Bettye Reese sat high up in the packed stands at O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. last Saturday night as No. 4-ranked Florida prepared to face top-ranked Texas in the teams' Civil War of swimming. She held allegiance to both sides, but more than that, she held allegiance to her sons: Coach Randy Reese of Florida, who had guided the Gators to victory in last year's war, and Coach Eddie Reese of Texas, who as coach at Auburn had given his brother's Gators their last dual meet defeat in 1978. "They're good boys," Bettye said. "They never fought as kids."
Or as adults, either, at least not seriously. But the dry Reese humor does provoke some skirmishing. On the eve of the meet, with Texas scheduled to show up for a last-minute workout, 34-year-old Randy was asked, "Will you wait here to see your brother tonight?" "No," he said, "but I'll drop by early to dump a load of chlorine in the pool." The next day, Eddie, 39, who, unlike Randy, is quick with a grin, gestured across the pool toward "that nasty-lookin' little fellow with the mustache over there."
Then the brothers sent out their proxies to do battle. The Texas 400-yard-medley relay team all but blew the Gators into Alabama, winning in 3:22.64. But then the home-pool hero, Craig Beardsley, the world-record holder in the 200-meter butterfly (1:58.21), swam a 9:09.29 in the 1,000-yard freestyle, helping Florida even things up. Despite his win, Beardsley knew he wasn't in line for a medal from his coach. "I totally respect Randy," he said. "But he does have awfully high standards. I think he might have said 'Good swim' to me six times in the more than two years I've been swimming for him."
By the 50 free, the fourth event, Florida had opened up a gap of six points (20-14) when the Gators' Rob Ramirez (20.52) outtouched Kris Kirchner of Texas by .04. Muscles such as Ramirez has are important in the 50; so are very long fingernails. In the stands, Ramirez' father, Gil, was saying proudly, "Randy Reese instilled character in my boy. Rob was 10 minutes late for one practice last year, and he got benched for the meet with Auburn."
In the 200 IM, Texas' Scott Spann out-swam three Floridians, and Texas trailed by only five points, 19-24. Spann's father, Don, was equally loud in his praise for a Reese. "Eddie will challenge Scott to achieve certain times in his workouts," Don said, "and he'll get results. But he knows that practice can get tedious. When it does, he might bet one of the boys a milkshake he can outglide him in the pool, or that he can beat him in a race in which they tie a leg behind their backs. He's the master at that sort of thing."
Spann, a senior from Greenville, S.C., attended Auburn in 1978, when Eddie was still the War Eagles' coach. As Reese says, "Scott followed me to Texas, despite my begging him to stay."
"No," Spann says, "I came to Texas, and he followed me."
Such low jinks are almost as important to Texas' success as "innovations," the most important word in the coaching lexicon of both Reeses. This year Eddie has been holding workouts in a pool shortened from 25 to 16⅖ yards. "We swim the same total distances as before," he says, "so our swimmers make more turns, and because you move faster in a turn, you learn to handle a faster pace. I did it first, but it was Randy's idea."
"I'm sure many coaches have done it," says Randy, "though not as much as we have, and I think it's one of the most important developments in swimming. What else can we do?"
Plenty, as it turns out. Neither Reese is bound by convention when it comes to training his swimmers. Eddie thought up something he calls a "body scooter," sort of a belly board on wheels, but says, "Randy took it a step further," and a contraption called "wheels" was born. It consists of two six-inch lawnmower wheels joined by a padded, 16-inch-long two-by-four on which one lies. Knowing when his brother has a good idea, Eddie now has his swimmers huffing up the ramps of the football stadium on "wheels," using a sort of butterfly stroke. "But you can't bring your hands around," Eddie warns, "or your face smashes into the cement."
The Florida swimmers haven't used "wheels" this year; instead Randy figures three hours a week with heavy weights and low repetitions is stressful enough. That's in addition to 18 hours a week in the pool. And Randy no longer anchors 18-foot lengths of surgical tubing to the starting blocks and then ties the tubing to his swimmers' waists, though Eddie still does. "It stretches out to 75 feet," Eddie says, "and it gets progressively harder to swim. But when you turn to go back, whoosh! You get used to moving your arms awfully fast."
