On Sunday, March 28, the iconic Tower at the UT-Austin campus glowed burnt orange, honoring the men’s swim team for winning its fifteenth national championship. The next day, after the Tower floodlights had flickered off, head coach Eddie Reese announced his retirement after 43 years at UT, sending shockwaves through the worlds of swimming and Longhorn sports. But the decorated 80-year-old coach saved an even bigger surprise for early July, when he, um, unretired, leaving even some within the university’s athletic department wondering what just happened.
The saga began with UT athletic director Chris Del Conte tweeting at university president Jay Hartzell the morning of July 1: “I just received Eddie Reese’s retirement paper work from @TexasMSD Thoughts?” Hartzell responded just fifteen minutes later, writing, “I’ve considered this & thought through what’s best for Coach Reese, @TexasMSD & @UTAustin. I’m rejecting this application for retirement. I think Coach Reese has a 16th national title left in the tank—at the very least!”
The internet went wild, with fans and alumni on Twitter begging Hartzell not to play with their hearts. As the morning went on, it became clear that Hartzell wasn’t kidding, as he and the athletic department eventually confirmed that Reese would return for a forty-fourth season, a tremendous boon for UT.
Whether Reese couldn’t quit the sport he loves or UT couldn’t bear to see the greatest coach in its history walk away is unclear. For now, the university remains tight-lipped about the exact series of events, other than a general statement that Reese wants to continue working with the current team.
To understand the type of coach the Longhorns almost lost, you’d probably start by looking at Reese’s myriad achievements: the 15 national titles, the 42 consecutive conference titles, the 29 Olympians Reese has coached at UT, and the 63 medals they’ve won. Not to mention that Reese coached men’s swimming for Team USA for the 1992, 2004, and 2008 Olympic Games. He’s had a hand in winning enough gold to cast a fifty-foot statue and enough banners to roll out a burnt orange carpet the length of the forty acres.
But Reese will be the first to tell you that none of that matters. What he brings to Texas and its athletes is much greater than trophies. “I’ve never had a goal to go to an Olympics, to win NCAAs,” he says. “My goal is to get everybody to go faster than they can believe.” Among the hundreds of swim meets he’s coached and won, he points to a loss at the 1984 NCAA championships as one of his proudest moments. UT was still a developing program at the time, expected to finish fifth or sixth. “We ended up swimming the way coaches dream,” Reese says. The Longhorns took second place, while Florida, which was coached by Reese’s brother Randy, eked out a win. For Reese, seeing his swimmers exceed expectations meant more than a victory.
Perhaps that outlook is a luxury afforded only to coaches who win as often as Reese has, but even when UT cruised to a dominant win at the 2001 NCAA championship meet, Reese was more concerned with the quality of his swimmers’ performances than the bottom-line result. “That was a meet where I never knew what the score was, and it never mattered,” Reese says. Reese’s wins are when his team performs its absolute best, and if UT comes out on top, it’s all the sweeter.
Reese also takes pride in developing champion swimmers—not just recruiting prodigies. “For the first three quarters of my career, I got guys no one else was recruiting,” he says. “Eddie expands the set of possibilities of what you can close your eyes and see happening,” says Shaun Jordan, a 1991 UT grad who won gold medals at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Reese recruited Jordan at the Texas high school state championship meet in 1986, where Jordan placed third in the 100-meter freestyle and seventh in the 200-meter freestyle. Jordan recalls being “directionless” back then, mostly interested in joining a frat when he arrived at UT the next year. But Reese ignited his passion and changed his goals for the sport. Jordan says Reese had a preternatural way of persuading swimmers to give their all without holding back.
“The elimination of an excuse is a very brave thing, and Eddie encourages that bravery,” Jordan says. “I was not the best swimmer in the world, but I was damn close to the best swimmer Shaun Jordan could be.”
Another Reese protegé, three-time Olympian and seven-time medalist Aaron Peirsol, recalls feeling similarly inspired by Reese. During a meet at SMU, Reese pulled him aside just before a race and told him to look up at the record board. “You know that’s an old record,” the coach said, referring to the existing best time in the SMU pool for the 200-yard backstroke. “He just planted this seed in my head,” says Peirsol. That seed gave Peirsol the sense that Reese believed in his ability to break the record, which he ended up beating by more than a second.
Despite all the triumphs, national titles, and Olympic glory he has shared with Reese, Peirsol says “the most important moments were the quiet ones.” Often, the two would sit beside each other and watch a swim meet. “There was this undertone that we were exactly where we wanted to be,” Peirsol says. After reflecting for a moment, he adds, “Eddie was exactly where you wanted to be.” If the University of Texas is a thread that ties together a decades-long tradition of world-class swimmers, Reese is the needle pulling it.
“He saw them better than they probably saw themselves—not just in swimming up and down a pool, but also in living life,” says Kris Kubik, Reese’s former longtime assistant coach. It was Reese who first suggested that Kubik pursue coaching, asking him to serve as a volunteer assistant at Auburn in 1977. As soon as Kubik stepped onto the pool deck for his first practice with the team, Reese asked him to warm the team up. “Okay, what’s the warm-up?” Kubik asked. “Whatever you want it to be,” Reese answered. From the very beginning, Reese understood how to use his own unshakable confidence to inspire the same quality in others. Kubik apparently did not disappoint at that first practice, because he wound up spending that season at Auburn and then 34 more with Reese after both were hired to take over at UT.
UT coaches in other sports had such deep respect for Reese that they’d seek out his advice. Reese was known to counsel former basketball coach Rick Barnes on when to push his players hard and when to give them rest, leading to a long-standing friendship between the two. A few words from Reese also helped then–football coach John Mackovic right the ship after a lackluster start to the Longhorns’ 1996 season. “You’ve been working them too hard,” Reese told Mackovic. “You can’t beat them up and get anything out of them—except what we call the death spiral.” The Longhorns turned that season around and wound up upsetting number three Nebraska to win the Big 12 championship. “There’s not been a football team here I’ve seen peak more than that year,” recalls senior associate athletic director John Bianco. Looking back on the football turnaround, Reese jokes, “I’m still waiting on my bonus.”
Once swim season ended in late March, Reese began logging long hours to prepare UT athletes for the Tokyo Olympics, which start this week. The coach recently added one more name to the list of UT swimmers he’s helped qualify for the Games, as Drew Kibler made Team USA’s 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay squad at the trials last month. In Tokyo, UT grad and 2016 gold medalist Townley Haas will make his second Olympic appearance to compete in the 200-meter freestyle and relay events.
Before his unretirement, UT had planned for Reese to adopt an emeritus role, in which he would still consult with the school’s coaches and athletes. But that sounds an awful lot like the guidance and mentorship the coach, who turns eighty this month, has been providing for four decades.
“He’s life coach emeritus for all of us,” Jordan says. “Forever.”