By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Following titles in 2011 and 2012, Cal was on a role. While Coach Dave Durden said 2013 was a “learning experience,” finishing second in the country is something a lot of schools would celebrate. Well, that lofty bar Durden has set was cleared again with Cal winning this year’s NCAAs at Austin last month, and he explains what he means, what he’s like with a putter in mini-golf, and what he hopes for in the future in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Are the titles, piling up as they are at this point, still all different?
Dave: Yes, they are all unique just because of the personalities you have, and kind of seeing a 365 day scope of it, and four-year scope of it, seeing guys who started as freshmen and then finish as seniors. It will always be different because of that element.
2. Does one feel better, as though a team attained more than maybe you thought it would, or does every team title feel special?
Dave: There are different challenges – but one doesn’t feel better than the other, all have unique aspects that make it, the journey, memorable.
3. So was last year’s runner-up spot something that motivated this year’s team?
Dave: Well, you know, in that regard, with that kind of thought process we benefitted from sitting second in 2013. Not swimming well in 2013 – I think that was in our mind. It may not have been in other people’s minds, but it was in our mind. We felt like, as a collective group, we underperformed, so this year we wanted to perform well – whether that meant a title or not, we wanted to perform well. So doing our best was a goal more than anything.
4. You hear and see these comments about how great a job you have done, but you seem to force a smile – how do you deal with all that talk?
Dave: I don’t know how to answer that other than to say thank you. I always feel bad answering that because I know how hard our guys work at that, how hard our staff works, (Assistant coach) Yuri (Suguiyama), (Strength and Conditioning coach) Joel Smith, everyone on the staff, and how hard we all work for that. It’s not me. I do feel very much a part of that, and I am down there with them just plugging away at it. But anything like that, I answer on behalf of a lot of people who make that happen, and I am always at a loss to articulate effectively just what we did because so many important people had significant roles in that – and I am humbled to be a part of it.
5. Your wife Catherine is a proud supporter, what does that do for you?
Dave: I mean, it’s an understatement to say I can’t do it without my wife supporting every aspect of that in the month of December or into January when I am away in Colorado Springs for 13 days, in the months of September, October or November traveling and all that is done from a recruiting perspective, or in the month of February where we are training and doing the business of being prepared for NCAAs. She’s also always in the stands, leading the cheers and the parent section, and so she’s a direct support in that aspect.
6. So all titles are different, but this third one in four years, what does it mean?
Dave: This title. I think, is just a good realization that as a coach I am still striving to be better than what I currently am. I don’t necessarily rely on the kind of mantra where you think, “Oh well, we’ve done this before, we can just do it again.” To me it’s more like, “Man I have to make sure everything is as close to right as possible, and put our swimmers in the best position to swim at their best.”
7. So it’s part science but an iterative process as well?
Dave: it’s all probability: It’s like, “I am not 100 percent certain you are going to swim fast as an athlete, but I will just stack the odds in your favor.” When you do things right to swim at your peak, the more we put those odds in your favor, the more we can move that needle to where there is an 80 percent or 90 or 95 percent chance that you will swim at your best. That’s our goal, to move that needle to 100 percent.
8. A tradition forming so rapidly, how nice is that?
Name: Yes, I think there’s a benefit to that in a lot of ways because they want to be successful, they want to be good. But you have to temper that a bit because it can be a little too much on their shoulders and they need to have some relaxation in there and they have to have fun and enjoy it. But them wanting to be really good and to be really good is very helpful.
9. These team titles don’t come unless teammates are picking each other up, right?
Dave: You can’t be focused only on your success and not looking out for your teammates’ success. You need that positive environment, and those ideals and attitudes, to be part of the culture. We try and foster that environment of becoming our best not just individually but as a team.
10. How much does it help to have such bright students as your athletes at a place like Cal?
Dave: I think more than anything the fact that they are smart makes them perceptive of what is going on. We wouldn’t be where we are without this group in 2014 without the experiences the guys went through in 2013 and 2012, and what our seniors went through as freshmen to win that title in 2011. It took pieces from all of those years to construct and develop and direct this team. What’s really important is that they understood heading into (the 2014 championship) what went on better in 2012, because they experienced what they did in 2013. They experienced this past year because of what they went through in 2013. They just learned a lot. A lot of that because they are perceptive and they want to be successful, and want to learn from mistakes. It didn’t take much from me in directing that, which also says a lot about this group.
11. How encouraging is it for USA Swimming to see such great coaches in the U.S., especially this new wave of younger coaches, as the distinguished group of older coaches starts to retire?
Dave: I think it’s great, and important to note it doesn’t stop at the collegiate level either. There are really good coaches at the club level, some of the best coaches in the world. And our program benefits from that great coaching because when these guys come in polished and ready to impact at a very, very high level, we are able to compete immediately. Whether its Ryan Murphy from Sergio (Lopez Miro at Bolles School), Jacob Pebley from Rick Gunther’s program in Oregon (Corvallis Aquatics), or Josh Prenot and what he got at Santa Maria with Coach Mike Ashmore, these guys are ready to come in and be impactful as 18 year olds.
12. That’s a shift, isn’t it?
Dave: It’s really perceived at NCAAs as being a meet dominated by 21- or 22-year-olds, but these guys are impacting it now at 20 or younger, even someone like Ryan at 18. And that says a lot about our club coaches and how they are preparing their student-athletes.
