Why Eddie Reese Can’t Sleep Before Men’s NCAA Championships

eddie reese, university of texas
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Eddie Reese has been through an NCAA championship season 40 times and won 14 national titles, including four in a row. But the veteran coach still hasn’t been able to sleep in the two weeks leading up to this year’s championships.

“I’m not sure it’s nerves. A lot of stuff on my mind,” Reese said. “A lot of good teams have not really swum well yet, and the times to get into the meet are still absurd. That and what to do with my guys.”

Why all the concern? Reese worries that his team hasn’t swum particularly fast yet this season, “at least for the way we work out,” and he worries during taper that his team will be too rested. And despite finishing last year with the trophy every team wants, Reese believes his team was only “pretty good,” as opposed to the “lights-out” effort of the previous three seasons.

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Townley Haas — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

He called last season “probably the worst we’ve ever been during the season” as Texas lost five of eight dual meets that year. Reese’s swimmers looked sluggish and tired throughout the season, none more than Townley Haas. Coming off two straight NCAA titles in the 200 free and a World Championships silver in the long-course version of the event, Haas was routinely swimming in the 1:38-range during dual meet 200 free races, some eight seconds off his best time.

Reese attributes those struggles to overuse of a piston-based jump squat machine with a bar that falls slowly. That way, swimmers could load heavy weight onto the bar without experiencing hard landings. But the work turned out to be too much, and the Longhorns spent the entire winter “working less so that they would be alive at the end of the year.”

“That exercise I thought would make us better jumpers, better off the walls, better starters. It seems to have worked better this year, even though we’re not doing it,” Reese said.

What followed was a slice of Eddie Reese coaching wisdom: Extensive work on a particular skill is great, but only if followed by adequate rest. For proof, he recounted a dual meet from the 1970s, when he coached Auburn against his brother Randy’s Florida Gators. One Florida breaststroker had pulled a groin and hadn’t kicked breaststroke in six weeks. He proceeded to swim lifetime bests that day.

Big picture, that’s all that concerns Reese: Get his swimmers to go fast and let the rest fall into place. So when Texas won its fourth straight national title without its best efforts, he couldn’t be fully satisfied.

“I know that’s happened,” Reese said of the four straight. “But all I worry about is how to get the guys this year to go fast. We don’t talk about winning the meet. We talk about how they can help me make them faster, and that’s the important thing. If everybody goes faster, you can’t control other teams, you may not win, but if we’ve done all we can do.

“If they don’t go faster, I messed up something somewhere along the line. I don’t like to do that.”

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The Longhorns will compete in their home pool this week, but they will be staying in a hotel like every other team. In seven previous occasions with a home NCAA championships, Reese said no swimmer has ever tried to go to class during the meet—even if that happens “all the time” during Big-12 championships in Austin.

To make NCAAs feel like a normal travel trip, “I contemplated having them get in coats and ties and go out to the airport and pick them up like they were flying in,” Reese said. “We’ve had good meets here and bad meets here.”

Reese’s Texas teams have won three of their 14 NCAA titles in Austin, including the first in 1981. The last time NCAAs were in Austin in 2014, Reese remembers an exceptionally fast meet when “we were picked from fourth to eighth that meet, and we ended up second.”

From last year’s team, seniors Joseph Schooling, Jonathan Roberts and Brett Ringgold are gone, so the most decorated swimmer on this year’s team is Haas, who followed up last year’s rough regular season and losing his 200 free American record to Blake Pieroni on the first night of the NCAA championships with a flourish. Over the next three days, Haas won the 500 free national title, reclaimed his American record with a 1:29.50 in the 200 free and even finished in the top-eight in the 100 free.

“Freshman year, he scored in the top eight in the mile, fourth. We had a deal: Swim it his first year, and we’d move to the 100 after that,” Reese said. “That doesn’t mean every miler can do that, but I knew he could do that.”

Haas then went to the Pan Pacific Championships and won his first individual international gold in the 200 free, only to return for his senior season “very determined” with “the best conference meet he’s ever had.”

