Tennessee Coach Ray Bussard urges his swimmers to shave their heads before big meets because he's convinced it helps them go faster. But a fellow shorn that way can get chilly, so Bussard also has his boys wear coonskin caps whenever possible. The arrangement worked out nicely last weekend at the NCAA championships in the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach, Calif. The Tennessee swimmers, most of them bald as eggs, won the national championship, breaking Southern Cal's four-year lock on the team title. And not a single Vol caught cold.
In winning the first NCAA swim title for a Southeastern Conference team, Tennessee made a shambles of what was supposed to be a wide-open battle. Although Olympians John Naber, Joe Bottom and Rod Strachan, who led Southern Cal to its four straight first-place finishes, had graduated. USC hoped to win No. 5 without them. Instead, the Trojans suffered the slows in the water and coaching foul-ups on land to come in a distant fifth, the worst finish for Coach Peter Daland in 19 years. Said Daland, "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
With USC surprisingly out of it, swim powers like California, UCLA and Auburn found themselves in a hot race for the runner-up spot behind Tennessee. They also consoled themselves with some outstanding individual performances. Auburn sophomore Scott Spann won two events, as did sophomore Greg Jagenburg of host Long Beach State, but the star of the three-day meet was Brian Goodell, winner of two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics. Now an 18-year-old UCLA freshman, Goodell took the 500-yard freestyle and the 400 individual medley before slashing to victory Saturday night in the 1,650-yard free in 14:55.53, nearly two seconds under Casey Converse's American record. It was the meet's only individual American record, and Goodell joined Mark Spitz and Naber as the only freshmen to win three NCAA events.
But the meet otherwise belonged to the Vols. The Tennessee team was lovingly put together by Bussard, a folksy sort who earns his living not at any swimming pool but at what he calls "the ol' water hole." The flamboyant Bussard took over Tennessee's moribund swim program in 1968 and quickly proved to be an able technician and conditioner. He built a powerhouse that has now won seven straight SEC titles and placed fourth or better in the last six NCAAs. Still, he admitted last week, "It's getting a little frustrating down at the of water hole. We'd like to get on top."
April 3, 1978
Bussard's patience was rewarded at Long Beach. The Vols scored in 15 of the 16 swimming events and were especially awesome in the sprints. The best of Tennessee's many sprinters was 6'4" sophomore Andy Coan, one of the few Vols who did not shave his head. Instead, Coan swam with his locks tucked under an orange bathing cap, insisting all the while he was not defying Bussard. "Coach Bussard does get kind of persuasive on the subject," he acknowledged. "He'll come up and say, 'Hey, Andy boy, if you shave your head, think how fast you'll go.' But he doesn't force you to do it. And I'm confident I can swim well without shaving."
Coan and his fellow Tennessee sprinters made their first big splash during the 50-yard freestyle on the meet's opening night. There are six qualifiers in every NCAA final and Coan won this one in 20.29, just ahead of California's Jim Fairbank (20.32). In lightning succession came Vols John Newton (20.41), Bob Sells (20.44) and Tom White (20.55). And Vol John Ebuna, swimming in the earlier consolation heat, took eighth. Tennessee's stunning 1-3-4-5-8 blitz yielded 54 points, the most ever scored by a team in a single NCAA event. At the end of the first night the Vols enjoyed a 92-68 lead over California, their closest rival.
Tennessee continued to roll up the points the next day, the most gratifying coming in a 2-4 finish in the 100-yard butterfly by Tim Boyd, a freshman from suburban Knoxville. and junior Matt Vogel. a gold medalist at Montreal who was at last showing signs of recovering from a severe post-Olympic slump. On the third day the Vols were even stronger. Joining Spann and Jagenburg as a double winner, Coan took the 100 free in 44.10, leading Newton, Sells, Ebuna and White in a 1-3-6-7-12 finish. Another 45 points. Then sophomore Marc Foreman picked up a second in the 200 backstroke to go with an earlier second and third. Next, Gary Faykes was a surprisingly strong second in the 200 breaststroke. And after that, diver Brent Fichter, who was in 13th place following the preliminaries, got hot and came in fifth in the three-meter event. And so it went. The meet ended on a high note for Tennessee's sprinters, with Sells, Coan, Ebuna and Newton winning the 400 freestyle relay in a torrid 2:55.66.
Tennessee wound up with 307 points and a shockingly wide margin over SEC rival Auburn, which won the battle for second with 185. Then came three Pac-8 schools—California (179), UCLA (165) and USC (143).
The Trojans had reason to expect happier results in the Belmont pool. The only previous NCAA meet held there was in 1974 when Naber, Bottom and Strachan led the Trojans to a stormy 339-338 upset of Indiana, which was going for its seventh straight NCAA title. The Trojans took the next three NCAA championships by widening margins, Naber finishing his career with a record 10 individual tides. Bottom won five championships and Strachan two.
