By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
After more than 50 years of coaching – the last 36 at the helm of the University of Texas – Eddie Reese has pretty much done and seen it all.
He’s led the Longhorns to multiple team and many, many more individual NCAA titles, coached Olympic and top international teams and helped hundreds, even thousands, of athletes graduate.
And despite all that he’s already done, it’s what lies ahead – whatever that may be – that continues to drive and motivate Reese to come to the UT pool every day.
It’s also what keeps him from retiring, because in his mind, the best could still be yet to come.
“I promised my current group of swimmers that I would at least stay through 2016 Olympic Trials, doing everything I can to help them be in the best possible position to make the next Olympic Team. From there, I’m not sure,” said Reese, who led the Longhorn men to their 11th runner-up finish two weeks ago at the NCAA Championships.
“As long as I’m still enjoying it and know that I’m still making a positive impact on my athletes, I will keep coaching. I’m not ready to stop yet.”
It wasn’t long ago, however, that Reese said the idea of stepping away from coaching was on his mind. A rough season several years ago that saw the team in disarray challenged his desire to continue. It just wasn’t fun any more.
He made some sweeping changes, and within a year, the team was back on track – and his resolve and excitement to keep coaching, despite being tested, was renewed and restored.
Ever since, he said he’s been riding a coaching high – one that engages him to always work toward bringing out the best in his athletes no matter how much time or coaching it may take.
“I’ve always remained consistent that every athlete equals 1, and every staff equals 1, so if I’m doing my job right, they know that they matter and count and that I will do whatever I need to help them reach their highest potential,” said Reese, who has led Texas to 35 consecutive top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships following a 21st-place finish his first season (1979).
“I’m old school in many ways, but I’m also looking for new ways to motivate and challenge the guys. I treat them the way that I want to be treated, and that results in a level of respect that goes both ways. It works, and it’s always worked for me that way.”
It’s that philosophy that has guided Reese throughout his coaching career, starting as far back as his first appointment as an assistant coach with his alma mater Florida Gators in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
He assumed the head coaching position at Auburn University in 1972, taking over a program that had never qualified a single swimmer for championship or consolation finals at the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship.
When he left six years later for Texas, he had built the Tiger program into a perennial powerhouse with four top-10 showings at NCAAs and a runner-up finish in 1978.
Reese said when he visited the University of Texas to interview for the coaching vacancy, he came wanting to duplicate what he did at Auburn – and then some.
“I was so impressed with the athletic facilities when I visited the campus that I knew I could build something special here,” said Reese, who had coached 49 individual and 39 relay NCAA champions prior to this season. “But I’ve always been more into people than buildings, and that was really what convinced me to come to Texas. Every year I’ve been here has proven me right.”
And while he’s proud of the legacy he’s built in Austin, Reese is the first to admit he hasn’t done it all by himself.
He’s not only surrounded himself with great assistants through the years, but he attributes the growth and success of the program to the growth and success – and dedication and determination – of the athletes themselves.
He said he follows two motivational dictates when it comes to coaching – always strive to improve personally as a coach and see the potential in everyone to go faster.
“One of the things I learned pretty early in my career is that, as a coach, you don’t turn someone into a champ,” said Reese, a three-time coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s swim team (1992, 2004, 2008) who has coached 29 Olympians who have won 39 gold medals during his time at Texas.
“You can give them the tools and guidance they need, but it comes down to their desire and commitment to wanting to be a champion. The sport is too hard to do it any other way. It’s truly up to them. As a coach, it’s up to me to evaluate every year what I’m doing, and if something isn’t working, then it’s time to change it up. It keeps things fresh and exciting.”
As the only college swimming coach to win NCAA titles in four different decades (most recent in 2010), Reese’s reputation for excellence is well-documented as having set the standard in collegiate swimming.
And, as he said before, as long as it’s still fun and he feels he’s still making an impact upon the lives of his athletes and a contribution to the sport of swimming, he will still be leading the program in Austin.
“Other people are really the ones who talk about how much longer I’ll be here before I retire; it’s honestly something I don’t think about much or talk about,” said Reese, who was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1996, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and International Swimming Hall of Fame as an honor coach in 2002.
“I’ll know when it’s time, and that’s not now. This year’s team has made coaching very fun, and as long as it’s fun, I’ll still be here every day.”