How He Hook’d ‘Em On Excellence – The Wisdom Of Coach Eddie Reese
Eddie Reese announced his retirement as head swimming coach at the University of Texas yesterday after a career on deck spanning more than half a century.
In an interview with several reporters to mark his retirement, Reese piled up gems of wisdom for Planet Swimming to do with as it wishes. At 79, he intends to be around for a while yet, working and speaking to his life’s mission.
What lessons did he want swimming to take away from the book of Eddie Reese as he transitions from head coach to Coach Emeritus? It seemed, from his reply, that it will come down to the effort of any potential pupil minded and driven to take the time to dip into the book and take from what Reese intends to keep giving, both at Texas and on tour as and when he’s able.
He says: “I wanna keep givin’. I’ve got some ideas out there. I’m gonna keep working with, actually, probably both teams here. I’ve already had texts from other teams/coaches that want to come visit here. Now they want me to come visit them; so I’m gonna try and do some of that. It’s an honour and a privilege to be asked to do that but my goal is to try to find a way to… anybody I touch, to make them a little bit better, if there’s a way to do that. They may already be too good.”
Asked to explain how the coaches who worked most closely with him at Texas helped him succeed, Reese replied:
“First thing they did was that they took care of the kids. Kris and Wyatt both have got a gift of reading faces. They know when somebody needs to be pulled aside and talked to. An assistant coach always hears more than an assistant coach, which is a good thing. “They handle those problems with the athlete in mind first. Second, they did a phenomenal job of taking care of me. That’s one of our big mottos for our team:
“Take care of yourself; take care of each other; that takes care of everything else.”
“Chris and I, Wyatt and I, we have a positive atmosphere on deck. People come to this country to learn about culture. They start on the east coast or the west coast and end at our pool and they say, ‘why is our culture different?’ – and, I don’t know what the difference is, what their culture is, but we work at it, we’re positive; those guys just have tremendous importance in getting that across.
“You make the atmosphere positive and they work so much harder than you want ’em to. I say this kiddingly but it is true: they always make me look better than I am. You can ask them to hold 52s for 100 in practice … they’re holding 49s. No coach in their right mind ever stops somebody from going too far or too fast. If I had to do that, I’d be stopping most everybody every day.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the guy in the top 8 or the guy not going to the meet: they all work hard. That’s the most important thing to keep going because this sport, as fast as it’s gotten, has become obnoxiously tough. You can’t miss two weeks and come back where we were, like you could five or 10 years ago.”
– Eddie Reese – Image – the podium of praise is not tall enough to stop the tidal wave of plaudits washing over him – image, courtesy of the University of Texas, Longhorns
The video on the transition thoughts of Eddie Reese as he gets set to move from head coach at the Texas Longhorns to Coach Emeritus is stacked with gems. This feature includes a full transcription of his half an hour of reflections.
Eddie Reese – Half An Hour On A Lifetime of Achievement
Eddie Reese is a big book reader – “over 100 books read in the past year”. He notes that and the reference in one title that ‘you can’t take it with you when you die’. Reese adds: “Underneath that it said the only thing you take with you is that which you give to others, and that just means we’re here to help. I’ve been able to do that. They have helped me.”
The holding back of emotion is tangible. Here is a man who loved and respected his swimmers and the job of helping them unlock the best in each and every one who wanted to do just that and was prepared to work for it.
Just shy of 80, Eddie Reese is only partly joking when he says: “I’ve got a lot of memories of this year but I don’t know about previous to that.”
The bigger point is not his age and time passing but that living for the moment is fresh, keeps the pulse racing, the mind on the latest learning curve and the talent and will of the young folk right in front of him; trains the heart on the passion of “right here, right now”.
He recalls: “I’ve loved the people and I remember when I first came to Texas … they sent me to some camp for a 150th birthday or something like that. And I walked around the room before I spoke and everybody spoke about what a great place Texas was and it occurred to me ‘I need to ask about that’.
“What made it great? And they immediately started talking about somebody that was at the University – or a group of people there. A place is not good unless the people are good. And that’s what makes the University of Texas Athletics and our swimming team so good. We got real good people.”Eddie Reese – driving the Longhorns to victory – courtesy of Patrick Meredith, UT Athletics Photography
Good people begat good people and on the team and its culture, Eddie Reese says:
“We never talk about winning. We talk about … about five times a year [we note] that it’s serious stuff … all we talk about is what can they do to help me make them faster because if everyone on my team goes faster, win or lose, we’re successful.”
It is the point pressed home time and again by performance leaders, the reason why no race should be wasted, even in the middle of the heaviest work period: make every test moment count for something in a continuous process of building the parts of a sum of success that involves not just the individual but every member of the team, respect and support for every member of the team, built on an understanding that to help each other is to help self, to gain for all is a gain for one, one for all, all for one.
