Frank Bryant, intriguing swim link, lost

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee has lost another link to the beginning of the Volunteer swim program.

Frank Bryant, 73, died Wednesday in Cookeville after a long-time struggle with Alzheimer’s. He wasn’t a great swimmer but he was among the most interesting connections to Ray Bussard’s rise from below zero to championships.

Almost forever, Bryant teased Bussard about having a better coaching record. Frank was 1-0, good enough for one line in the history of UT women’s swimming.

Bryant coached the women’s first meet, a 58-53 victory over Appalachian State on Feb. 22, 1972, at Boone, N.C. It was the team’s only meet of that beginning season.

“Undefeated,” he used to say with a wry grin. Bussard was famous but he could not match Bryant’s accomplishment.

Bryant had another edge to hold over the legendary Bussard.

“Over the protests of my AAU coach, I signed with Coach Bussard on his second day of recruiting. Jim McDonald (former football coach) was a factor. We were both from Springfield, Ohio.”

When the AAU coach heard about the partial scholarship, he blurted out “that Tennessee coach doesn’t know the first thing about swimming, he is a high school track coach. And a hick.”

Little did he know …

Bussard drew on his high school track coaching background to get the swim team in peak competitive condition.

“We had the best conditioned swim team in the country,” said Bryant. “Opponents laughed. Years later, they were using Coach Bussard’s techniques. I told him that was a real compliment for a hick high school track coach.”

Bryant’s time as a Tennessee swimmer lasted one season. It wasn’t that he slowed. Bussard recruited faster racers. Bryant accepted the coach’s offer of pool manager of UT Student Aquatic Center.

Among his tasks was teaching scuba diving to students and faculty. That job gave him time to cave dive for catfish.

He found a unique way to use his scuba skills when an airplane came up short of the Island Home runway and sank to the Tennessee River bottom. Someone sought Bryant’s help. He quickly developed a plan.

He rented a couple of tractor inner tubes and placed them under the plane’s wings. He filled the tubes with air from his scuba tanks. Up came the plane. Those who didn’t know Bryant seemed surprised.

Bryant worked as a manufacturer’s rep for a water ski company before creating his primary business, Chota Outdoor Gear. It manufactured fishing gear, boots and outdoor clothing. His products fit an international market, as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

He invented a special slipknot for trout-wading boots and a no-slip sole for fishing over moss-covered rocks and for kayaking.

Frank and Pat Bathe of McMinnville met in 1969 while lifeguarding at the country club pool in her hometown. They were married in 1970. They had three children: Frank Jr., Amy Whitworth, now of Morristown, and Ray of Sebastien, Florida.

Frank Jr., an Air Force F-16 pilot, was one of eight U.S. servicemen killed in a mass shooting in Afghanistan in 2011. He was a state champion wrestler at Karns High and wrestled for Air Force Academy. Lt. Col. Bryant was an elite flight instructor at the time of his death.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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