Jack Bauerle on Success, Succession at the University of Georgia

jack-bauerle-neil-versfeld-brian-smith-
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Jack Bauerle on Success, Succession at the University of Georgia  

Jack Bauerle had been told, by friends who’d gone through it, that the day would come when he’d know the time was right.

One day this spring, walking off the tennis court for a match he’d squeezed in, knowing he’d have to hurry back to the University of Georgia for World Championships prep, the feeling struck.

“There was just this little moment,” Bauerle said via a Zoom call last week, “where I was tired of rushing everywhere.”

That revelation led Bauerle to step down last week after 44 years at the helm of Georgia, an institution he’s been connected to for more than a half-century, since his undergrad days in the early 1970s.

His career at Georgia was unmatched, comprising seven national championships, 12 SEC team titles, 595 dual meet wins and 175 NCAA titles claimed by swimmers. In retirement, Bauerle wanted not only to transition to the next phase in his life but to make sure the program was in good hands. Having two individuals that he coached and that coached beside him – Neil Versfeld on the men’s side, Stefanie Williams Moreno on the women’s – only reinforced that he could step away on his terms.

The Right Time

For Bauerle, there were no half-measures in coaching. So he knew that even when a coach was ostensibly relaxing and off the clock, there was always something churning through his mind. Was his last practice good enough? Was everything ready for the next practice? Were the controllables controlled? And what about those things that come out of the blue; have to try to brace for them?

That, more than considerations of his legacy, led Bauerle to choose when to retire.

harvey-humphries

Georgia senior associate head coach Harvey Humphries (left) and Georgia’s head coach Jack Bauerle during the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Steven Colquitt

His achievements defy a simple summation. The statistics at Georgia paint part of the picture, as does Bauerle’s involvement with various Olympic staffs – he was the head coach for the U.S. women in 2008, a men’s assistant in 2016 and 2021 and a personal coach in 2004 and 2012 to go with head women’s coach at three World Championships. But those close to him are left with more personal memories.

“He really cares about (swimmers) as people,” Williams Moreno said. “And I think Neil and myself, that’s how we coach. We genuinely care about the athletes. We want them to be a success in the pool, out of the pool, in the classroom, after they graduate and come back. The special bond he’s had thousands of athletes he’s had come through the program in his 40-year career, for me the list is too long to be able to pinpoint. …

“Just the genuine care and love for all of the kids that have come through the program is unmatched. I don’t think there’s another Jack Bauerle out there. And I’m fortunate be able to be alongside him in the coaching capacity and as a former student athlete and just a mentor all around.”

Bauerle was “a little stunned” by the outpouring of messages. His attention fixated not necessarily on the most accomplished swimmers of the bunch (not just because Williams Moreno and Versfeld are two in that group), but on those who’d most maximized their potential in college, under-the-radar recruits who became leaders and the best versions of themselves. He’s just as heartened to see them continuing to do that in their professional lives.

Bauerle’s next steps remain open, which in itself is a departure for a coach that has meticulously planned so much of his professional life. He’s got surfing trips on the books and more time for tennis, though no plans to take up golf. Some of the ideas that were forced to take a backseat to swimming can now become realities. He says he’ll remain in Athens as a resource if the new coaches need him.

Bauerle is clear on what he’ll miss most: His interactions with swimmers. He’ll particularly miss the morning sessions, invoking a Bob Dylan lyric about the pre-dawn workouts being a chance to chat before “too many thoughts get in the way in the day.”

“I’m going to miss the kids,” he said. “I don’t know what retirement looks like at all. I have no earthly idea. I’ll probably get used to it, but I’ll probably be doing something else

What’s next at UGA

Bauerle hoped the program would stay in-house for its next leaders, given the talent available. His wishes where heeded there.

“I think there are a lot of people that would like to be here, but it’s sort of nice,” Bauerle said. “They’ve done their time, their due diligence, and I also think they’re great coaches. For me, I feel like a proud father, because Stef was our most decorated All-American, and Neil was an Olympian and NCAA record-holder. The kind of character that they have, as athletes, it’s the same character as coaches. They’re talented at what they do and they work hard, and that’s what you have to be as a coach.”

Both new coaches had, as Bauerle alluded to, outstanding careers as Bulldogs.

Williams Moreno graduated in 2002, a 28-time All-American. She won four NCAA relay titles and helped the Bulldogs to three national championships. She returned to Athens in 2012, spending the last 10 seasons at Bauerle’s side.

Georgia associate head coach Stefani Williams Moreno during a meet against Florida at the Gabrielsen Natatorium in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Photo Courtesy: Tony Walsh / Georgia Athletics

Versfeld, a 2009 grad, set an NCAA record in the 200 breaststroke. He represented South Africa at the 2008 Olympics and has been an associate head coach at Georgia for the last three years.

Both cite their time as undergrads as among the most influential years in their lives (Versfeld, for instance, married fellow Georgia swimmer Michelle McKeehan).

Both knew, once they started coaching, that they wanted to get back to Athens somehow.

“When I decided to go full time into coaching, the ultimate goal was always to get back to Georgia at some point, get back to college coaching,” Versfeld said. “And having the opportunity here at my alma mater is truly special.”

“I remember leaving in 2004 to go to Olympic Trials, and I was really emotional knowing it was the last practice I was going to have here in Athens, on this pool deck, with my teammates, and I’m going to Olympic trials and it was a huge, special place in my heart,” Williams Moreno said. “When I left, I didn’t know if I was going to get into coaching. I just knew the impact that swimming has had on my life and the friendships I’ve made and my journey here at Georgia. When I went home and retired from swimming, I realized, how can I give back to a spot that has given me so much. I really wanted to get into coaching. Because the four years I had here was the best four years of my life, I knew that I needed to come back and be a small part of the journey of young men and women. And if I could have an impact that was half as much as Jack had on my life on the kids that I worked with would be successful.”

Exactly what that will look like remains to be seen. Both coaches demurred on details, since Bauerle’s retirement means a reorganization in which the programs are split up. Their staffs, outside of diving coach Chris Colwill, are too be constructed.

But neither had the slightest qualms about taking over for such a legend. Versfeld believes part of the reason why he and Williams Moreno are right for the job is their competitiveness and passion for the university. That includes understanding that they’re not trying to be the next Jack Bauerle, Sisyphean task that that would be.

“We know what it takes,” Williams Moreno said. “There’s never going to be another Jack Bauerle. I want to be the next Stefanie Moreno, and Neil wants to be the next Neil Versfeld.”