The ” … win or lose, we’re successful …” is couple to this from Reese: “And that’s a good thing about our sport. You see a swimmer 10 and under, 25, they go their fastest time, they’re smiling. I love that part, and that’s then my only goal: get them to go faster. And I have a saying about that. ‘I’m gonna get them to go faster even if it kills ’em. That’s relative to workout.”
Asked about the respect he has long drawn from peers, seen far and wide since his announcement yesterday in a flow of coach tributes, Reese said: “You always want to do the right things for the right reasons. Some of the best teams I’ve had have not won. How you carry yourself, how you win and lose: it’s very important to me and to my team. And how our opponents feel about us and how the coaching staff I get to see, used to get to see, on a daily basis. Haven’t done that in a while.
“I remember a coach meeting I’d set up when I just said ‘you need to know this is the best total staff we’ve ever had. It’s a great staff – and we’re getting better.”
Next question. Five decades? The question was about whether he adapts and changes to each passing generation or whether the athletes adapt to him.
A ripple of laughter later, Reese says:
“I don’t believe 18-to-22 year olds are going to adapt to me at all. DeLoss Dodds (the sixth men’s athletic director of The University of Texas, Austin) told me years ago, if you want ’em to know something, or do something, you don’t tell them once a month, you tell ’em often. If I want them to go in a direction, then I tell ’em often. I’d say I did most of the adjusting because the whole of my career … we get guys that come in from, let’s call it programs at a different level. In other words, maybe they haven’t worked this hard. When they come into my program, if I work ’em as hard as someone who’s been in a very difficult program, they won’t have a good first year. So, I’ve got to adjust for that swimmer.”
In words joyous to any who work long (not hours, but term), think long, write long, he adds, wry smile breaking at the corners: “To make a long story short, which I don’t usually do, I’ve done more adjusting than they have. Like, we had a team meeting: 10 o’clock after we’d won. We get ’em in there and we tell ’em what to do and what not to do. We had a meeting before the meet we knew we were going to win: we tell ’em what we want to do, how we want to appear; we want to be in class and dignity – that’s how you win. So, when we win, we want people to like us.”
“One of the seniors stood up and took the words out of Wyatt’s mouth and my mouth and he said, ‘look, there are reasons why people on other teams like us and respect us. We win with dignity’. He said ‘we’re not supposed to leave the hotel; nobody drinks; nobody is loud; you can go down the lobby and visit with your parents’.”
He breaks off to note: “We had parents at this meet – and they couldn’t come in and watch [Covid season] – and he [the aforementioned senior] just laid it out … there’s so much power when a peer makes comments like that. They have more power over ’em than I do.”
“At times I get to be like a parent, an insignificant other. A peer is never that. We’re so proud and happy with the way the guys act, the way they compete: it’s a daily thing.”
In the tidal wave of plaudits for Reese yesterday, I noted this one left at LinkedIn by former Reese swim pupil and charge Patrick Brundage:
To this day, so much good has come to my life because Eddie took a chance on me and recruited me to swim at The University of Texas at Austin. Even now, over 30 years after I left The Forty Acres, I remember and still apply lessons I learned under his guidance. I also remember some of his jokes, though, so it’s not all good 🤣!
Coach Emeritus – What Does Eddie Reese Have In Mind?
Reese will become Coach Emeritus beyond the U.S. Olympic trials in June and the Covid-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July. The title is not only honorary and the very opposite of the being attached to the term by Rupert Murdoch when he once told an Editor: “I’m going to make you Editor Emeritus … The E for Ex because you’re out; the Meritus because you deserve it.”
Eddie Reese deserves the tidal wave of plaudits washing over him. Asked what the emeritus role looked like in his mind, he says: “I can come to practice when I want.”
Then he gets to the passion in his point, body language a roll forward in his seat that reflects the things that move and motivate him:”If you do the statistics and improvement rate for the incoming Freshman’s class … every year we’ve got a class I love to work with, I want to work with; this allows me to do that.”
He had a “real good feeling” about who the next coach was going to be but there would be no announcement until after U.S. Olympic trials.
One Last Dip In A Rite Of Passage In The Pool
Reese’s last winning Longhorns team of his head-coach tenure did not know of his retirement until after the meet was done last weekend. Indeed, not until Monday afternoon when Texas broke the news.
Reese had always thrown himself into the traditional coach bath after victory, taking the plunge fully clothed with his team to celebrate the work done, the characters built, the achievement in the vault.
This year, this last time (he knew it if others did not), he had been “99% sure that I wasn’t going in”.
“Then I saw them out there and they looked at me and I said ‘I’ve got to go in’. They are not in street clothes. When I raise my hands to do the highs of Texas [he makes horns of his fingers, the salute of the Longhorns], I sink. Doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are. I was sinking. So it was scary.”
On standout moments he tells the reporter asking, a man at least half his age: “Honestly there are too many of ’em. I could go all the way back to when I coached at the University of Florida before you were born … I had two guys there that were average. They impressed me with their work ethic and I learned from them.
“Swimming is a blue-collar sport. If you work hard you can beat some people. You can’t beat Michael Phelps, you can’t beat Ryan Lochte but you can beat a lot of people if you outwork ’em – and these guys did that. One of them went on to be a dentist, one of them went on to be a lawyer and just phenomenal swimming careers and that impressed me no end. I’ve got 100 such moments a year for 43 years here, for six at Auburn, six at Florida that I’ve learned from.
“I’m not like a Government body. If we have a system and it’s not working, we quit doing that. If we’re doing one item that doesn’t work, we stop and go to something else. So, I have learned most of what I know from watching my team and listening to ’em through the years. “
Speaking The Word ‘Success’ With Care
Reaction time is telling for the swimmer off the blocks. The gem in watching Reese respond to questions is his reaction time in the realm of self-assessment.
The four-second pause and heavenward look (X marks the spot in the quote) in his next sentence says much about the humility and nature of the man:
“The key to my [X] … success is, I’m always trying to get better. I’m never satisfied.”
A reporter asks what he rates as the “No1 thing” when it comes to what his swimmers might have taken away with them from working with Reese. He blows his cheeks, takes a moment to plunge in to the deep reserves of lived experience and replies:
“The No 1 out of the 80 that I want ’em to get … [cue chortle]. The No 1 thing would be … because we have a culture that I talk about frequently, that as a peer, the only way they can have an impact on a peer is to say positive things. Negative things, they just blow you off or cuss you out. But if you say positive things, it has an immense effect and, being positive, when Kris Kubik was here with me, he was a tremendous positive force every day, no matter what was happening – and from that, I got better at that.”
That simple insight is one of the biggest deciders of outcome on peak moments, all levels, including the Olympic Games and World Championships. My thought drifts back to Perth 1998 World titles and a British backstroke swimmer called Martin Harris.
Martin came from the East End (of London), from a working-class background; he might have been a boxer in another life. He had a good nature. I liked him. His father often travelled to competitions with him and he was a man who asked questions, wanted to engage, wanted the best for his son; and he recognised that his son might rub up against social prejudice. As a result, he was also seen, by some in leadership positions as a ‘pain’; his son, packed with talent, work ethic and potential, was often the subject of what I’m going to describe as ‘team teasing’, in the most negative sense of how such things can impact confidence and outcome.
At Perth 1998, I followed the British squad, its managers and coaches and athletes, across a bridge from the main pool back towards awaiting coaches after a pre-competition training session. I heard (and cringed on hearing) a manager, among others, openly taking the piss out of Martin Harris, within earshot, to the giggles and sometimes sneers of his teammates.
Harris had arrived at the meet with a 55.00 personal best over 100m backstroke. That was the time American Lenny Krayzelburg would claim the World title in that year. As heats got underway, Harris had raced inside 56 seven times, inside 57 no fewer than 19 times in his career. In his heat, Harris clocked 57.01, his big chance (and Britain’s wider opportunities) burnt, at least to significant degree, in the flames of bad culture, one that would shift dramatically when Bill Sweetenham arrived from Australia in late 2000.
The benefits of Sweetenham’s revolution in coaching and team culture ripple out yet in the shape of success carved by the likes of Mel Marshall, then swimmer, now coach to Adam Peaty and mates at City of Derby and Loughborough, Sean Kelly, now head coach of Spanish swimming after a long and successful tenure at Stockport Metro, John Atkinson, Sweetenham’s right-hand man and how head of performance at Swimming Canada, and many others.
During his time in Britain, Sweetenham introduced a system of ‘stones and silence’ to help swimmers understand the alchemy of turning negativity to a positive when faced with challenging chemistry and difference in nature that can lead to bad outcome ones on teams if not handled with care and careful thought. In the simplest of terms, if one swimmer had an issue with another, they could pass a stone of specific colour to that swimmer indicating feeling, bad or good (you’ve hurt me; thanks for supporting me; etc etc). It was a system of constant gentle reminders for folk to check their behaviour and understand how it might impact the team – and therefore their own outcome, too. It helped shift a culture in the right direction.
As Marshall put it on a sign pinned to the wall at the Derby pool when Peaty was growing up:
BE A RADIATOR NOT A DRAIN!
