If elections were held today to choose the most unbeloved college swim team, Tennessee would win in a landslide. The Vols wear coonskin hats and gaudy orange suits, march about with military precision and refuse to nod at opponents, much less speak to them. The most disturbing thing about the Tennessee boys, though, is that they swim so fast, fast enough to have won the last six Southeastern Conference championships. They also cracked the top four at the NCAAs in each of those years.
All this helps explain what happened last Saturday when Alabama beat the Vols in a dual meet in Tuscaloosa. The home team clinched the meet with two events to go, and the 1,200 fans, shoe-horned into Alabama's steamy natatorium, stopped just short of singing, "Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead."
What was most surprising about 'Bama's 63-50 win was not that it happened, but how it happened. The Crimson Tide has been second to Tennessee in SEC meets for three years, but it is a national power, too, and two years ago it stunned the Vols 65-48 at home to snap a Tennessee winning streak of 85 dual meets. Last year, after losing 57-56 at Knoxville and settling for its accustomed runner-up spot in the SEC, Alabama outscrambled its conference rival for second place in the NCAAs behind Southern Cal, which won its fourth straight title. But Tennessee seemed stronger than ever this year, boasting enough talent, some felt, to overtake USC and become the first SEC school to win an NCAA team title. As for Alabama, the only way it figured to embarrass the Vols again was to get an all-conquering performance from senior Jonty Skinner, its South African-born sprint star.
It did not work out quite that way. Mike Curington, with two individual wins in addition to an impressive relay performance, was the big man for Alabama. Skinner, meanwhile, swam a strong anchor leg to help 'Bama get a critical meet-opening win in the 400-yard medley relay, but he was outdueled in his 100 freestyle specialty by Tennessee sophomore Andy Coan. Alabama made up for Skinner's loss by winning seven of the 13 events and collecting some unexpected second-place points. Skinner, though also beaten in the 50-yard freestyle, joined in the general jubilation over the Alabama victory. "It doesn't matter how we do it," he said, "just as long as we beat Tennessee."
February 13, 1978
Such passions once would have been unthinkable in the SEC, where swimming has not always been highly regarded. It was not so long ago, in fact, that the SEC was lucky enough to have sneaked a team into the top 15 in the country. That situation began to change in 1968 when Tennessee, which had dropped the sport 15 years before, entrusted its revived program to Ray Bussard, a homespun ex-high school football coach with show biz in his bones.
In dealing with his swimmers, Bussard rules the waves, subjecting them to strict dress codes and curfews. Bussard also is innovative. To develop height and distance on starts, he has his swimmers dive into the water from the second row of bleachers situated a few feet from pool's edge. Faced with an alternative of broken ankles, Bussard-trained swimmers almost invariably have explosive starts. Partly for this reason, Tennessee teams have been rich in sprinters. The current crop is especially strong, including seniors Bob Sells and Tom White and juniors John Ebuna and John Newton, all of whom are past or potential NCAA finalists. Matt Vogel, who won the 100-meter butterfly at Montreal, is another talented Vol.
Then there is Andy Coan. In 1975, as a 17-year-old Fort Lauderdale schoolboy, Coan won the world championship and briefly held the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. He enrolled at Tennessee last year, but poor high school grades made him ineligible as a freshman. Finally this fall he helped the Vols get off to a 10-0 start in dual-meet competition while plotting his return to the top.
Alabama's approach to swimming is a bit different from Tennessee's. Talk of discipline is heard somewhat less frequently in Tuscaloosa, where swimmers felt free to toss kickboards at one another during a workout last week, right under the eye of Coach Don Gambril. Hired in 1973 with the mission of beating Tennessee, Gambril notes, perhaps unnecessarily, that his approach differs from Bussard's. "I believe in hard work, too," Gambril says, "but I don't think it has to be regimented the way Ray does it."
But Gambril is far from easygoing when it comes to recruiting, going to legendary lengths for prospects. His current Alabama team includes athletes from Australia, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, not to overlook Skinner, who arrived four years ago after a stint in the South African Army. Skinner won the NCAA 100-yard freestyle title as a fresh-man but could not compete in the '76 Olympics because of South Africa's status as an international sports outcast. Skinner watched on TV as Jim Montgomery won the 100-meter free at Montreal in a world-record 49.99. Then, three weeks later in Philadelphia, Skinner swam a 49.44, a world record that still stands.
Past Alabama-Tennessee meets have generated their share of controversy. During Skinner's freshman year, for example, Gambril became incensed when Bussard had his swimmers try to lure the Alabama star into a second—and disqualifying—false start in the 50-yard free. During Alabama's big win at home two years ago, on the other hand. Bussard complained when Gambril put the Tennessee team right next to the band—and in front of a drafty doorway.
There was some gamesmanship last week, too. First, Tennessee Captain Bob Sells emptied a bottle of "Big Orange" water into the pool, something the Vols do at all away meets. The crowd hooted. After that an Alabama bruiser in combat boots placed an orange on a starting block and stomped it. The hoots turned to cheers.
In so heady an atmosphere it was perhaps not surprising that the home team won the opening 400-yard medley relay, which had been considered a toss-up. Relays at dual meets are worth seven points, and if Tennessee had won this one, 'Bama's 63-50 win would have become a 57-56 Vol victory. The time, 3:24.05, was the fastest in the nation this season. Besides Skinner's freestyle leg, the winners got a strong butterfly leg from Curington, a senior from Birmingham. Fighting off a recent strep infection, Curington also took the 200 individual medley in 1:54.39 and the 200 butterfly in 1:52.72. Equally gratifying for Alabama was the showing of Olympian Casey Converse, who took the NCAA title in the 1,650 freestyle last season as a freshman but has been struggling this year. Foiling upset plans by Tennessee's Kent Martin, Converse beat him in both the 1,000 and 500. Converse's times were 9:19.79 and 4:34.94.
The Volunteers' brightest moments came—not surprisingly—in the sprints. Newton momentarily silenced Alabama partisans by edging Skinner in a swift (20.67) 50, and Coan won the 200 in 1:40.21 before taking the 100 in 45.12, just .08 ahead of an onrushing Skinner. Those were the two fastest 100s in the country this year, and Coan defied Bussard's ban on such pleasantries by actually exchanging congratulations with Skinner in the water. Later he tried to explain: "Jonty swam over to congratulate me, and I couldn't very well...." His voice trailed off.
Despite its defeat, Tennessee may still be better suited than Alabama (11-1) for the rigors of both the SEC championships, to be held two weeks from now at Auburn, and the subsequent NCAAs. With much of their strength in the 50 and 100, the Vols suffer a bit under the dual-meet format, which allows no more than two members of any team to score in an event. At the conference and national meets, by contrast, Tennessee could conceivably score four or five men in each of those events.
But Bussard finds little comfort in any of that. "I'm worried," he said after the loss to Alabama. "We just didn't seem to have much Tennessee fight today." Bussard's concern was understandable. When you show up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. wearing coonskin hats, sprinkling "Big Orange" water and doing all those other unlovable things, Tennessee fight is what you need more than anything else.