How Eddie Reese Turned Texas Men’s Swimming and Diving into the Best Program in the Nation

by Chris O’Connell

Credit: Kenny Braun

Inside the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center, a white-brick building on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Red River Street, waves of calm permeate the House that Eddie Built. A sea of crystal-blue water gently laps over the gutter of the pool and trickles back down. In its reflection two enormous steel fans silently rotate, like a pair of octopi performing a synchronized swimming routine on the ceiling. Every minute or so, the sound of flesh smacking the water breaks the silence, as divers practice on the far side of the pool.

At 3 p.m., the swimmers begin walking in, some of their faces familiar from atop 2016 Olympic podiums in Rio like Townley Haas and Joseph Schooling, the then-21-year-old who took down Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly for the Singapore national team.

Once the pool is filled with more gold medalists than most countries, a 76-year-old man, the John Wooden of the pool deck, enters. He’s wearing a black T-shirt, khaki shorts, and black and white tennis shoes with white athletic socks poking up over the tops, an unassuming ensemble for the most decorated swimming and diving coach in modern history and the most successful coach to ever wear the Longhorn logo. He looks like your grandfather — and he literally is if you’re Luke Bowman, one of the 31 swimmers in the pool — if your grandfather was capable of winning NCAA titles in four consecutive decades, including the last three straight.

Even once Eddie Reese begins to instruct his phalanx of world-class athletes, the calm never subsides.

The men’s swimming and diving coach glides along the grated pool deck, small waves lapping over the side and under the rubber sole of his sneakers as he calmly gives instruction to his boyish first-year assistant coach Wyatt Collins, BA ’13, Life Member.

“Still going?” Reese asks. “Eight on what?”

“Six,” Collins replies.

“Six on 210. Thirteen. Put fins on ’em. Don’t let ’em make it a kick drill.”

Seemingly speaking in code and heading into the fourth dual meet of the season, he doesn’t look or sound worried. He’s possibly the only college coach in the country, in any sport, sitting at 0–3 who isn’t yelling, screaming, and tearing his short-cropped gray hair out. He doesn’t need to. In the last 39 seasons, Reese’s teams have taken home 13 national titles, on average exactly once every three years. The Longhorns have, since 1980, won either the Southwest or Big 12 Conference title every single year. Yelling also just isn’t his style, the only exception being — according to multiple swimmers across three generations, plus his assistant of 33 years, Kris Kubik — if he’s loudly singing one of his men’s praises. He can’t train his swimmers to win, so when they don’t he doesn’t sweat it — he trains them simply to go faster. They can only control what they can control.

It’s evocative of a mantra Reese has repeated to hundreds of hairless, Speedo-clad human fish since Darrell K Royal (then UT’s athletics director) hired him away from Auburn in 1978: “Take care of yourself, take care of each other, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Credit: Kenny Braun

Reese was born in Daytona, Florida, on July 23, 1941. As a high schooler at nearby Mainland High, he won the 200 individual medley at two state championships before enrolling at the University of Florida. By the time he graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s in physical education, he’d led the Gators to three SEC championships, and became the first Florida swimmer to win five individual conference titles in a single season. He earned a master’s degree, and was a graduate assistant for two seasons, leaving Gainesville in 1965 to take a teaching job, along with his wife, Elinor, in Roswell, New Mexico. However, after only a year away, Reese was pulled back into the coaching ranks by Bill Harlan, an assistant coach during his time as a Gator swimmer. According to Reese’s longtime assistant Kris Kubik, the young coach asserted himself early at Florida.

“The coach there was way up in seniority in terms of age,” he says. “He was more of a figurehead and Eddie was his assistant. Eddie did most of the coaching at age 23 or 24 at Florida.”

Reese held that position for six years before a struggling Auburn program presented him with a new challenge: Turn the Tigers around. Coming off a season in which Auburn had not qualified a single swimmer for the finals or even the consolation finals at the SEC championships, placing last in three relays, Reese swiftly improved the program year over year. In consecutive years, the Tigers finished 17th, eighth, eighth, and fifth, and, in what would prove to be his final season at Auburn, as runners up at the SEC and NCAA championships. It was the best finish in program history, and he had caught the eye of Darrell K Royal. He wanted Reese to take over the men’s swimming and diving program in Austin, but he and Elinor had just built a house in Auburn, and their two young daughters, Heather and Holly, were settling into school.

