For most athletic directors at the helm of a major athletic program in the 21st century, possessing a swimming and diving program that places inside the top 25 would be sufficient given all of the other components and responsibilities that exist in this day and age.  In the state of Alabama where one of college athletics’ great rivalries takes place and where one rival school has not only dominated the match-up but also many other programs since the late 1990s, eventually changes will be made to close that gap. 

What the Alabama Swimming & Diving program has accomplished in the two years since the arrival of alum and current head coach Denny Pursley has been nothing short of remarkable.  One could argue that this is to be expected of a program like Alabama.  They have a strong tradition in the sport.  They are part of an overall athletic program that is anchored by one of the most successful football programs in college football history.  And they are part of one the most influential athletic conferences that currently commands a tremendous amount of relevance at the NCAA level. Yet there are plenty of other athletic programs that probably fit or are close to this description being part of a major athletic conference and having a strong tradition of success in our sport. 

In 2012, the final season for then head coach Eric McIlquam, Alabama placed 25th at the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships.  They did so with two sophomores, Alex Coci and BJ Hornikel, who were making their NCAA debut in Seattle, Washington.  Both survived the meet quite well as each were able to successfully navigate the gauntlet of preliminaries to make it back at night and..... highlighted by Coci’s sixth place finish in the 200 fly.  One could argue that the Crimson Tide program was operating as it should be.  Add in a few good recruits, a committed team in the off season, take advantage of the new selection rules and this program would be poised to make big jump in 2013. 

All of that would change within days of the 2012 meet as Coach McIlquam stepped down as reported on March 29th.  Roughly six weeks later, Denny Pursley was introduced as the new head coach; an alum who wasted no time engineering the transformation. 

When a coaching change does take place, everyone envisions and hopes for great success.  The reality is that change that produces these types of results generally takes more time to achieve than just two years.  Similarly, in 2014, college athletics witnessed a storied basketball team out of Storrs, Connecticut win a NCAA championship under second year head coach Kevin Ollie. 

In both cases, they experienced amazing success at the end of the second year of the new head coach.  For each program, predicting their eventual success as late as mid way through the 2013 14 season would have been difficult.  Alabama achieved a 3-3 record in 2013 14.  Their highest rankings in the polls came early and then faded. 

How far have they come?

A 400 Free Relay that took fifth at NCAAs in 2014 was not even contested in 2013 at last year’s meet.  Three of the four athletes on that relay that went (2:50.78 at SEC) & 2:51.65 in NCAA finals were on the roster one year ago.  There best time in 2013 was a 2:55.02 at SECs in February 2013.  Does the addition of one swimmer make up 4 seconds is debatable.  However, I would argue that though each of the three returning relay members improved and perhaps more than anything, they were now mentally ready to make that jump in 2014.

The Medley Relay is a different story where three of the four athletes are freshman with the other just a sophomore.  This group could be really special in 2015 and beyond as every medley relay, both 200 & 400, in front of them loses at least one athlete to graduation.  Knowing they will be the only team returning all four has to be a shot in the arm this program needs to move inside the top ten.  Where top eight was a major accomplishment in 2014, I could see where just top eight could be a disappointment in future seasons as they should only get better. 

Coach Pursley and staff have set the table for even greater success.  By increasing the total of NCAA competitors ninefold, in moving from 10th to 4th with the conference along with adding over 100 points to their NCAA total from a year ago, something right is being done to create this type of rapid improvement.  Time will certainly tell how far up the NCAA Swimming and Diving ladder the Crimson Tide will under the new system.  For now, we will leave you with some thoughts, comments and a sample work out from Coach Denny Pursley.

See the print edition of Profiles in Excellence for the complete version including interview and training article.  photo: Alabama athletics


Break Out Team: Alabama

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