By Jack Williams
Sports Information Director Emeritus
A championship sport at Georgia Tech for many years, swimming is on the rise again with a dynamic Yellow Jacket coach reaching for the stars in the same complex where the world’s best raced for gold in the 1996 Olympic Games.
The man on a mission is Seth Baron, a former swimmer of note who knows a thing or two about winning and has his own gold medals to prove it.
His objectives at Georgia Tech are clearly defined.
“In the next three to four years, we want to be in the top three in the Atlantic Coast Conference and in the Top 25 in the nation,” he said. “The long range goal is even more specific. We’ll be shooting for ACC and national championships.”
That may sound like “mission impossible” considering the program has been mired in mediocrity for a good number of years and never had produced a single dual meet victory in Atlantic Coast Conference competition until Tech beat Duke at Durham this season.
After sweeping four Southeastern Conference championships in the middle of the century and building a proud tradition in the sport, Tech de-emphasized swimming–for a number of reasons. Both scholarships and funding were greatly reduced.
It wasn’t until Dave Braine came on board as director of athletics in 1997 that the sport was given priority status again. Under his direction, Tech decided to provide more scholarships for the men’s team and to start a women’s program in the fall of 2,000.
Braine hired Baron, a former assistant coach at Auburn and South Carolina, with instructions to move full speed ahead. The guy hasn’t slowed down since that day.
When a women’s team is formed, Baron will serve as head coach of that squad, too.
“I think that’s the way to go,” he said. “When you have a single coach in charge of both teams, you have a single philosophy. Men and women compete side-by-side at the high school and the club level. I think it creates more team unity when they do the same on the college level.”
In Baron’s first Tech season with the men’s team in 1997-98, the Yellow Jackets won four dual meets. They upped the victory total to six this school year against an improved schedule.
But Baron isn’t completely satisfied “We set mini goals at the start of this second year and one was to have a winning record in dual meet competition,” he said. “We fell short at 6-7. We faced two ACC teams in dual competition this season and will add two more ACC teams next year. If you’re going to improve as a team, then the schedule must improve, too. Those things go hand-in-hand.
“Now that we have beaten Duke, we have to set our sights on other ACC teams. Teams such as Maryland, Clemson and North Carolina State. We must work our way up the ladder.”
Baron and his assistants Ken Vogt and Bill Humber will gauge the improvement of the current Tech team at the ACC Championships this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the University of Maryland.
“We hope to make a good showing with our young team,” Baron said. “The competition is very stiff. North Carolina has won six years in a row and probably should be favored again. But FSU and Virginia are close behind. They have outstanding athletes who will win a number of events, but may not have as much depth as Carolina.”
The most positive aspect of the swimming program at Georgia Tech is the plan to enclose and enlarge the former Olympic Aquatic Center where all swimming, diving, synchronized swimming events and water polo were held during the Centennial Olympic Games of 1996.
The Georgia Tech Board of Regents will be asked in April to approve Student Athletic Complex II, a plan to add side enclosures to the main swimming stadium at the Aquatic Center. The complex currently has a huge roof covering a competition pool, a dive pool and spectator stands which seat 2,100. The enclosure will enable Tech to hold year-round competition there. Other additions are planned at the facility, including construction of six basketball courts, men’s and women’s locker rooms, meeting rooms and a parking deck.
“When the project is complete, hopefully within two and a half to three years, Tech could host everything from the ACC championships to the NCAA Championships, the Junior and Senior Nationals, the U.S. Open or the Olympic trials,” Baron said.
The Tech men’s team swims at the Aquatic Center when the weather is good.
“This season, we were fortunate to be able to swim there until December because the weather was so mild,” Baron said. The Tech team moves indoors to an adjacent swimming facility when the weather turns cold.
Baron is confident Tech can become a national power in swimming.
“Georgia Tech has a lot of positives on its side,” he said. “We have a facility that will attract top athletes. And we have an athletic director who is giving us tremendous support.
“I look at Stanford and California, both of which have won national titles in swimming,” he said. “Those schools compare so favorably with Georgia Tech in academics. All three are giants in engineering. I say if they can do it, we can, too. Of course, it will take a great recruiting effort and a public relations effort to bring us to that level. It cannot be done overnight.”
Baron learned what it takes to win during an illustrious career as a swimming competitor. A two-time All-America at Auburn, he also competed for the U.S. National team, winning 10 gold medals in international events. He participated in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984.
Coming out of high school at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., after growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., he was ranked No. 1 in the country in the 200 freestyle–his best event. He broke the national prep record in that event. He also swam a number of other events, including the 200 individual medley and the 100 butterfly.
Once he stepped down as a swimmer, Baron quickly proved himself in the coaching ranks. One of the highlights came when he was head coach of the United States National team which competed at the 15th World Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1997. The team swept a total of 40 medals.
Baron’s formula for success begins in the classroom–not in the pool.
“What our swimmers do in their four years at Tech is important,” he said.”But what they do the next 40 years is more important. That’s why academic pursuit is so vital.
“We set academic goals for this year. We wanted the team to have a cumulative GPA of 2.80 or better and we wanted to have at least 12 Dean’s List students. Fortunately, we did even better. We wound up with an overall GPA of 3.175 and 18 of our 24 swimmers made the Dean’s List.”
As far as swimming philosophy is concerned, the coach stresses hard work and dedication. “Swimmers are unique athletes who practice long hours and at unusual times of the day,” he said. “Some teams have to practice whenever they can gain access to a pool. I know of teams that work out at 4:30 in the morning.
“At Georgia Tech, we practice from 6 to 7:30 in the morning and from 2:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. In between there are classes and study sessions and also weight room work three days a week. It takes a lot of dedication. We are looking for athletes who are willing to pay the price to be successful and who are open-minded enough to learn new techniques and new race strategies.”
And Baron is looking hard. Men’s recruiting is in high gear. Recruiting for the women’s team starts soon. The coach is here, there and everywhere in his drive to give Georgia Tech a swimming program of national promience.
Editor’s Note: Jack Williams just recently retired after a 21-year stint as the Sports Information Director at Virginia Tech. Throughout a distinguished and award-wining career in college athletics and sports journalism, he has also served as Sports Information Director at North Carolina, as well as Assistant Sports Editor of both the Atlanta Journal & Constitution and the Raleigh News & Observer. He recently joined the Georgia Tech Sports Information Office as Sports Information Director Emeritus. His column will be a weekly feature on Ramblinwreck.com.