top factors in recruit confidence.

So, before we start pointing the finger at the football and basketball for over-spending in an arms race, perhaps swimming needs to take a look at itself, scale back it’s expectations, and focus on what really matters. It’s hard to say how this will be accomplished, but like everything else, nobody wants to do this unilaterally. How can we expect the Ohio State’s, and Florida’s, and Virginia’s, who can afford these facilities and see the success to warrant them, to sacrifice their facilities, and one of their biggest recruiting advantages, for the “good of the sport.” College athletics are not meant to be that altruistic.

But this is not to fault these big programs and their mega-facilities. The facilities are great for the sport as a whole, and it’s exciting as all get out when programs can muster the support to build them. But, if a program has a reputation of being a top program, and a fantastically extravagant facility, is it unfairly stacking the deck against programs that are trying to rise based on merits? Does it make it too hard for any program to become good, simply because they weren’t good 20 years ago?

What do you guys think? How much does a facility matter? And is it a 50-meter pool, or is it all of the stuff that comes along with these huge facilities that the coaches really need? And is swimming shooting itself in the foot by starting it’s own arms race that we simply cannot afford? Sound off below.

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Coach D

This is such an interesting debate. No, you shouldn’t need a long-course pool to be competitive in College Swimming, which is yards. But like you mentioned, if you want to attract swimmers with an international focus, both domestic and foreign, then you’ll want a 50-meter pool. And aren’t NCAAs usually short course meters in an Olympic year? A long course pool can be built outdoors for right at a million.

Also, Clemson renovated their rec center, including the swimming facilities, lockers, etc.a few years back and while it’s not a Georgia or Ohio State, it’s pretty nice. Wouldn’t that help with recruiting?

Former CU swimmer

A few comments: A 50 meter pool is important for a few reasons, yes, it helps bring in olympic calibur swimmers but, in addition and perhaps more importantly, it provides: 1. allows for the entire team to practice at once…when I was there, we had folks practicing from 2:30-4:30 and a second slot from 4:30-6:30. 2. It allows for fewer swimmers in each lane. fewer swimmers in each lane results in better training. Imagine running in a lane with people on your heels and toes. 3. More lanes provide more customization of workouts. I.e. a sprint free lane, a fly lane, an IM lane, a distance lane…etc etc. More customization of workouts=faster swimming 4. More lanes provide concurrent workouts and… Read more »

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. 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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