If elections were held today to choose the most unbeloved college swim team, Tennessee would win in a landslide. The Vols wear coonskin hats and gaudy orange suits, march about with military precision and refuse to nod at opponents, much less speak to them. The most disturbing thing about the Tennessee boys, though, is that they swim so fast, fast enough to have won the last six Southeastern Conference championships. They also cracked the top four at the NCAAs in each of those years.
All this helps explain what happened last Saturday when Alabama beat the Vols in a dual meet in Tuscaloosa. The home team clinched the meet with two events to go, and the 1,200 fans, shoe-horned into Alabama's steamy natatorium, stopped just short of singing, "Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead."
What was most surprising about 'Bama's 63-50 win was not that it happened, but how it happened. The Crimson Tide has been second to Tennessee in SEC meets for three years, but it is a national power, too, and two years ago it stunned the Vols 65-48 at home to snap a Tennessee winning streak of 85 dual meets. Last year, after losing 57-56 at Knoxville and settling for its accustomed runner-up spot in the SEC, Alabama outscrambled its conference rival for second place in the NCAAs behind Southern Cal, which won its fourth straight title. But Tennessee seemed stronger than ever this year, boasting enough talent, some felt, to overtake USC and become the first SEC school to win an NCAA team title. As for Alabama, the only way it figured to embarrass the Vols again was to get an all-conquering performance from senior Jonty Skinner, its South African-born sprint star.
It did not work out quite that way. Mike Curington, with two individual wins in addition to an impressive relay performance, was the big man for Alabama. Skinner, meanwhile, swam a strong anchor leg to help 'Bama get a critical meet-opening win in the 400-yard medley relay, but he was outdueled in his 100 freestyle specialty by Tennessee sophomore Andy Coan. Alabama made up for Skinner's loss by winning seven of the 13 events and collecting some unexpected second-place points. Skinner, though also beaten in the 50-yard freestyle, joined in the general jubilation over the Alabama victory. "It doesn't matter how we do it," he said, "just as long as we beat Tennessee."
Such passions once would have been unthinkable in the SEC, where swimming has not always been highly regarded. It was not so long ago, in fact, that the SEC was lucky enough to have sneaked a team into the top 15 in the country. That situation began to change in 1968 when Tennessee, which had dropped the sport 15 years before, entrusted its revived program to Ray Bussard, a homespun ex-high school football coach with show biz in his bones.
In dealing with his swimmers, Bussard rules the waves, subjecting them to strict dress codes and curfews. Bussard also is innovative. To develop height and distance on starts, he has his swimmers dive into the water from the second row of bleachers situated a few feet from pool's edge. Faced with an alternative of broken ankles, Bussard-trained swimmers almost invariably have explosive starts. Partly for this reason, Tennessee teams have been rich in sprinters. The current crop is especially strong, including seniors Bob Sells and Tom White and juniors John Ebuna and John Newton, all of whom are past or potential NCAA finalists. Matt Vogel, who won the 100-meter butterfly at Montreal, is another talented Vol.
Then there is Andy Coan. In 1975, as a 17-year-old Fort Lauderdale schoolboy, Coan won the world championship and briefly held the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. He enrolled at Tennessee last year, but poor high school grades made him ineligible as a freshman. Finally this fall he helped the Vols get off to a 10-0 start in dual-meet competition while plotting his return to the top.
Alabama's approach to swimming is a bit different from Tennessee's. Talk of discipline is heard somewhat less frequently in Tuscaloosa, where swimmers felt free to toss kickboards at one another during a workout last week, right under the eye of Coach Don Gambril. Hired in 1973 with the mission of beating Tennessee, Gambril notes, perhaps unnecessarily, that his approach differs from Bussard's. "I believe in hard work, too," Gambril says, "but I don't think it has to be regimented the way Ray does it."
But Gambril is far from easygoing when it comes to recruiting, going to legendary lengths for prospects. His current Alabama team includes athletes from Australia, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, not to overlook Skinner, who arrived four years ago after a stint in the South African Army. Skinner won the NCAA 100-yard freestyle title as a fresh-man but could not compete in the '76 Olympics because of South Africa's status as an international sports outcast. Skinner watched on TV as Jim Montgomery won the 100-meter free at Montreal in a world-record 49.99. Then, three weeks later in Philadelphia, Skinner swam a 49.44, a world record that still stands.
Past Alabama-Tennessee meets have generated their share of controversy. During Skinner's freshman year, for example, Gambril became incensed when Bussard had his swimmers try to lure the Alabama star into a second—and disqualifying—false start in the 50-yard free. During Alabama's big win at home two years ago, on the other hand. Bussard complained when Gambril put the Tennessee team right next to the band—and in front of a drafty doorway.