So DKR pulled an old Austin trick: Tex-Mex. Over breakfast at Cisco’s one morning in 1978, the most accomplished coach in Texas history hired the man who would take that mantle from him. It only took Reese two years to bring home Texas’ first-ever NCAA title.

Forty years later, Reese has a chance to four-peat for a second time, which is essentially unheard of. His secret?

“Everybody wants me to talk about motivation at clinics,” Reese says. “I don’t know anything about it. What you do is try to create a positive atmosphere.”

His real secret, according to those who know him best, is his intuition.

Reese with Doug Djertsen and Adam Werth, circa 1989.

In 1986, Highland Park High School senior Shaun Jordan, BA ’93, MBA ’97, was in Austin for the state swimming championships. A self-described late-bloomer, and a lightly recruited swimmer, Jordan had a disappointing third-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle event. He saw it as the end of his swimming career. Reese saw a beautiful stroke.

“We have to sign him,” Kubik remembers him saying from the stands.

Kubik called Jordan, who had planned to come to UT anyway and pledge a fraternity. Kubik asked if he would meet with Reese to talk about swimming, and the recent high school graduate agreed. Jordan would be in town the following week for a pre-rush event, and would be happy to meet with him.

“So I pick him up in front of some house, he’s got the khaki pants and button-down shirt, totally prepped out,” Kubik says. “He talks to Eddie and Eddie says, ‘Why don’t you swim for a year, and if you don’t like it, you can always pledge a fraternity.’”

Jordan joined the team as a walk-on with a book scholarship, redshirting his freshman year.

“I was growing a bunch, getting run over by guys who were best in the world,” Jordan says. “I trusted him completely. Eddie took really good care of me. He changed my life.”

Kubik and Reese in the early 1980s.

Jordan went on to become one of only two swimmers in Texas history to be part of four national championship teams. He also won gold medals in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as a member of the U.S. freestyle relay team.

Jordan says that as he fell under Reese’s spell, he became obsessed with getting faster. It just took the right amount of care and instruction from his coach to get him to that next level.

“He was nuanced in what I needed and what other guys needed,” Jordan says. “He’s not throwing everyone in one hopper and turning a crank. He has such a touch and such a sense of what the athlete needs.”

Twenty years later, Reese also had what highly recruited Charlotte, North Carolina-based swimmer Ricky Berens, BBA ’10, needed. After taking recruiting trips to Michigan, Florida, and Arizona, he wound up in Austin.

“On a recruiting trip, they say you pick the team where you feel most comfortable,” Berens says. “I wasn’t really into a real angry coach or a father figure type. Eddie will just talk to you about everything. He’ll have a conversation about something going on with your life.”

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Berens swam in the preliminary heat of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, beating former 2000 and 2004 medalist Klete Keller by just four-tenths of a second with head U.S. men’s swimming team coach Reese watching. As a rookie, Berens figured the veteran Keller would get the nod for the finals the next morning. After all, Keller had been there before, and Reese had been his coach in past Olympics. Headed to the warm-down pool after prelims, Berens figured he was done for the event.

“Eddie walked up to me and said, ‘I told all the [other] coaches, “he’s my swimmer, I got a lot of support for him.” Get ready for tomorrow.’” Berens remembers.

Swimming the third leg of the relay, Berens, along with Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Peter Vanderkaay, took home the gold, setting a world record in the process.

“That’s when it matters most,” Berens says, choking up. “He had my back. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.”

Rowdy Gaines interviews Reese in front of his 2001 NCAA championship-winning team in College Station, Texas.

Humble as he is, and despite the word’s modern overuse, the line on Reese is that he’s a literal genius. Kubik and Jordan both compare him to Albert Einstein. Collins, the young coach who replaced Kubik as Reese’s assistant last August, is an example of — depending on whom you ask — Reese artfully plotting out half a decade in advance, as if he were playing 10-dimensional chess.

