UT swimming from 40 years ago

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Amazing things are happening at the University of Tennessee. Memories are being dusted off. People are finding that other people still care.


Tomorrow evening (11/9), Volunteer swimmers of 1977-78 will gather for a 40th reunion dinner. Focal point will be their NCAA championship. Oh, the tales they will tell. Some may even be believable.

The late Andy Coan was the star of that stunning performance at Long Beach, Calif. He won the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, finished fourth in the 200 free and swam on UT’s record-setting 400 free relay as the Vols became the first SEC swim team to win an NCAA title. He scored 60.5 points.

John Newton, Bob Sells and Tom White placed three-four-five in the 50 free. Newton and Sells were third and sixth in the 100. Marc Foreman was second in the 200 backstroke, second in the 400 individual medley and third in the 200 IM.

Gary Faykes was runner-up in the 200 breaststroke. Tim Boyd was a very close second in the 100 butterfly. Kent Martin was third in the 1650.

Maybe there will be time for a moment of silence at the party. Coan died last year at age 60. There are other missing links. Coach Ray Bussard died in 2010.

Bussard is the story behind the championship reunion story. He recruited the athletes. He pushed them, physically and mentally, beyond where they had ever been.

This was the peak of his colorful career. He was national coach of the year. He became an Olympic coach.

Other good things eventually happened. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I wrote a book, “Spizzerinctum,” about his life. Some still consider him the greatest sprint and turn teacher in the history of the sport.

Bussard was a master of the unexpected.

He once called a 3 a.m. practice that ended with a lesson in togetherness. He had a small circle painted on the swim deck. Thirty-five swimmers, coaches and managers had to fit inside that circle and stay for a minute. It was crowded.

As Ray told the story, “Some had only one foot in and one in the air. Two or three were on the backs of the big guys. It was a gosh-awful struggle on already tired legs but we made it.

“All I said when it was over was ‘We are united forever. Stay close.’”

Bussard introduced a few gimmicks. The Vols became known around the nation for wearing coonskin caps. No matter where they traveled, they were always at home. They took a bottle of UT pool water with them and poured it into opponents’ pools.

Bussard was first a legend at Bridgewater College. He was in and out over an extended period. He would attend classes for a few months, sometimes a year, and withdraw to get a job. He became a high school teacher and coach before he earned a degree.

While affiliated with the college, he was National AAU All-Around champion in track and field, an all-state football player and an all-tournament selection in basketball.

He set Virginia records as a high school coach of everything. He was very successful as a football and track coach in Chattanooga. His biggest win was getting the University of Tennessee swim coach job without ever having coached a swim team.

UT athletic director Bob Woodruff hired Bussard for two jobs and one paycheck. UT was getting a new pool and had to have a pool manager. The pond, as Woodruff called it, was a hint that UT should rejuvenate competitive swimming. Woodruff, wise for an old left tackle, concluded he would have to find a coach.

Track coach Chuck Rohe suggested Bussard. Woodruff had no idea what he was getting.

Bussard came to Tennessee in late 1966 and saw the completion of the UT Aquatic Center in 1967. What happened after that is in the book. His Vols soon broke Florida’s 13-year domination of SEC swimming. His dual meet record of 178-20 (.899) included nine undefeated seasons and 85 consecutive victories.

Bussard received an assortment of coaching honors. He was inducted into several halls of fame. Bridgewater College gave him the Distinguished Alumni Award. I was the speaker at the ceremony.

I repeated what I had heard, that my friend Ray was the only swimming coach in the world who had never actually competed in a swimming race. The audience laughed and gave him a standing ovation. He cried. He said what we saw were tears of joy.

We’ll see if the reunionists can top that. Ruth Bussard will be there. She can judge.

Marvin West invites reader response. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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