'He set the standard': Texas swimming icon Eddie Reese to retire after 43 seasons
The avid fisherman, now 79, will stay on as in emeritus role; ‘There’s a best in every line of work, and he’s the best in his line of work.’
Maybe Eddie Reese owes all his coaching success — his 15 national titles, 12 national runner-up finishes and 42 straight conference crowns — to Tex-Mex.
The Texas men’s swimming legend who announced his retirement on Monday loves telling everyone, including his current athletic director, how he was the last coach at UT hired by Darrell Royal in 1979.
“Darrell picked me up on a Sunday afternoon,” Reese said Monday. “I got in the car with him and I said, ‘This must be important to you.’ He said, ‘Why do you say that?' 'I’ve read a lot about you and Frank Broyles. I think you would rather be on the golf course.' And we hit it off from there.
“Then he took me to Cisco’s and I was hooked.”
Hooked on Texas, too. Reese became an icon splashing around UT athletics, churning out Olympians and All-Americans and winning practically everything within reach of the wall.
The eight-time NCAA coach of the year said he decided to retire last week before the NCAA national meet. He’ll continue in an emeritus role after the Olympics this summer. Assistant coach Wyatt Collins will take over as UT’s interim head coach.
“He’s the best of the best,” former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said Monday in a phone interview. “He’s the only one I inherited when I came in in 1981. He kept bragging, ‘You know Darrell Royal hired me.’ I said, ‘Eddie, get over it. You’re working for me now.’ But I love him.
“He’s the best,” Dodds added. “There’s a best in every line of work, and he’s the best in his line of work. He’s a wonderful human being.”
Dodds, who retired in 2013, said whenever Reese was in his office, all they had were philosophical conversations about training. Reese’s dynamic coaching, the construction of the Jamail Texas Swimming Center and the constant influx of talent made Texas a swimmer’s paradise. “Whatever the formula was,” Dodds said, “it absolutely worked.”
“When I was growing up and coaching track at Kansas State, I read every book that was written about (James) Counsilman,” Dodds said of the Hall of Fame swimming coach at Indiana. “I learned so much from him in reading those books.
“Now, if I was starting off, I would be reading about Eddie Reese,” Dodds added. “He set the standard. People everywhere that are trying to get into coaching, getting into coaching now, will be reading about him.”
Reese, 79, still wants to teach, still wants to help. Competitive swimming has become “obnoxiously tough,” and Reese said he’s open to traveling and talking with other coaches and swimmers. He’s happy to help, but “they may be already too good.”
“I probably need to comment about the stock market first,” said Reese, a noted outdoorsman in his spare time. “Right after my announcement, it immediately went down, and I apologize for that.”
Reese said that if he could only go to swimming practice and skip the meets, “I could coach till I’m 100.” Reese turns 80 in July.
“So as long as my mind is good, my jokes are good, I’m going to keep doing it,” he said. “My jokes are always good.”
There are simply too many accolades to list. Reese is the only coach to win a national title in five different decades. His 15 titles are tied for seventh-most in NCAA history, regardless of sport. UT has finished in the top three at the NCAA meet in 34 out of his 43 years. When UT was in the Southwest Conference, Texas won all 25 championship swimming events ever staged.
“I affectionally refer to him as Yoda,” current UT athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “He’s not only one of the greatest coaches ever in our country, but he’s a great sounding board for all our coaches. He’ll come in and talk to us about leadership or types of advice.
“How do you define a guy that’s won a championship under six presidents?” Del Conte added. “You think about the history from 1981 to now, what’s happened in our country. It’s just mind-boggling.”
Reese was the U.S. Olympic men’s coach in 1992, 2004 and 2008. Twenty-nine Longhorns became Olympians; collectively, they won 63 medals, including 39 golds. He’s in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor.
“That’s been my only goal — get them to go faster,” Reese said. “I’m going to get them to go faster even if it kills ’em.”
Reese and his wife, Elinor, have two daughters and four grandchildren. One of those grandchildren, Luke Bowman, was on this year’s national championship team. Bowman was part of the 200-yard freestyle relay team that set a meet record at the Big 12 championship.
The stories of all the swimmers impacted by Reese would fill volumes. He came to Texas after turning Auburn’s program around in the 1970s. The 1963 Florida graduate also led the Gators to three Southeastern Conference titles in the early ’60s. As senior co-captain, Reese was the first Florida swimmer to win five SEC titles.
Reese not only taught how to swim faster, he taught swimmers how to be gracious in winning, too.
One of UT’s seniors stood up in the team meeting before the end of Saturday’s national meet and “took the words out of my mouth,” Reese said.
“He said, ‘Look, there’s a reason people on the other teams like and respect us,’” Reese said. “We win with dignity.”
That’s how Reese coached at Texas for 43 years, too. Still, it felt good to get wet after winning all those titles, including the final one last weekend.
“I was 99% sure I wasn’t going in,” Reese said. “Then I saw them out there and they looked at me and I said, ‘I’ve got to go in.’”
The coach went into the pool via the stairs while the UT swimmers all went diving in.
“When I raise my hand to do 'The Eyes of Texas,' I was sinking,” Reese said. “It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are. I was sinking. It was scary.”