Everyone was dripping wet. "Here," said the male Auburn swimmer to the male Auburn coach, "let me give you a kiss." They stared deeply into each other's eyes and....
And with a laugh kissed each other on each cheek, like brothers meeting on the Champs-�lys�es. You just don't expect to see this kind of thing at a repository of Southern football such as Auburn. Tigers coaches, even gridiron legend Pat Dye, have long been open to huggin', so long as it included plenty of masculine backslappin', but kissing "You notice that we're kissing the French way," announced the Auburn swim coach David Marsh, his shirt and pants drenched from a ceremonial dunking, "we're not French-kissing."
The things coaches have to do to win a national title these days. Marsh won his second in three years on Saturday night when the Auburn men, led by a couple of refugees from the French Riviera, seized the NCAA championship in Indianapolis. For all of its proud tradition, Auburn had never won an undisputed national title in any sport until Lionel Moreau and Romain Barnier decided on a whim to go to college in the U.S. They had been swimming competitively in the South of France for most of their lives, and they were in a rut. Sure, they had the sumptuous topless beaches and the warm turquoise sea just a couple of minutes from their homes in Antibes, the town where Picasso lived and painted after World War II. On the weekends if they wanted to see a movie, there were cinemas in Cannes, just a short drive away. To shop for clothes they could hop next door to Monte Carlo.
Sadly, though, it had all become the same: the women, the nightclubs, the food. In 1995 Barnier competed in the U.S. Open at Auburn. When he returned home he wrote to Marsh and asked for the chance to swim for Auburn. "I offered him a book scholarship," says Marsh. By that he meant Auburn would pay only for Barnier's schoolbooks. "He said he had this friend, Lionel Moreau. I said, 'I'll give him a book scholarship too.' "
While the two young Frenchmen were considering this generous offer, they took a trip to Norway to visit a friend. At a sidewalk cafe in Oslo they noticed a man in an Auburn polo shirt—quelle coincidence!—and approached him to discuss their opportunity to swim for the university. "I let them talk for a while," recalls William Muse, the wearer of the aforementioned polo shirt, "and then I said, 'Well, that's good, because I'm the president of Auburn University, and this man here with me is the architect who designed our swim center.' "
The two Frenchmen stared at each other. "It was destiny," Barnier said. "It was a sign that we had to come to Auburn." Last Saturday night they looked down from the victory podium to see Muse handing up the national championship trophy.
Les visiteurs arrived at their new school on a bus from Atlanta the day after Christmas in '96. At first there were difficulties with the language. "It is one thing to understand the words," says Barnier. "It is another to understand their meaning." They took an apartment together, where they could speak French and sit in front of the television without understanding. They were frustrated particularly by Southern women. "They like the French accent, but they get scared really quick," says the 22-year-old Barnier. "It's hard for a French guy. In France there is a difference between sex and love, but here they want to combine everything together."
Says Moreau, "I went out with a girl, and I take her to dinner. A nice Italian restaurant. I order wine. The first thing she said was that I am trying to get her drunk. I am just trying to be romantic, to be nice. She thinks I'm going to try to get her drunk in order to have the sexual advantage. Then we go home, and she gives me a hug. I hate that."
The two Frenchmen found they had more time than ever to concentrate on swimming. As they entered their senior year at Auburn, each had been awarded All-America status in four events, as well as a full scholarship from Marsh. Moreau, 25, was named co-captain. "They add more to the team than I can really describe," says sophomore Dave Denniston, who on Saturday night won the 200-yard breaststroke to help seal Auburn's championship. "It's just their sense of openness. And they tell jokes that nobody can understand, but you know it's about sex, so it's funny."
"Sixty percent of the jokes are about sex," says Moreau. "It is natural. But if the matter is important, we are going to be serious."