Randy says, "I've thought of building a one-lane tank and filling it with baby oil. Can you imagine what swimming in that would be like? Or maybe I could fill it with a liquid less dense than water, like gasoline, but safer. You'd have to work awfully hard to keep from sinking." Most teams have at least one character, but he usually isn't the coach.
As the Texas-Florida meet progressed, Eddie reflected on the women's meet earlier in the day. He'd sat in the stands as a spectator; unlike Randy, he coaches only male swimmers. Randy, in fact, is the only coach of a Top 10 men's team who also coaches a ranked women's squad. Eddie had cheered as loudly as any Texas swimmer on hand. "It's supposed to be fun, isn't it?" he'd said. When Texas' Jill Sterkel, a gold medalist in the Montreal Olympics, beat Florida's anchor woman by two seconds in the last leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay, Eddie had said, "She can swim for the men tonight."
As that relay, the last women's event, began, the score was 54-52 Texas; seven points would go to the winner of the relay, none to the loser. The crowd was going fairly bananas. In five years under Randy, the Florida women had been undefeated in 37 dual meets.
The Lady Gators' Amy Caulkins, Tracy's older but less celebrated sister, led by a yard at the end of her leg. Earlier she'd said, "I've learned that my successes can be just as important to me as Tracy's are to her, and if I don't finish first, well, then I don't finish first." In the second leg, Andrea Cross extended Florida's lead to a full body length; the No. 3 swimmer, Eileen O'Brien, maintained it. A 38th consecutive dual meet victory for the Florida women was only 100 yards away as the third Texas woman stroked desperately for the bulkhead where Sterkel waited, seemingly ready to snort flames. Twenty-five yards into her leg, Sterkel had erased the Longhorns' deficit. Florida's streak was over.
Eddie was dead right about wanting to have Sterkel swim with the men. The Longhorns could've used her. The Texas men were trailing 23-29 after Beardsley won his second race of the evening, in the 200 butterfly. When Florida's David Larson beat Kirchner in the 100 free, the score was 43-27 with only five events left. But it wasn't Alamo-time quite yet. Cocky Clay Britt could turn the tide in the 200 backstroke, the next event, and he fully intended to do just that.
"When did you start competing, Clay?"
"When did you know you really had it?"
Britt won to pull the Longhorns to within 13 points of the Gators. But when the swimmers were called to the blocks for the 500 free, Beardsley was one of the Gators to answer the call. There's no more difficult triple in swimming—the 1,000 and 500 free and the 200 fly, but Beardsley was going to give it a whirl. He led after 150 yards, but obviously tiring, fell back. At 250 yards he was nearly three lengths behind the third-place man, then, astonishingly, he rallied to take third. "I know why Randy loves Craig," a spectator said. "For the same reason he loves those plants he puts all around his pool. They're not human, and neither is Craig."
Andy Schmidt of Texas had won the 500, but Beardsley's teammate, John Hillencamp, was second. Florida now led 50-38. Victories in the 200 breaststroke and the 400 freestyle relay would keep alive Texas' dream of retaining its No. 1 ranking. But Florida's divers dashed even those hopes, with a one-two finish, good for eight points. The final score: Florida 69, Texas 44. Randy Reese had won this round of the Civil War and his men's team had stretched its winning streak to 25 dual meets.
No one seemed more happy about it than Craig Beardsley. "I really love beating Texas," he said. "I wouldn't even care if they were ranked No. 5 or 6. I do have respect for Eddie Reese though. Sometimes I think of what it would be like if the Reese brothers could coach a combined team. It would be unbeatable."
Earlier, Bettye Reese had said, "They both belong to me, so all I'm saying is, 'May the best man win!' "
Now she was asked, "Did the best man win?"
"Of course," she said. "And he lost, too."