The French Connection Two pals raised on the Riviera helped bring Auburn another title in Indy

April 04, 1999

Everyone was dripping wet. "Here," said the male Auburn swimmer to
the male Auburn coach, "let me give you a kiss." They stared
deeply into each other's eyes and....

And with a laugh kissed each other on each cheek, like brothers
meeting on the Champs-Elysees. You just don't expect to see this
kind of thing at a repository of Southern football such as
Auburn. Tigers coaches, even gridiron legend Pat Dye, have long
been open to huggin', so long as it included plenty of masculine
backslappin', but kissin'? "You notice that we're kissing the
French way," announced the Auburn swim coach David Marsh, his
shirt and pants drenched from a ceremonial dunking, "we're not
French-kissing."

The things coaches have to do to win a national title these
days. Marsh won his second in three years on Saturday night when
the Auburn men, led by a couple of refugees from the French
Riviera, seized the NCAA championship in Indianapolis. For all
of its proud tradition, Auburn had never won an undisputed
national title in any sport until Lionel Moreau and Romain
Barnier decided on a whim to go to college in the U.S. They had
been swimming competitively in the South of France for most of
their lives, and they were in a rut. Sure, they had the
sumptuous topless beaches and the warm turquoise sea just a
couple of minutes from their homes in Antibes, the town where
Picasso lived and painted after World War II. On the weekends if
they wanted to see a movie, there were cinemas in Cannes, just a
short drive away. To shop for clothes they could hop next door
to Monte Carlo.

Sadly, though, it had all become the same: the women, the
nightclubs, the food. In 1995 Barnier competed in the U.S. Open
at Auburn. When he returned home he wrote to Marsh and asked for
the chance to swim for Auburn. "I offered him a book
scholarship," says Marsh. By that he meant Auburn would pay only
for Barnier's schoolbooks. "He said he had this friend, Lionel
Moreau. I said, 'I'll give him a book scholarship too.'"

While the two young Frenchmen were considering this generous
offer, they took a trip to Norway to visit a friend. At a
sidewalk cafe in Oslo they noticed a man in an Auburn polo
shirt--quelle coincidence!--and approached him to discuss their
opportunity to swim for the university. "I let them talk for a
while," recalls William Muse, the wearer of the aforementioned
polo shirt, "and then I said, 'Well, that's good, because I'm
the president of Auburn University, and this man here with me is
the architect who designed our swim center.'"

The two Frenchmen stared at each other. "It was destiny," Barnier
said. "It was a sign that we had to come to Auburn." Last
Saturday night they looked down from the victory podium to see
Muse handing up the national championship trophy.

Les visiteurs arrived at their new school on a bus from Atlanta
the day after Christmas in '96. At first there were difficulties
with the language. "It is one thing to understand the words,"
says Barnier. "It is another to understand their meaning." They
took an apartment together, where they could speak French and sit
in front of the television without understanding. They were
frustrated particularly by Southern women. "They like the French
accent, but they get scared really quick," says the 22-year-old
Barnier. "It's hard for a French guy. In France there is a
difference between sex and love, but here they want to combine
everything together."

Says Moreau, "I went out with a girl, and I take her to dinner.
A nice Italian restaurant. I order wine. The first thing she
said was that I am trying to get her drunk. I am just trying to
be romantic, to be nice. She thinks I'm going to try to get her
drunk in order to have the sexual advantage. Then we go home,
and she gives me a hug. I hate that."

The two Frenchmen found they had more time than ever to
concentrate on swimming. As they entered their senior year at
Auburn, each had been awarded All-America status in four events,
as well as a full scholarship from Marsh. Moreau, 25, was named
co-captain. "They add more to the team than I can really
describe," says sophomore Dave Denniston, who on Saturday night
won the 200-yard breaststroke to help seal Auburn's
championship. "It's just their sense of openness. And they tell
jokes that nobody can understand, but you know it's about sex,
so it's funny."

"Sixty percent of the jokes are about sex," says Moreau. "It is
natural. But if the matter is important, we are going to be
serious."

This season was especially sober for Auburn. Last year, while
trying to defend their national title in their home pool, the
Tigers were beaten by Stanford. Afterward Marsh asked his men to
rededicate themselves. By Christmas they had swum 120,000 more
yards in practice than they had by the same time last season.
When the NCAA championships opened on March 25, Auburn, seeded
third behind Stanford and Texas, won four of the first five
races--including the 200-yard individual medley, won by
Moreau--to seize a 58.5-point advantage over the Cardinal.
Auburn's final score of 467.5 points was 53 ahead of
second-place Stanford. To ice the Tigers' victory, the 400-yard
freestyle relay team, anchored by Barnier, set an NCAA record of
2:50.90.

In Indianapolis, of all places, the two French friends felt
vaguely at home, for throughout the meet they were surrounded by
fellow etrangers--South Africans, Poles, Aussies--all having
enrolled at U.S. schools to advance their swimming careers. At
least a quarter of the 270 men in these championships came from
outside the U.S. Marsh, a Miamian who was the SEC backstroke
champion for Auburn in 1980, is especially grateful for this
globalization. His alma mater was foundering when he returned as
coach in 1990. Among his first recruits was Yoav Bruck, an
18-time All-America who would swim in the 1996 Olympics for
Israel. "Bruck brought with him a world-class swimming
mentality," says Marsh, who on Saturday was named national coach
of the year for the third time. "Swimming was the third priority
at Auburn, behind academics and partying, but he changed the
attitude."

Bruck may have brought a winning mind-set, but Marsh's success
has not been completely prefab. Indeed, Aaron Ciarla, a junior
who won the 50-yard freestyle and three relays last weekend, is
one of the few top-level recruits to have come to Auburn. The
school's two national championships have been won mainly by
swimmers who developed after they arrived.

Now that their NCAA eligibility is exhausted, Moreau and Barnier
could return home to arguably the most beautiful coastline in
the world. Instead they plan to train next season at Auburn with
the goal of representing France in the 2000 Olympics. Along the
way Moreau intends to complete his degree in marketing, and
Barnier, having already earned a B.A. in international business,
will begin work on an M.B.A. "It's, What do you want to do with
your life?" asks Moreau. "You can stay in Antibes and be pretty
good, or you can go to Auburn and be awesome."

"What is a better life than sport?" says Barnier. "Auburn is like
a family. We love Auburn."

Pucker up.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER H. BICK Auburn had never won an NCAA title in any sport until Moreau and Barnier arrived.

"The jokes are about sex," says Moreau, "but if the matter is
important, we are going to be serious."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)