This year’s Texas cast also includes late-blooming senior sprinter Tate Jackson, stud freshman freestyler Drew Kibler and a trio of impressive backstrokers: sophomore Austin Katz, who Reese said came back from his international debut at Pan Pacs “even better” after winning the 200 back NCAA title last year as a freshman; redshirt junior Ryan Harty, in the midst of a bounce-back campaign after breaking both arms last year; and senior John Shebat.

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John Shebat — Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

Shebat, second behind Ryan Murphy in both backstroke events in 2017, struggled last season for reasons other than grueling training: He required orthoscopic knee surgery two weeks before the Big-12 championships. This year, two weeks before NCAAs, Shebat put on a jammer in practice and clocked a 1:11.6 in a 150-yard backstroke—as fast as anyone swam the first six laps at last year’s national meet.

Reese even found a breaststroker, filling a void that developed when Will Licon exhausted his eligibility in 2017. Charlie Scheinfeld, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Chicago, enters the NCAA championships seeded fifth in the 100 breast (51.41) and eighth in the 200 breast (1:52.78).

“He’s a big guy, he’s real strong, and he’s got a good kick. He gets everything with his feet,” Reese said. “In repeat 50s, he’d go 27s and 28s. We’ve had a Will Licon do that stuff. The other day, with suits on, he went 4 x 50 on 2:00 from a push. He pushed 25-plus on all of them. That’s real good. He’s amazingly good-natured. He helps us all enjoy the process.”

What allows a freshman to come into the Texas program and succeed right away, like Kibler and Scheinfeld this season and Haas, Katz and others before him? Reese acknowledged motivation and willingness to work as possible factors but also naiveté.

“It could be that they don’t know what the heck they’re doing. They don’t know it’s the toughest meet in the world. All they know is the gun goes off and they race,” Reese said. “Charlie’s whole attitude is, ‘What do I have to do to win this race?’ I said, ‘Well, you have to go out even with the guy, and then you’ll beat him the last 50.’ Blind trust, it’s a great thing.”

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Each year during the current Texas NCAA win streak, some previously unknown swimmer has emerged to make a major impact in the points race. Back in 2015, Clark Smith was an unknown factor before emerging to win a national title in the 500 free. Last season, freshman Sam Pomajevich entered the NCAA meet seeded dead last in the 500 free before dropping 11 seconds from his season best to qualify for the A-final.

Reese wouldn’t reveal his predictions for who will be this year’s Texas surprises, but undoubtedly someone will make a leap. That’s what happens each year in March.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

According to statistician Price Fishback, Texas has been the most-improved team compared to psych sheet projections over the past three seasons. The Longhorns have outscored their projections by an average of 103.5 points per year, almost 30 more than the next best averages, Georgia at 75.5 and Cal at 69.5.

Oh yeah, Cal. Over the past nine seasons, Texas has won five championships and finished second three times. In that same stretch, Cal has three titles and six runner-up finishes, meaning Bears coach Dave Durden’s teams have not finished below second since his first two years on the job. Indeed, going into this year’s meet, Cal is seeded to top the scoring with 402, with Indiana seeded second (352) and Texas third (312).

But for Reese, his team swimming fast is first and foremost, with whatever any other squad does secondary in importance. He has enough on his mind concerning his own swimmers, but as the meet goes along, he will still take time to notice what’s going on around him and the moments that make March swimming so special.

“I’m a purist. I love fast swimming,” Reese said. “You asked me what guys I’m going to have break out or break through, and I’m going to have three or four do that, but it happens all over the meet, and I love that for those guys and their coaches. I get a lot of enjoyment beyond my own team.”

4 comments

  1. Ric Joline

    Many coaches cannot heading into championship season…it’s not easy! lots of emotion…the older I get the more weary it becomes…AFTERWARD! Energy is there until it’s over!!

  2. Pat Kennedy

    No matter what happens Coach Eddie Reese is an amazing coach and a phenomenal person. It should be an exciting meet with a close team race right up to the 400 free relay on Saturday with Texas, California and Indiana. Good luck to all of the individuals participating in this years NCAA Championship meet.

  3. avatar

    Only nerves until that first beep… then it is all adrenaline and energy!

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      Right on