Well Endowed

by Casey Barrett

Tarheels, Bulldogs, Buckeyes, Bears, and Vikings… Yes, Vikings. Follow these leaders: Sustainable college swimming programs that get it…

The headline isn’t a euphemism, stop smirking. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines well-endowed as “having a lot of something, especially money or possessions”… Or having a large something, right? But today’s story is about what lies ahead for college swimming, not what lies beneath the Speedo. And those ahead-of-the-curve programs that get it…

Last week, a post called Pay Your Way quickly became the most read piece ever on this young blog. It tried to dissect what will happen in college sports when football and basketball players start getting paid, when swimming programs face elimination as a result, and want can be done to protect them. Based on the feedback that poured in, the story clearly touched a nerve for many. And rightly so, considering it’s many of your livelihoods.

In the days that followed, I had a chance to email and speak with a few leaders in the sport who have been out on those front lines fighting this fight long before there was an Internet for bloggers to share their unsolicited insights. To a man, everyone’s diagnosis was the same — the situation is dire, perhaps terminal for some, and in need of immediate attention. And all agreed on something else — there is a cure. The principal antidote? Endowments.

Want to protect your swimming program so your great grandkids can someday be Trojans or Mustangs too? If so, you’d better be well endowed. That is, with a healthy fund of alumni money set aside, accumulating interest, and paying for your swimmers’ scholarships and training trips and, hell, even a brand new pool when the time comes. Without it, you’re like a surfer without a leash. One big wave knocks you off the board and it’s time to swim to shore, session over.

While that rather forced aquatic metaphor might describe many college swim programs, there a few teams out there that are sitting pretty. Thanks to the foresight of their coaches and / or their well-heeled alumni, they’ve made their teams untouchable. Come what may, these programs are now built to last. They’re no longer the no-revenue-producing redheaded stepchildren of their big sport siblings. Pay their football and basketball brethren all you like, it won’t affect these swim teams’ existence. Because they figured out how to do it themselves.

So, who are they? Last week, I had a chance to speak to Bob Groseth, the Executive Director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. For twenty years, Groseth was the coach of Northwestern, taking the Wildcats from the bottom of the Big Ten rankings to perennial contenders with a roster of NCAA champions. Groseth took over as the head of the CSCAA in 2009. A widely respected presence at every level of the sport, he’s interested in a whole lot more than the top 10 teams everyone sees at NCAA’s. He knows college swimming extends far beyond its flagship meets, and that some of the programs most worthy of admiration aren’t necessarily the ones stacked with Olympians.

But first, let’s talk about one of those programs that gives everyone Olympic envy. When it comes to Cal Berkeley, there’s plenty to be jealous of these days. They’re the defending NCAA champions among both the men and the women. Their head coaches are among the most beloved figures on pool decks today. Recruits are lining up out the door for the privilege to swim here. (Untouchable, right? Tell that to UCLA…) But a few years back, they managed to do something even more impressive than win the team titles at NC’s. They created the Cal Aquatics Fund. Led by a few deep pocketed alum (let’s just say one founded the Gap, and another founded Dreyer’s Ice Cream…), they made sure that every Cal water sport would exist forevermore. Men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s water polo, all taken care of.

Sure, the Cal track record of excellence is plenty impressive, but it’s also a state school, in a state than has just a few financial difficulties. Falling in-state admissions and rising tuition are serious issues in the UC system these days. No matter what place they got at NCAA’s, the Cal teams had plenty to worry about. That is, until this Fund came into being.

Who else has patched together that warm cloak of endowment? North Carolina is a school frequently mentioned towards the top of the list. So is the University of Georgia. According to Groseth, both UNC’s Frank Comfort and Georgia’s Jack Bauerle have made sure that every single one of their scholarships is endowed. The UNC recruiting slogan almost writes itself: Take comfort with Comfort! Because his team isn’t going anywhere…

Groseth also had high praise for Ohio State’s Bill Wadley. In addition to building a new state-of-the-art pool, Wadley recently managed to get all of the Buckeyes’ swimming scholarships endowed. No surprise that this is suddenly a program on the rise… Sure, the pool makes a major difference in impressing recruits, but according to Groseth it was the security of establishing the endowment that truly allowed Wadley to take ownership of his fast improving program.

All four of these schools mentioned above deserve plenty of props, but you might have noticed that they are all major athletic powerhouses, among the most accomplished athletic departments in the nation, across many sports. It makes sense that it’s possible at schools like this, where there’s bound to be plenty of passionate alumni support. But what about smaller schools, without any real sports tradition to speak of? What about a small Midwestern school, an institution less than 50 years old, a mid-major program that’s never had a swimmer break 20 seconds in the 50 free? The sort of program that so often finds itself on the chopping block…

What about the Cleveland State Vikings?

According to Bob Groseth, CSU “should be the poster boy for how to create a sustainable swim team.” The man responsible? Head Coach Wally Morton. Now in his 37th year as head coach, Morton has led a rock solid program with most of its scholarships endowed since 1999. And it’s not just rich alumni who prop it up. The CSU team has made itself untouchable thanks to an active and ongoing effort to make itself indispensable in its college community. I spoke to Morton earlier, as he was about to board a flight home with his team from a Christmas training trip. (That right there should say something…)

“The money is key, of course,” says Morton. “But more important is the relationship you foster with your Athletic Director, and even more, your college president.”

Sounds simple enough – you want your bosses to know and care about you. Yet, this is something that just doesn’t happen at so many programs. Case in point: During my sophomore year at USC, the Athletic Director, Mike Garrett, was giving a speech at our annual swim team banquet. His remarks were proceeding with the usual vague, overblown praise when he declared “and that’s what makes the SC water polo team so important to this school.” Silence in the room. A few snickers, probably from the freshman. It took Garrett a few uncomfortable seconds to realize that he was speaking to the swim team, and that now everyone in the room knew he was reading from a stock speech that he apparently read at every other team’s banquet. The swim team was a faceless entity to this AD. He wouldn’t blink if he was forced to cut it; he didn’t even know who we were.

Something like this would never happen at CSU. That’s because everyone at the school knows exactly who Morton and the swimmers are. And they know because Morton makes sure of it. Recently, Morton told me, the CSU president was traveling to San Francisco. So, the swim coach called up a few old alums who had settled out there. One took him to the San Fransisco Farmers Market. Another figured out his dinner plans. How much do you want to bet that this college president attended the team’s next swim meet when he got back to Cleveland?

At the CSCAA conference last May in San Diego, Morton recalled a line from the keynote speaker Frank Busch, USA Swimming’s National Team Director. After 31 years as the head coach of Arizona, Busch knows his way around the landmines of college swimming. To his assembled coaching audience, Busch had one piece of advice that resonated with Morton: “Don’t be a mosquito to your AD and your college president.” That is, don’t be a pest who only buzzes around when you want something. Mosquitos gets swatted away, and then they get crushed.

But those wise well-endowed programs who get it? They’ll be swimming above it all for a long, long time.