Playing Favorites

by Casey Barrett

The high-wire genius in coaching talent-loaded teams…

If only I had athletes like that, man, what I could do with them. With talent like that, how can they not win? He’s a great recruiter, a brilliant salesman, but as a coach? Anyone could do that, with his stable of horses… You just need to get out of the way.

The bitter musings of a jealous coach… It’s March, and from poolside to courtside, madness like that is in full bloom.

Over the last two weekends, the clear favorites have run away with the women’s and men’s NCAA Swimming Championships – Teri McKeever’s Cal Bears and Eddie Reese’s Texas Longhorns. Neither team title came as a surprise. In fact, if either of these teams had failed to win it all, it would have been seen as a choke, as teams failing to live up to their potential.

The same will be said of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats if they fail to complete perfection next week in the Final Four. Most of America outside the blue grass state will be pulling for some sort of impossible upset, if only to stoke our collective underdog lust. Sports fan love excellence, but too much domination can spoil the fun. And so we root against those teams who’ve managed to recruit and coach and will the odds in their favor.

This curious condition can put a brilliant coach in an all-or-nothing corner. You can find yourself so good, surrounded by so much breathtaking talent, that it feels like everyone, even your closest coaching allies, are secretly hoping for you to slip up.

So it’s been for Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese this year. Anyone paying attention to the times and projected numbers knew that the team titles were theirs to lose. Their pools in Berkeley and Austin are bursting with talent. Sure, Georgia was the two-time defending women’s champion, and sure it had been five years since the Longhorns hoisted the team trophy at men’s NCs, but if their ladies and gentlemen swam as expected in March, the meets were theirs.

In the face of those suffocating expectations, McKeever and Reese exceeded them. They coached their athletes to performances that took a lot more than talent. They brought the best out of the best. The two races that personified it for me: Missy Franklin’s 1:39.10 in the women’s 200 free and the legion of Longhorns who turned the men’s 100 fly into an intramural meet, sending out six of the top eight finalists, including an unprecedented 1-2-3-4 sweep led by freshman Singapore stud Joseph Schooling.

Before we proceed, consider that 100 fly for a moment. Imagine being the sixth best flyer on your own team, and going 45.9, and making it all the way to the A-final of the NCAA champs. Breaking 46 and scoring a lane among the top eight: that’s a high water mark for plenty of All-American swimmers out there. If you go to Texas these days, it means you’d find yourself on the “F” medley relay!

While we’re speaking of an embarrassment of riches, it must feel rather similar to be a backstroke specialist among Teri McKeever’s women. There’s Missy, of course, the straw that currently stirs USA Swimming’s drink. There’s Rachel Bootsma, the third fastest 100 backstroker ever, who narrowly missed Natalie Coughlin’s NCAA record by .06. There’s Elizabeth Pelton, who still reigns as the American and NCAA record holder in the 200 yard back, despite some slower times these last few seasons. And then there’s Queen Natalie herself, still ubiquitous at Cal’s Spieker Pool, a pro well into her 30s now, one Olympics away from perhaps emerging as the most decorated female swimmer in history.

Franklin, of course, will now join Coughlin among the pro ranks, no longer able to turn down the riches that await in the lead up to Rio. After a successful but not Missy-perfect freshman campaign last year, plenty were whispering about an imminent return to Todd Schmitz back in Colorado, following her sophomore swan song. After her performance this year under McKeever, I’m not so sure that’s the case. But whether she packs her bags for the club cocoon she knows so well, or chooses to remain on campus at Cal for this next crucial year, Franklin’s college “experiment” that was so overanalyzed and second-guessed can now go down as an unqualified success. Missy being Missy, I’m positive she’d trade the couple million she might have made in the years since London for the experience she’s shared in Berkeley the last two years.

The lion’s share of the credit here must go to McKeever. Since landing the greatest recruit ever to sign in NCAA swimming, there must have been plenty of times when the coach felt that old buzz-kill truism ‘be careful what you wish for’… You work your whole career for a shot at coaching a group like that, led by an athlete with the character and talent of a Franklin, and then you start sensing the chatter. The schadenfreude undercurrents that creep up anytime your superstars perform less than superbly. You know your swimmers read the sometimes cruel comments pages over at Swim Swam. You know your recruiting is picked over anytime a new blue chip recruit chooses to sign elsewhere. And you know how fragile these swimmers’ egos can be. Monster talents or not, it will always be a delicate dance to the top of any podium.

Eddie Reese has known this for decades. The boys may play at having thicker skins and sturdier confidence, but that’s an act. Their egos are just as fragile. They just fake it in different ways. You think it’s easy to coach a kid who goes 1:39 in the 200 fly – in season – and is still the second best flyer on your depth chart? Jack Conger and Joseph Schooling, along with the rest of those world-class flyers down in Austin, now have maybe the best training group on earth. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to coach that crew. It will fall to Reese, and to his indispensable number two Kris Kubik, to maintain an insanely tough balance in coaching each of these kids to their individual best, while constantly guiding the overriding needs of the team each March.

Reese and Kubik have done it before. It wasn’t that long ago that Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen and Ian Crocker were the trio of big dogs at Texas. World record holders each, they collected fifteen individual NCAA titles between them… while making just a slight mark on the international scene, as well.

This collective success isn’t a given. Just witness the implosion of NBAC’s super-group last year, soon after the return of Michael Phelps. It’s one thing to coach a great one; it’s quite another to coach a team of great ones.

The master of guiding all-time talent, of course, is Zen master Phil Jackson. He of the 11-rings and Buddha-like presence, helming the best teams in NBA history… Those 11 rings were largely due to two men, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who happen to be two very bad men. Metaphorically, sure, because they’re as bad ass as any ever to play the game. But I mean that literally – Jordan and Bryant are, by most every account, bad human beings. Egomaniac sociopaths, guys who respect few, listen to less. But they listened to Phil. And because of that genius – his ability to get through to monsters and bring out their best – Jackson will go down as the greatest ever to coach his sport.

Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese are already Hall of Famers on the pool deck, and they have the good fortune not to be coaching sociopaths, at least as far as I know. But their tasks are not so dissimilar to that of Phil Jackson and Kentucky’s John Calipari. When your reputation and your past champions and your self-evident skills as a coach eventually lead you to a bounty of talent assembled around you, that’s when the real work begins. It’s grossly unfair, but that’s how the greatest coaches will be remembered: how they led teams of unreal talent, when all the pieces were in place.

You wish you were that lucky, to have the opportunity to coach that kind of talent. But be careful what you wish for.