13. And aren’t other teams stepping up?
Dave: Absolutely and that’s exciting to see. I look at what (Coach) Braden (Holloway) has done at North Carolina State, just an awesome year. You know when you see these coaches around the country, at both the club and college level, doing such a great job with these athletes that you better have your game in order to be ready to coach these swimmers, because the club coaches are already helping them get better and better and they are sending them to us ready to compete. It’s good from the perspective of USA Swimming because we have to work every day just to compete with all of these great programs. Man, it gets (laughs) my heart racing just talking about it!
14. Back to the praise thing, your family life helps keep you grounded doesn’t it?
Dave: It does, and I want to be sure I am clear that I am very thankful for the nice comments we have gotten and continue to get. You think about the alternative to that (laughs) and you prefer it the way it is now! But anytime I hear those things and allow myself to think about it, I kind of go home and am so humbled and blessed by the fact that I am a husband, Dad, and I get to take my kids out to play or swim, or play putt-putt golf, or hang out. In the office, yes, I am working toward developing these student-athletes and helping them to all their goals, but when it’s time to transition home, I am very happy to be a good Dad and husband.
15. Be honest, I know you like golf, are you a terror in mini-golf and does it translate to the actual links?
Dave: I wish it did because I can tear it up on the putt-putt golf course! But no, it (laughs) does not spill over at all, and my golf game is, as I always say, a game in progress.
16. I talked to Stanford coach Greg Meehan last week and it was pretty touching to hear how he regards you, and he was telling me about the text he sent you after they finished second at NCAAs, what does seeing him perform like that mean to you?
Dave: Greg has a lot of humility and I know that having been here and working in this environment – maybe not working for me, but working in this environment of truly great coaches with the great men’s water polo coach Kirk Everist and (women’s water polo) coach Richard Corso, basketball coach Mike Montgomery, who just retired after coaching at Cal and Stanford, Teri McKeever – of successful people and having the opportunity to have conversations with them, whether it is about swimming or coaching 18 to 22 years old, is something from which we all benefit. I learn from that, and Greg certainly did as well, but I don’t think how amazing he is, is exclusive to working with me because Greg is just such a smart, bright guy. So it wasn’t a matter of if, but when he would have success there, and that started within six months at the conference level, and now at NCAAs.
17. That pro team is special and does that impact the college team, just in terms of guys like Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin being around?
Dave: Yes, it is. What makes it easier is… I have told this story a couple of times, but I’d like to share it again here: Last summer at World Championship Trials, Anthony Ervin had the 100 on the first day, and the 50 on the last day, so there were three days in between of doing nothing but getting ready for the 50. On one of those in between days, he had come in early and swam when not a lot of people were there. One of my jobs with the post-grads is to manage their time and rest. So I gave Anthony the keys to the van and said, “Go relax.” He took three or four steps and said, “No, I want to watch Jacob (Pebley) swim the 200 backstroke.” Here is 31-year-old Anthony Ervin, and he wants to support one of our 19-year-olds. He doesn’t train with Jacob, and has no real connection other than them both being Cal Bears. But Anthony wanted to see Jacob be successful. Having people like that, that’s what’s cool.
18. What has coaching USA Swimming’s international teams done for you?
Dave: It’s had a huge impact on my development, having access to great athletes, great coaches and great people, both on the U.S. staff and conversations with international coaches. I really enjoy conversations with Romain Barnier, who has his group in Marseilles, France. I have known Romy now for 14 years, and it’s always good to catch up with coaches. At 2010 Pan Pacs, being on the staff with David Marsh was very special for me, just being able to continually learn from him was very impactful. He helped me see the importance of keeping a good balance and not just looking at it as a 365-day program 12 months a year, but as a four-year cycle. I’ve also learned from these conversations that you have to take a break, to be a good father and husband and friend, but also to be a good coach, because it can be kind of consuming.
19. One of the reasons NCAAs is so exciting is seeing the best swimmers from around the world compete for these universities, and even though it’s short course, in a way it’s sort of a prelude to the World and Olympic events, isn’t it?
Dave: I think it’s phenomenal to look at the men and women who can compete in this highly competitive three-day event, and then watch as they translate that to a World level or Olympics – there is a level of comfort in knowing you can step up in this environment and do well. The personal or individual pressure you might feel at Worlds or Olympics is a bit different from the pressure of NCAAs where you know you have to do it for these 17 other guys or 30 teammates from schools. And there is a different pressure that comes in representing your country of course. But I think the NCAAs definitely help with that – it’s an important part of the development.
20. So you go from Auburn to Maryland to Cal and win all of these titles and find a home with your family on the west coast – what do you think about all this?
Dave: I think you sit back and realize, “I am living a blessed life.” You feel so in control of this journey, but you’re not. You have great people around you at Cal, and great people along the way who truly care for you, helping direct you, and that is what makes this really special. I got an email from Troy Tucker, who was the associate AD at Maryland that hired me, a guy who really took a chance on me at age 29 being a head coach, and said he was happy for me and he knew when he hired me that I’d have success. That he’d follow it up after the (2014 NCAA) championship was really special. I heard from Margaret Crocker (whose husband was long-time, well-respected and adored Auburn Assistant coach Ralph Crocker who passed away at age 52), and to hear from her meant the world. She said, “I’m following your career, and Ralph would be so proud.” That’s what makes it special. And it’s great to get these emails after the championships, but it’s even more awesome to know that people who helped you at certain times in your life still care enough about you to take pride in what you are doing now – because they are all very much a part of it.