Not only did these three graduate, but USC also lost sophomore Steve Pickell, a versatile Canadian who took two thirds and a fourth at the 1977 NCAAs. He hurt a shoulder in September playing water polo, underwent surgery and was lost for the season. The Trojans still had Bruce Furniss, a Montreal gold medalist, and seasoned sprinter Scott Findorff, but that talented pair could not stave off a 60-53 dual-meet defeat last month to UCLA. It was USC's first dual-meet loss since 1973 and its first at home in 22 years. The burden of defeat weighed heavily on Findorff, a senior and the team's captain. "After UCLA beat us, I thought I should tell the guys something," he said. "But not having lost before, I didn't know what to say."
Even with the loss to UCLA, the Trojans felt they had a shot at winning the national title again. They knew what a topsy-turvy collegiate season it had been. UCLA got its comeuppance in a dual-meet loss to Tennessee. The Vols lost to Alabama (SI, Feb. 13). 'Bama lost to Auburn, and so it went all season. Although Tennessee's prowess in the sprints made it the favorite, Trojan fans packed the stands, waving gold-and-maroon pompons and cheering on Daland's crew.
Furniss won the 200 free for the second straight year and had a second and a third in two other events, but that was about it for USC. Findorff's best finish was a fifth in the 100 free, and he experienced exquisite frustration in the 50 free, an event in which he had been a pre-meet favorite. Swimming sluggishly in a morning heat, Findorff clocked a 20.66, which was only good enough for the consolation finals. There he reeled off a 19.94, which would have beaten Coan and the other Tennesseans in the championship finals. There were other mishaps for USC, including two false starts that disqualified freshman Cress Templeton in the 100 backstroke. Daland contributed to his team's downfall by neglecting to properly enter his five qualifiers in the 1,650, with the result that none was allowed to swim the event.
For Daland, that was the low point of the meet. "I don't think I've ever had to do anything more difficult than tell those boys they weren't swimming," he said. "That was the only event one of them, George Nagy, was going to swim. I said, 'George, you're not going to swim the 1,650 and you're looking at the reason why.' Can you imagine how I felt?"
Another big-name school that skidded was Indiana. During the season the Hoosiers extended their string of consecutive dual-meet victories and Big Ten championships to 137 and 18, respectively, but their weak schedule made them a mystery team. The mystery was cleared up when Indiana placed ninth at Long Beach, the worst finish for a Doc Counsilman team in 20 years. Alabama, NCAA runner-up last season and dual-meet conqueror of Tennessee, slipped to seventh. On the other hand, there were the second-and third-place finishes of fast-rising Auburn and California, neither of which scored a point in the NCAA meet five years ago. Auburn, though, may be on a roller coaster. Its coach, Eddie Reese, has been wooed to Texas and there were rumors around the Belmont pool that several of his stars may go with him—including Spann, whose wins in Long Beach came in the 100 breaststroke and 200 individual medley.
While everybody else in college swimming seemed to be moving around—up in the standings, down in the standings, to Texas—Brian Goodell remained Brian Goodell. In Montreal, Goodell out-swam Tim Shaw to win the 400-meter freestyle and beat Bobby Hackett for the gold in the 1,500. At the NCAAs Goodell met both silver medalists—with identical results. Shaw, a Long Beach State junior, had won the 500-yard free the last two years, but Goodell beat him in 4:18.05. Hackett, a Harvard freshman, fell in the 1,650. Goodell let Hackett play rabbit for a while—he did the same thing at Montreal—and then pulled ahead for keeps at the 450 mark, winning by three body lengths to break Converse's American record. Converse, an Alabama sophomore, was also in the race but was badly beaten.
Goodell's record swim came in a pool that had a lot of people grumbling. Belmont is a 50-meter pool, and a bulkhead was placed across it to create an NCAA-distance 25-yard course. It was done in such a way, however, that the depth was only 3½ to 4½ feet. And as everybody in the sport knows all too well, shallow water causes turbulence that can slow swimmers down. "It was awfully choppy when I was going one way and guys were coming the other," Goodell said after the 1,650. "I also swallowed a little water."
Goodell wasn't the only one who did a nice job of coping. Preparing his Tennessee swimmers for the NCAAs, Bussard stressed that the best way to avoid being swamped by heavy waves is to ride high in the water, keeping the head up during breathing. Bussard constantly reminded his swimmers about this during the meet. Pacing the deck, hat brim upturned in the fashion of comedian Frank Fontaine, he barked out his orders: "C'mon, boy, head up! Keep that head up!" And the head in question—whether, bald or in orange bathing cap—would be up.
The canny Bussard has made a specialty of taking little-known swimmers and turning them into well-known swimmers. The arrival in Knoxville of Andy Coan posed a different sort of challenge. Coan already was a star, having broken the world record and won a world championship in the 100-meter freestyle while still in high school in Fort Lauderdale. But he was inconsistent as a swimmer, and his life became further complicated when poor high school grades made him ineligible his first year at Tennessee. This was a critical year for Coan and he knew it. "I've got to show I'm still around," he said. "I've got to get back on top."
While Coan was trying to get back on top, his team was attempting to get there for the first time. When both things happened last week at the ol' water hole, it was no coincidence.