Cal Swimming: Legendary Coach Nort Thornton Dies at 87

Thornton Developed Olympians and Won Two NCAA Championships at Cal
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Nort Thornton, who coached the likes of Olympic icon Matt Biondi while developing the Cal swimming and diving program into a national collegiate powerhouse, died Thursday. He was 87.

Thornton coached the Bears for 33 seasons and worked with swimmers who won 29 Olympic medals, including 14 gold, 10 silver and five bronze, representing the U.S. and other countries.

Cal swim coach Dave Durden called Thornton “a legend who impacted our program, our Cal community and the sport of swimming as a whole in so many tremendous ways.”

Biondi, who won 11 Olympic medals, said not all coaches from top college programs believed he had what it took to become elite. Thornton believed in him.

"I’m most grateful to Nort for being a college coach that was willing to open the doors and give me a shot at collegiate swimming," Biondi said. "I owe my entry to Berkeley and all those resources to Nort, who had the vision to see that."

Thornton took over as Cal’s swim coach in 1974-75 and led the Bears to NCAA team championships in ’79 and ’80. His teams were ranked among the top-10 nationally in 28 of his 33 seasons as coach.

Nort Thornton's swimmers toss him in the pool

Nort Thornton's swimmers prepare to toss him in the pool at the 1980 NCAA meet

Thornton was named National Coach of the Year twice and was honored by by the Pac-10 on four occasions. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Cal Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.

“Nort will be remembered as one of our sport’s greatest coaches, but his legacy extends much further than the accolades he received throughout his career,” Durden said. “He was a passionate leader who made a difference in the lives of everyone who spent time with him on the pool deck.

“Nort will be greatly missed, and I join all members of our Cal community in sending condolences and prayers to his family.”

At Cal, Thornton’s teams won 48 NCAA individual and relay championships and 108 Pac-10 individual, relay and diving titles. He assembled a dual-meet record of 231-85 (.731).

Thornton’s list of Olympic swimmers goes well beyond Biondi, who was an 11-time medalist an world-recordholder. Anthony Ervin won four Olympic medals. Ex-Bears Par Arvidsson and Bengt Baron captured gold medals for their native Sweden. Duje Draganja won a silver medal for Croatia. Thornton also recruited and coached Nathan Adrian and Milorad Cavic, who enjoyed success at the Olympics after Thornton retired.

"Think of all the generations of young men who have come through there who have been touched by Nort," Biondi said. "He ran a competitive program, expected a lot from his athletes. And he recruited the best swimmers from literally all around the globe." 

Biondi, who also played water polo for the late Pete Cutino Jr., said Berkeley had an unmatched culture within their aquatics programs. "Nort and Pete together created this breeding ground that was so healthy for so many for so long."

Former Cal swim coach Nort Thornton

Nort Thornton

Beyond Cal, Thornton coached numerous United States teams in world competition, including the 1979 FINA Cup in Tokyo and the 1981 World University Games. He also served as an assistant coach at the Pan American Games, the Pan Pacific Games and twice at the World Championships.

Thornton is a past president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, served on the ASCA Board of Directors and was part of the NCAA Rules Committee. He was awarded the National Collegiate and Scholastic Award for his contributions to swimming as a healthful recreation activity for schools and colleges.

Thornton graduated from San Jose State in 1956 with a degree in education and earned his master’s degree from Stanford.

Cover photo of Nort Thornton courtesy of Cal Athletics

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo