By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, California, August 2. THE 2014-15 season will be the 100th on The Farm for the Stanford men’s swimming team.
The storied program has produced eight NCAA titles, 62 conference crowns, more than 100 All-Americans, dozens of Olympians and nine world record holders.
Established in 1916 and guided by head coach Ernie Brandsten (1916-1947), who doubled as the diving coach, Stanford dropped its first intercollegiate dual meet to Cal, 41-27. But Brandsten’s squads improved quickly, churning out 17 consecutive conference titles and many national and AAU champions in the 1920s and 30s, sparked by three-time Olympic gold medalist Norman Ross. Ross set 13 world records at international distance and 18 more in AAU competition. Other key contributors included John McKelvey, Austin Clapp, Ted Wiget and Emmet Cashin.
Brandsten’s wife, Greta, earned an Olympic gold medal in diving in 1912 competing for Sweden, and later coached the Stanford women’s swimming team.
Tom Haynie followed Brandsten (1948-1960) and the program didn’t skip a beat. During his 13-year tenure, Stanford compiled an 84-9 dual meet record and won 11 of 13 league championships. Haynie was a star swimmer at Michigan, where he led the Wolverines to NCAA titles in 1937 and 1939.
At Stanford, his teams went 24-0 against Cal, 13-0 against UCLA and 11-2 against USC. Among his distinguished swimmers were world record holder Robin Moore and Olympians George Harrison and Paul Hait.
“He was the kind of coach who cared for his swimmers,” said Jim Gaughran, who swam for Haynie and succeeded him as head coach. “He was a great influence on all of us.”
The same can be said of Gaughran. He coached Stanford to its first NCAA team title in 1967 at a meet hosted by Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. The championship came down to the final event – the 800-yard freestyle relay – with Stanford prevailing to edge USC, 275-260.
“Probably the highlight of my coaching career,” said the 82-year old Gaughran, now retired and residing in Carmel Valley, Calif. “We broke the American record by six and a half seconds, which is unprecedented. Those kids all swam lifetime bests, some by several seconds.”
Two of his stars, Greg Buckingham and Dick Roth, attended nearby Menlo-Atherton High School. Both won two events and swam on the winning relay in the 1967 NCAA meet.
Gaughran never intended to coach. After swimming and playing water polo on The Farm, he attended Stanford’s law school and was working in Sacramento as the deputy attorney general for the State of California when athletic director Al Masters called about the position in 1960. He accepted and held the post until 1979.
“It was quite thrilling for me,” said Gaughran, who also coached water polo for four seasons and often returns to campus for meets and matches. “Just coaching any Stanford student-athlete is a marvelous thing to do. They’re just a different breed of animal. I’m still dear friends with all of those swimmers.”
Gaughran had no trouble keeping up with his swimmers. He competed in five Ironman Triathlons, and once rode his bike from Carmel Valley to Stanford – a 100-mile trek – to watch a swim meet.
“My wife gave me a ride home,” he said.
Gaughran’s replacement, Skip Kenney, grew up in Fresno and was a diver at Fresno City College, where he was coached by Fresno State football coach Darryl Rogers (Fresno City College didn’t have diving boards and the team practiced at Fresno State). Rogers went on to coach at San Jose State, Michigan State, Arizona State and the Detroit Lions.
Although Kenney had no swimming experience, he was resourceful, a quick study and a great motivator.
“In Fresno, the best job in the world — because it’s so hot — is to teach swimming lessons,” said Kenney. “So I would teach little kids. You don’t really have to know anything. You just have to get them comfortable and safe with the water.”
Kenney’s father was a Marine, so he enlisted in 1965 and reported to Fort Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., and was sent to Vietnam, where he became a sniper.
Kenney’s plan after discharge from the service in 1967 was to work for a recreation program and coach junior high football or basketball. He wound up moving to the Long Beach, Calif., area and gave swimming lessons.
One of the parents liked the way Kenney communicated with the swimmers, and asked him to coach her child’s club team. Kenney politely declined, but she was persistent, and he finally agreed to a meeting.
“We go to this guy’s home in Redondo Beach and the all the parents were there,” he said. “There were about 20 swimmers. None good. For Christmas, they go to Hawaii. I said, ‘The whole team?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, even the coach.’ I said, ‘I’m your guy.’ ”
Kenney immediately bought a book written by legendary Indiana University swimming coach Doc Counsilman called, “The Science of Swimming,” which detailed his weekly workout, and used them for his team. But when the group lost their pool to Red Cross lessons during the summer, Kenney decided to learn more about the sport and went to see five-time Olympic coach Don Gambril at Long Beach State. Kenney was convinced he could help his swimmers with dry land workouts, but Gambril insisted it was pointless.
“I had no clue,” said Kenney.
But his experiences with the Marines taught him discipline, focus and sacrifice.
“It was everything,” Kenney said of his military experience. “With no swimming background, from boot camp to combat, you learn and can see it happening. And when a guy is alive because of that, it’s an impact.”
Impressed by his enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, Gambril offered Kenney a job as an age group coach for the national powerhouse Phillips 66 team if he would bring his best kids.
“They had about eight Olympians,” he said. “So I started at the very top.”
From there, Kenney followed Gambril to Harvard for a year, and then took a club job in Cincinnati for four years. His next stop was Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a club coach.
Along the way, Kenney met Gaughran.
“I don’t know if you’re ever going to retire, but you have the best job in the country,” Kenney told Gaughran. “Let me know when you do.”
And he did. New Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger was aware of Kenney. Geiger was the athletic director at Brown when Kenney coached at Harvard. After Kenney got a call for an interview with Stanford, he did hours of research and many mock interviews with lawyer and doctor friends.
He impressed the selection committee, which included Gaughran. “You know more about Stanford than I do,” Gaughran said.
Geiger’s first hire was a home run. Kenney led Stanford to seven NCAA titles and 31 consecutive league championships (1981-2012) during his 33-year stay.
When he arrived on The Farm, one of the first things Kenney did was contact former Cardinal swimmers to find out what made them successful in the pool and in life.
“Those people that came before were really the people that spurred us on, because we could talk about that,” said the 71-year old Kenney, who lives in Santa Cruz. “If you had nothing to talk about, it’s hard to go in and try to convince people it’s going to be the other way.”
Kenney’s first big recruit was Dave Bottom. His two older brothers were All-Americans at USC, but Kenney sold him on Stanford … with help from Cardinal standout Wade Flemons.
“I had him room with Wade because he was a champion, and I wanted Dave to know he could be a champion, too,” Kenney said. “This may sound silly, but in those days you couldn’t go through college without going to the library. But Wade had a goal to go through four years without going to the library. Dave heard this on his recruiting trip and said, ‘Wow, Wade. This place is nice, but so is USC. There’s probably one thing left that would sway me to come to Stanford: I gotta see the library. Will you take me in and show me?’ And Wade looks around and says, ‘Wow, Dave. Good luck at S.C.’ ”
Kenney nearly fainted when Flemons recapped the visit, but Bottom committed anyway and helped him land high school stars Jeff Kostoff, Pablo Morales and John Moffet. Kenney collected log books from as many ex-swimmers as he could find and based most of his workouts and strategy on the information he gleaned from them.
“Dod Wales kept an unbelievable log book and I used it the rest of my career,” said Kenney. “He would write little things about the way he felt and what he accomplished at the end of almost every workout. Then, I could give you the set and say this is what you’re looking for. It changes everything when you have a little goal.”
Wales won the 100-yard butterfly in the 1999 NCAA Championships, something his father did while swimming at Princeton. They are the only father-son duo to accomplish the feat.
In 1981, Kenney accompanied Flemons to the NCAA Championships to coach him in the 100-yard backstroke. When Flemons approached him the morning of the preliminaries to ask for advice, Kenney didn’t know what to say.
“So I just said, ‘Win your heat this morning. Don’t go all out. And then tonight, come back and go for the win.’
