Cal men’s swimming & diving head coach Dave Durden has already established himself as one of the best active collegiate coaches in the country. With an unheard-of 12 consecutive top-two finishes at the NCAA Championships, Cal has matched Michigan’s 1937-1948 run for consecutive top-two finishes.
As part of that run, the Golden Bears have won 5 NCAA titles.
Still in his 40s, Durden is already in the aura of the most successful collegiate swim coaches in history, and he has a chance to find himself on top of that list (though unlike many of the names in that conversation, I don’t think Durden will be coaching into his 80s).
Durden only has one real peer in active collegiate men’s coaching: Texas’ Eddie Reese. While Durden has a long way to go to catch Reese in categories like “national championships” (15), he does have Eddie beat in one significant way: coaching tree.
Durden’s most recent assistant coach, Chase Kreitler, was recently hired as the new head coach at Pitt. He took over that job from Yuri Suguiyama, who is now coaching NCAA event champions (Phoebe Bacon and Beata Nelson) and Olympians (Bacon) at Wisconsin. Suguiyama in turn took over for Greg Meehan, who was the Cal assistant from 2008 through 2012. Meehan left to become the head coach of the women’s team at Stanford, which he lead to NCAA team titles in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Having so few assistants in such a long run is remarkable in and of itself, but that means so far, we haven’t really gotten to see what an Eddie Reese assistant can do when running his own program.
In some regards, Reese gets at least partial credit for Kreitler’s ascension: Kreitler was a volunteer assistant with Texas from 2016 to 2018, leading into taking the Cal men’s assistant job. Having worked for two of the greatest ever in Reese and Durden certainly gives Kreitler a leg-up in his first head coaching role.
So what does success look like for Kreitler at Pitt? The odds of him winning an NCAA title there by season number four, like Meehan did at Stanford, are somewhere south-of-slim.
But the bar for success at Pitt is not nearly as high at Stanford, where many still remember Lea Maurer‘s run of seven-straight top-five finishes at NCAAs as a flop.
Last season, Pitt’s men finished ninth out of 12 teams at the ACC Championships and Pitt’s women finished 11th out of 12 teams. In both cases, that was with the support of a pretty strong diving corps.
It’s almost inevitable that Kreitler’s presence there will improve those placements in a deepening ACC. His name recognition and association with so many Olympians at Cal and Texas will give the Panthers a pretty quick recruiting bump that by 2023-2024 should see a significant climb.
The dream for Pitt is, of course, to get into the top four at ACCs and bump elbows with the likes of Virginia, NC State, Louisville, and Virginia Tech. But short of that, if the Panthers are consistently ruminating between fifth and sixth place, that’s probably enough for Kreitler to earn interviews to climb another rung on the coaching ladder and take over a program in the top 15 or so.
That’s easier said than done, though, in a conference that gets better every year. Besides the three teams at the top, which are among the top eight-or-so in the NCAA, the rest of the conference is improving as well. Sergio Lopez has quickly built Virginia Tech into a national-caliber team, Notre Dame has a new head coach coming in Chris Lindauer that also has a lot of momentum, and UNC continues to improve, steadily, under third-year head coach Mark Gangloff.
If Kreitler can make his team relevant in the conference again, though, his ‘coaching name’ will continue to grow in prominence. As will the name of the men who he most recently learned from, Dave Durden and Eddie Reese.
We often hear head coaches talk about how they accomplish things ‘as a staff,’ deferring credit to their assistants. In part, that’s a sort of self-deprecating grandstanding that appeals to middle-aged fans (and parents of recruits).
But, whether intentional or not, even these gargantuan names depend, in some small part, on their proteges for their legacies. Durden, for example, is a part of the coaching tree of another man who can stake a claim to the Mount Rushmore of college coaches: David Marsh. And that’s important because a lot of Marsh assistants didn’t have success as head coaches.
When great coaches retire and give way to a new generation of GOATs, their records and the memories of their success continues to stand in record books and in banners hung from rafters. What makes those legacies continue to live and thrive and even evolve, though, is the people they mentored. That includes athletes, to some degree, but really is a legacy that heavily leans on the assistants they touched.
So as he takes over Pitt, Kreitler will now have to stand alone as his own head coach (who will surely defer much of the credit, and none of the blame, on his assistants – in the pattern of the men who he most recently learned from). But he also carries the weight of some small piece of the legacies of both Durden and Reese to Pittsburgh.
He won’t make or break the memory of either coach on his own, but he now has the opportunity to become some sort of limb, branch, or twig sprouting from those prodigious trunks, and add to the richness of either coach’s legacy. That feels like just the right amount of pressure to find out what Kreitler is made of.