Collins always wanted to swim for Reese, but wasn’t fast enough coming out of high school, so he swam at Boston University for two years before transferring to Texas in 2011. When he arrived on campus, he told Reese that he had coaching ambitions, and, according to Kubik, was either the second to last or last out of 30 on the team.

Collins swam for one season, before, he says, falling out of love with being in the pool. Reese asked Collins if he still wanted to coach, to which Collins said yes.

“Then I want you coming to practices and at least observing and getting a feel for it from the coaching side,” Reese told Collins. “That’s how it all began,” Collins says.

Reese at the 1999 NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana.

After spending a few years as a volunteer assistant, Reese and Kubik sat Collins down last August to formally offer him his dream job. Collins was about to head back to upstate New York to coach with his father when he got the news.

“I cried,” Collins says. “My life completely changed in the span of five minutes.”

But was this all part of some mastermind plan dating back five years? Get Collins in the pool so he’ll stay at Texas, show him the ropes as a college senior so he’ll stay on as a volunteer, and, with Kubik taking Collins under his wing, groom him to replace his longtime assistant?

“Looking back,” Collins says, “they were probably training me in their own way to step into this role.”

Kubik also credits Reese’s long-term success to what politicians often refer to as “the long game.”

“He’s a brilliant human being,” Kubik says.“He’s brilliant at reading people and understanding people. I never really understood sometimes if he’s flying by the seat of his pants or if it was all part of the plan.”

A genius, perhaps. Maybe some combination of smarts, intuition, hard work, and a dash of serendipity. Regardless, a third consensus about Reese, after his brains and his intuition, number one by a dozen lengths at least, is that he’s a magnetic personality. People in his orbit rarely leave, even 40 years later. Take Jack Bauerle, now in his 39th year as head coach of Georgia’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving, which is about how long he’s been buddies with Reese, in his estimation.

Coaches of Bauerle and Reese’s stature are afforded the luxury of their own hotel rooms on the road. But during international competitions, the two old friends stay together, simply because they so enjoy each other’s company. When they’re together, they normally talk about one of two things: swimming and the outdoors.

Bauerle has a farmhouse in Georgia, and Reese comes to stay from time to time, where the men hunt deer or quail. Reese invites Bauerle down to Buda to duck hunt as well. In fact, as of presstime, Bauerle says he’s got a shipment of venison jerky he’s about to send down to his pal in Austin.

“I know it sounds a little like gushy and fluffy,” Bauerle says, “but the bottom line is we have a great time together.”

It’s a relationship that’s almost unheard of at this level of competition. Imagine Nick Saban and Urban Meyer waking up at dawn to cast lines into a river somewhere, cracking jokes as they snag trout.

This, Bauerle proclaims, is why, in his eyes, Reese is the greatest coach — in any sport — that he’s ever seen.

“The gigantic and most important quotient of it all is that he is a genuinely great person in every regard,” Bauerle says. “My life has been richer with him.”

Reese congratulates freshman Townley Haas moments after Haas won his first NCAA individual title in the 500-yard freestyle at the 2016 NCAA Championships in Atlanta, Georgia

How long can this sustained prosperity continue? For coaches, there comes a moment — generally on the earlier side of half a century in the sport — where they just don’t have it anymore. Even John Wooden, to whom Reese is favorably compared both in terms of longevity and dominance, had to walk away at some point. But with three straight titles, and an incoming class of freshmen that Reese calls “probably the best group of swimmers that have ever graduated in the same year,” he’s seemingly not in any rush to call it a career.

For what it’s worth, Reese says he’ll retire when he stops being effective. Kubik, though, says that Reese is the youngest 76-year-old he’s ever met, and that he’ll only stop once the swimmers stop laughing at his jokes.

Back at the Lee and Joe Jamail Swimming Center, where 18–22-year-old athletes finish their swims and grab onto the side of the pool, eagerly waiting to hear what Reese will say next, that also seems like a far-off promise. He rattles off a series of one-liners to his assistants and a Texas Athletics staffer, somehow both playfully ribbing his compatriots and poking fun at himself within the span of 10 seconds.

“I think I’m probably funnier now than I’ve ever been,” Reese says, before his lips curl into a smile. “That’s purely a personal opinion.”