“That night, when they introduced him on the blocks, he was doing golf swings and I thought, ‘Damn, he’s not even focused.’ And he ended up winning. Later, when people asked him how he improved so much, he said ‘Because coach had so much confidence in me, he told me in the morning to just swim to win my heat. And when I looked at my heat, the American record holder was in my heat. I had confidence like mad.’ ”
It marked the first of many NCAA champions for Kenney.
One of Kenney’s signature training strategies was using a white board in the locker room. Whenever a swimmer recorded a personal or lifetime best in practice, they marked it down. This helped in two ways: 1.) Because Kenney and assistant coach Ted Knapp could never remember times; and 2.) It helped push and motivate the team and created camaraderie.
“In football, the team is always together, so the captains are the leaders,” said Kenney. “But if you’re the best leader in the world and you’re in Lane 2, Lanes 6-7-8 don’t get any advantage. There’s no interaction. So in swimming, all the leadership takes place in the locker room. That’s why we started the white board. At the end of the week, Ted and I could go in and say, ‘Look at this.’ At the end of the Saturday practice, we’d wash off the board. It was a way to get everybody to be a leader.”
Kenney, whose teams had a 100 percent graduation rate, said it is impossible to name his favorite group, but several stood out.
“For example, in 1998, they are the only team in NCAA history to have a top-eight finalist in every single event and every relay,” he said. “The 1992 team is the only team to win all five relays and has the highest point total in NCAA history.”
Brian Retterer was part of the latter and won three NCAA titles in the 200-yard backstroke.
“That was a difficult year in that the Olympic Trials were two weeks before the NCAA Championships and the Pac-10 meet had to be moved to December of 1991,” said Retterer, now a director of healthcare sales and a swim coach at his local YMCA. “We entered the season as the favorites to win, and we did. Three of our relay teams set American records and everyone at the meet scored in at least one individual event.
“But my favorite memory is what happened before the meet and why I believe we were so successful. It was a concept we called ‘big team.’ As the season started we had a lot of really fast guys, and frankly speaking, to make the Olympic team we would be racing each other in a lot of events. We had a team meeting right after Christmas training and a couple guys stood up and told us they had decided not to go to the Olympic Trials to focus on the NCAA Championships instead. As a young man, I couldn’t believe they were passing up a shot at the Olympics, but respected their decision. To be clear, these were studs and would have definitely been top-eight at the Olympic Trials. One was Chas Morton, one of USA swimming’s all-time greats.
“Eric Maurer was one of the guys that chose not to go to the trials. He won the 50 free, setting a school record, and became the first man in Stanford history to win the event. I touched second. My best memory is celebrating with him post-race. To me, it was all about the team, and Eric showed what Stanford is all about.”
Dr. Kurt Grote won the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA Championships in 1993 and 1995. Later, he qualified for the 1996 Kenney-coached U.S. Olympic team and earned a gold medal in the 4×100 medley relay and placed sixth in the 100-meter breaststroke and eighth in the 200-meter breaststroke in Atlanta.
“I remember my freshman year, where our senior class was at risk of graduating without having won an NCAA title,” said Grote, who attended Stanford’s medical school and is now a partner in McKinsey & Company’s Healthcare Payor and Provider Practice. “It would have been the first class since the mid-80s to have done that.
“That whole season just felt like it was building toward a momentous event. We were closer than any group of people I had ever been a part of. I remember during the meet, one of the seniors on the team, Kevin Henderson, who had never scored a point at the NCAAs, got 16th-place in the 50 freestyle, and thereby scored one point. The team just erupted in support of him. I think it was emblematic of how incredibly tight were that any individual’s accomplishment – no matter how small – was valued equally and incredibly strongly.”
Morales won four consecutive NCAA titles in the 200-yard butterfly from 1994-97, and three straight in the 100-yard butterfly. He is now the head women’s swimming and diving coach at Nebraska.
