Passages: Don Easterling, Legendary North Carolina State Coach, Dies at 90

Photo Courtesy: Competitor

Passages: Don Easterling, Longtime NC State Coach, Age 90

Don Easterling, who led North Carolina State to 17 ACC titles over 24 years at the helm, has died, the school announced on Saturday. Easterling was 90 years old.

Easterling led the Wolfpack from 1970-94. He won 15 ACC championships at the helm of the men’s team and two with the women, including 12 consecutive men’s crowns from 1971-82. The high point came in 1973, when the Wolfpack won ACCs by winning all 17 events at the meet.

He posted a career record of 328-118 in dual meets, including 162-64 vs. ACC opponents. Easterling was also the founding coach of the NC State women’s swimming program. His two titles in charge came in 1979-80.

“We will all miss the fiery, passionate, and unique coach, Don Easterling,” NC State head coach Braden Holloway said in a team statement. “There are so many stories that someone could say about him, and they still wouldn’t do him justice. He was a pioneer of the sport, wore his heart on his sleeve, and influenced so many at NC State, the stories about him still echo today. He’s been a big supporter of Wolfpack swimming and diving ever since he stepped away from coaching and he’s always been a great mentor and friend of mine, always wearing his red.”

Easterling took over for Willis Casey in Raleigh in 1970 after having coached at the University of Texas-Arlington, which he led from 1966-70. That included an NCAA runner-up finish at NCAAs in 1969. Among his charges there were 1968 Olympians Doug Russell, who won gold in the 100 fly and medley relay, and Ronnie Mills, who won bronze in the 100 backstroke. He got his start at Fort Worth Panther Boys’ Club and Buford Aquatic Club in Texas, where he coached from 1952-70.

Easterling coached swimmers who compiled 40 All-America performances (24 men, 16 women). His charges included seven Olympians, five Olympic medalists and four Pan Am Games medalists. That includes American Olympic medalists Steve Gregg (silver in the 200 fly at the 1976 Montreal Olympics) and Dan Harrigan (bronze in the 200 back in 1976) and 1980 Olympic gold medalist Duncan Goodhew of Great Britain.

Inducted to the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016, Easterling was a two-time ACC men’s swim coach of the year (1984, 1992) and the women’s coach of the year once (1991). He was named the National Collegiate and Scholastic Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1993.

In 2021, Easterling was named one of the top 100 greatest college coaches in the last 100 years by the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA). He was inducted to the North Carolina Swimming Hall of Fame in 2017 (alongside another of the Olympians he coached, American relay gold medalist David Fox). He is also in the Texas Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame.

“(He) was one of the all-time greats in NC State history for any sport,” Holloway said. “Coaching teams to 17 conference championships is an amazing feat, but better than that are the stories that you hear from the alumni about Coach Easterling and how he led this program with so much passion. One of my favorite pictures of Don is after he jumped in at the end of a meet to celebrate with a young man after they won the last relay and that right there sums up Coach Don Easterling. We’re all going to miss him.”

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Stephen “Sid” Cassidy
Stephen “Sid” Cassidy
1 year ago

I remember Coach jumping in my lane after I won the mile at ‘76 ACC’s in Chapel Hill … the old pool … and it definitely surprised me … and despite our tremendous differences we shared that passion for the sport and his significant impact on my life is undeniable.
RIP you old SOB … you left your mark in this dimension.

Frank Skip Thompson
Frank Skip Thompson
1 year ago

Thanks for the history. One correction was the year of the NCAA Championship for University of Texas-Arlington also known as Texas Western back in the day. Back in those day they did not have Division 1, 2, and 3 and instead had the University Division (which would be similar to Division 1) and the College Division (which would be similar to Division 2). In 1968, they placed 7th in the University Division and 2nd in the College Division behind Long Beach State. Back in those days you could swim in both meets if you had the swimmers that made the time cuts. They are the only school that I remember that accomplished this and that is a credit to Coach Don Easterling.

Another amazing accomplishment that was not mentioned was the 400 Medley Relay at the 1968 NCAA University (Division I) Championships won the event and had the fastest time in the Nation. Rick Nesbit won the 100 Breaststroke and Doug Russell won the 100 Fly for individual event wins and I don’t that has ever happened with a College Division (Division 2) school winning 3 events in the history of the NCAA Division 1 Championship meet. Charles Smith and Ernie Siefert were the other members of the 400 Medley Relay. This was the same year that Doug Russell won the 100 Fly at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Frank Skip Thompson
Frank Skip Thompson
1 year ago

Did you get the comment.

Suzi Burns
Suzi Burns
1 year ago

Thank you Mr George for this lovely article about Coach E! I was honored to swim with him as a beginning masters swimmer (starting at the age of 65 and knowing nothing about competition or the technique required to “do it right’!). Coach E taught me and many other masters swimmers how to swim better and compete with heart. His folksy stories, humor, passion for the sport, and his unlimited ability to see something in every swimmer was as vibrant at the age of 90, as you describe in this article. All my fellow masters swimmers loved him as did I. Thank you for honoring him as you have. Suzi, Coach Es Captain, for the E Team

Frank Skip Thompson
Frank Skip Thompson
1 year ago

Review my comment from 3 days ago?

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