The college swimming world had its bleary eyes opened on Dec. 4 when Texas freshman Shaun Jordan dived into a pool at the University of California with the drawstring of his swimsuit untied. Jordan was anchoring his school's 400-yard-freestyle relay team at a dual meet in which Cal, to the shock of many, was handing the highly regarded Longhorns a 79-34 defeat. By any measure, it was an inopportune time for Jordan's trunks to slip off.
But off they came. "Now swimming in the white suit for Texas...." joked the announcer. Cal fans stood, cheering wildly for Jordan. As one spectator described it afterward, "Shaun was mooning the crowd every time he did a flip turn." As it developed, Jordan just missed catching his Golden Bear rival after starting a body length and a half behind him. Thus a legend was born.
Jordan's unadorned performance that afternoon inadvertently sent a message that has since echoed through the collegiate ranks: Swim meets can actually be fun to watch—a revolutionary idea.
Now the idea has been picked up by others. Entertainment, in fact, was at the very heart of the sixth annual Dallas Morning News College Swimming Classic last week at SMU's Perkins Natatorium. Six of the nation's top men's teams, among them Texas, Cal, Florida and three-time defending NCAA champ Stanford—virtually all the big guns except No. 1-ranked Southern Cal—competed for two evenings in a streamlined thrill-a-minute format: no distance races, no diving, no breaks between events. In addition, several former college swimmers, including world-record holders Matt Biondi and Pablo Morales, were brought in for a series of match races. Outside, spotlights lit up the night sky.
February 8, 1988
The news of the Dallas meet was not so much that Jordan again became a hero—this time with his suit on—or that Texas wrought vengeance on Cal. It was that someone in swimming had finally shown the sport what its future could be like. In an effort to drum up interest in his six-year-old event, SMU coach George McMillion brought in a local sports marketing firm, Events Inc., to help, and the move paid off grandly.
Events Inc., which introduced NFL sprint exhibitions to indoor track several years ago, hit on the idea of big-name match races for the Dallas swim meet. Formal match races between Olympic swimmers have seldom if ever been held. There had been some gimmicky contrivances—Johnny Weissmuller in the late 1920s, for example, appeared in exhibitions for cash against little-known challengers who were given head starts—but never had the likes of Morales and Biondi lined up for, say, a 100-yard butterfly race, as they did on Friday night, with former SMU All-America Bobby Patten joining them. To promote the meet, Events Inc. found corporate sponsorship and ran some effective radio commercials. On Saturday afternoon the firm organized a clinic featuring match-race swimmers Patten and Mook Rhodenbaugh, another former SMU All-America, for local youth swim teams, and the kids were offered discount tickets to Saturday night's competition. Near-capacity crowds in SMU's 2,500-seat snake pit of a natatorium shook the dust off the rafters.
Morales and Biondi are likely to swim against each other three more times in the 100 fly this year—at the indoor nationals in Orlando, Fla., in late March, at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in August and in the Olympic final in Seoul on Sept. 21. Their first meeting, on Friday, went easily to Morales in 47.81, with Biondi finishing almost a yard behind.
"I was pleased and a little surprised," said Morales afterward. Both he and Biondi have been building up slowly after a low-key year. Morales, who graduated from Stanford last spring with a record 11 NCAA individual titles, has been busy working on his law-school applications; Biondi, a fifth-year Cal senior with no swimming eligibility left, is still savoring the NCAA championship he helped win last November playing defense and driver on the Golden Bear water polo team.
Later Friday evening Biondi came back to beat ex-Michigan swimmer Joseph Parker by nearly two seconds (44.39) in a 100-yard free. The next night, Biondi chalked up another win (1:38.12) in a 200 free against fellow 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mike Heath, and Morales edged Patten in the 200 fly (1:46.46).
In the college meet, meanwhile, Biondi's former Cal teammates led Texas 143-133½ after Friday's events. The Golden Bears, whose roster includes probable Olympians from the U.S., Sweden, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines, came into the season with rather modest expectations. Coach Nort Thornton had dubbed this year 1 A.B. (After Biondi). Yet Thornton has been surprised by his team's swift development, and no one could argue with Cal's steamrolling of Texas in December.
But the young Longhorns had lately begun to jell. The night before the start of the Dallas meet, the No. 9-ranked Longhorns stunned No. 2 Florida 65-46 in a dual meet in Austin. It was no fluke, either; Texas has depth, balance and a star in Doug Gjertsen, who as a freshman last year won the 200 backstroke and was the fourth-highest point scorer at the NCAA championships. Gjertsen's win in the 200 back in 1:48.01 on Saturday night moved his team into a slight lead.
The races fired off in rapid succession, Texas gaining a point here, Cal, a point there. With only the 200-free relay remaining, the Longhorns were ahead 261½-260.
Just a year ago Cal would have trounced Texas in the 200-free relay; the Bears had Biondi, and the Longhorns had virtually no sprint freestylers. But Texas coach Eddie Reese has developed a pair of unheralded sprinters who may yet carry Texas to an NCAA title. One is Keith Anderson, a sophomore out of Hattiesburg, Miss. The other is Jordan.
Jordan, who calls himself Reese's "K Mart blue-light special," was not widely recruited coming out of Highland Park High in Dallas, and he showed up at Texas in the fall of 1986 looking less than ferocious. "He had 139 pounds on a six-foot frame," recalls Reese, who red-shirted Jordan, used weight work to build him up by 25 pounds and taught him everything except how to tie a drawstring. Even with the added weight, Jordan looks like the kind of guy a swimsuit would slip off.
Swimming anchor on Saturday night, Jordan entered the pool half a body length behind Cal's Sean Killion and scorched his 50 yards in 19.9 seconds to give Texas a winning time of 1:22.56. SMU came in second at 1:22.58, and Cal was third in 1:22.70. The Longhorns won the meet with 285½ points; the runner-up Golden Bears finished with 278.
"I don't believe it," said Reese with a grin and a shake of his head. "I'd never have guessed."
It's anyone's guess, of course, whether Texas will have as much success at the NCAAs in Indianapolis in April. Favorite USC will have four American-record holders in its lineup. In fact, if history is any guide, the Longhorns may be in trouble: The winner of The Dallas Morning News meet has never, for whatever reason, won the NCAAs.
"This has been quite a showcase," said Thornton when it was over. His team had lost, but he was smiling. It seemed apt. After all, that's the essence of good entertainment: sending them home happy.