“The dominant reflection I have about my experiences is the complete brotherhood characterized by our team,” Morales said. “Everyone supporting each other, caring about each other, competing for one another, united by a common goal, with passion and unselfishness. Aside from becoming a father, it was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”
Adam Messner won back-to-back NCAA titles in the 200-yard NCAA butterfly in 2000 and 2001. Stanford swimming made a huge impact on his life.
“Before even putting a toe in the water at Stanford, recruits are taught by coaches and leaders on the team to think about life after swimming,” said Messner, a father of two, who owns an electrical supply company and lives in Marin County. “For many 18-year old swimmers, it’s hard envisioning a life where sport isn’t the center of their world. The more talent or successful the athlete, the less relevant that message seems to be – this seems true among all college athletes.
“Having said that, one can’t help but be impressed by the number of Olympians, NCAA champions and record holders produced by Stanford swimming; but arguably even more impressive is the number of CEOs, entrepreneurs and thought leaders it has produced. No other college swimming program in the world combines sport and vision the way Stanford swimming does.
“When I was young, it was hard to appreciate Stanford’s swimming reputation since I spent so much time under water – figuratively and literally. Now I am part of a professional network of Stanford swimmers with members that either own or have influence in businesses in just about every job sector from grassroots nonprofits to the world’s largest banks.”
Added Grote, “We shared the same vision of success and talked often about the great things we would achieve. I think that’s how I try to lead and inspire people in my professional work. I’m often calling back on those experiences and trying to re-create them.”
Knapp, who last spring finished his second season as the Goldman Family Director of Men’s Swimming, swam for Kenney and was his assistant coach for 28 years. Kenney’s presence is often felt on the pool deck.
“I think Skip was one of those guys who had a mission,” he said. “And that may stem back to his years as a Marine. He insisted on a team culture, and you knew that. He would wear it on his sleeve and you knew where you stood with him. I think in many, many ways that was evident in the teams that he coached to such great, great success.”
Knapp remembers training with Mike Bruner, who was a gold medalist in the 200-meter butterfly in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and won the 200-yard butterfly NCAA championship in 1977. He also flashes back to Jay Mortenson, a two-time NCAA winner in the 200-yard butterfly; Jeff Rouse, who won the 1990 and 1992 100-yard NCAA backstroke, 1989 and 1992 200-yard backstroke, and 1992 200-yard IM; Ray Carey, 1993 NCAA champion in the 200-yard butterfly; Tom Wilkins, the 1998 NCAA 200-yard IM and 1997 and 1998 400-yard IM champion; and Markus Rogan, winner of the 2002 NCAA 200-yard backstroke and 200-yard IM.
“The names just continue,” said Knapp.
What does Stanford swimming mean to him?
“I know I’m getting old, but I don’t look at things historically yet,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll have time in the years to come. But 100 seasons for this program is pretty spectacular. My goal is to get us back on track to being one of the programs that can compete internationally as well as the NCAA level.”
Grote said the 100th season of men’s swimming is especially meaningful to him and his former teammates because of those who swam before him.
“When we used to have recruits come in to visit, as opposed to just taking them out to party, which is what happens on a lot of recruiting trips, we would actually take them on a tour of the quad, ride bikes around campus and give them a sense of history of the place,” said Grote. “One of our main cheers – we call it a Leland – was to spell out, ‘Leland Stanford University, organized 1891.’ There was a sense we’ve been here a long time and we know about the team in the 1960s that won and the team in the 1980s. The way we describe it is, ‘You’re standing on the shoulders of these greats.’ ”
No one appreciates that sense of history, tradition and success more than Knapp.
“Without a doubt,” said Knapp. “I talk to these guys in the recruiting process about their goals and how I can help them get there. That’s probably not much different than anywhere else. But at Stanford, they are so goal-oriented and such high achievers in everything they do. So that’s the challenge. They want to be good at everything.”
Knapp smiled when he recalled overhearing a recent conversation between two of his swimmers on a flight home from Los Angeles after a dual meet against USC.
“They were talking about air flow over a plane wing and all the different theorems and variables that come into play,” he said. “I can just imagine what the other people sitting around them were thinking about these two Stanford swimmers.”