Here’s Reese on culture:
“The culture of our team, I would like them to improve a culture wherever they go, by their attitudes, by their actions, by their words.”
What lessons did Reese want swimming to take away from the book of Eddie Reese? It seemed, from his reply, that it will come down to the effort of any potential pupil minded and driven to take the time to dip into the book and take from what Reese intends to keep giving, both at Texas and on tour as and when he’s able. Says Reese:
“I wanna keep givin’. I’ve got some ideas out there. I’m gonna keep working with, actually, probably both teams here. I’ve already had texts from other teams/coaches that want to come visit here. Now they want me to come visit them; so I’m gonna try and do some of that. It’s an honour and a privilege to be asked to do that but my goal is to try to find a way to… anybody I touch, to make them a little bit better, if there’s a way to do that. They may already be too good.”
Reese is asked about the added dimension of going out on a high note with his own grandson, a swimmer at Texas. The universal and the coach in Eddie Reese shines through with a smile: “That probably didn’t have a whole lot of effect.” He notes that his grandson, Luke Bowman, as he retired from the squad too, had sent a message out to the other sprinters in his group saying that they were “going to miss him because he was the best at talking me out of yardage in practice”.
Reese notes that his grandson was one of ten swimmers who did not get to go to the NCAA Championships because he had not made the qualifying standard. “I’m very proud of those guys,” says Reese, “they did a phenomenal job – and the reason that happens is that there’s nobody on our team that goes uncared for, or un-coached at any time during this year. We want everybody to be the best they can, cos if they’re all good, it gives confidence to the guys going to the meet.”
Don’t imagine Eddie Reese uses positivity as a soft touch. The reality of ‘what you put it, you get out’ is a part of the message, often one delivered with humour. Far from the realm of a Reese Workout, I walked into a hotel lift once with a towel thrown over my shoulder. ‘Where you goin’?’ asks the man in the far corner. I tell Eddie Reese that I’m off to the ocean for a swim and (a critical comment I’d read from the coach in mind) to “practice my straight-arm freestyle”. “Right, have fun! Hope a shark gets ya!” he replied, in precisely the tone, minus the twang, my granddad and his humour had set out into the world with each day.
There’s a touch of that tone when Reese is asked for his view on the ‘state of the union and the landscape of the university in the context of contemporary developments, world and American. Big theme. The coach apologises for the big drop in the stock market following his retirement announcement. On a serious note, he talks about athletic directors, the Texas athletic director and how good, professional people have helped keep the train on the tracks during a torrid time of global pandemic and all the challenges, financial and otherwise, that has brought.
Those He Learned From Along The Way
Beyond being asked to show his muscle, as if he hadn’t done so with his mind for almost half an hour describing a career straining towards the six-decades mark, Eddie Reese is asked what the coaches he has worked with of late, Kris Kubik and Wyatt Collins, have helped him with and taught him.
“First thing they did was that they took care of the kids. Kris and Wyatt both have got a gift of reading faces. They know when somebody needs to be pulled aside and talked to. An assistant coach always hears more than an assistant coach, which is a good thing.
“They handle those problems with the athlete in mind first. Second, they did a phenomenal job of taking care of me. That’s one of our big mottos for our team:
“You can ask them to hold 52s for 100 in practice … they’re holding 49s. No coach in their right mind ever stops somebody from going too far or too fast. If I had to do that, I’d be stopping most everybody every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re the guy in the top 8 or the guy not going to the meet: they all work hard. That’s the most important thing to keep going because this sport, as fast as it’s gotten, has become obnoxiously tough. You can’t miss two weeks and come back where we were, like you could five or 10 years ago.”
He adds: “You can ask them to hold 52s for 100 in practice … they’re holding 49s. No coach in their right mind ever stops somebody from going too far or too fast. If I had to do that, I’d be stopping most everybody every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re the guy in the top 8 or the guy not going to the meet: they all work hard. That’s the most important thing to keep going because this sport, as fast as it’s gotten, has become obnoxiously tough. You can’t miss two weeks and come back where we were, like you could five or 10 years ago.”
The Texas Half Hour With Eddie Reese On Video
Hooked On Excellence
The retirement interview came to a close with a question about Darrell Royal, who hired Eddie Reese at UT in 1979. Reese recalls:
“Darrell picked me up on a Sunday afternoon. I got in the car with him and I said, ‘This must be important to you’. He said ‘Why do you say that?’ I said ‘I’ve heard a lot about you and Fran Broyles. I rethink 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 excellence, the University of Texas, its Longhorns and excellence in life through excellence in the water and through the lens of an expert eye on the water.