What happened to the Virginia men’s swimming team?

How Augie Busch’s poor management has led to uncharacteristic results

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Over the weekend, the Virginia men’s swimming and diving team finished eighth in the ACC Championship meet — its worst performance in program history.

The result was especially unpalatable given the program’s history of success. Between 1998 and 2013, the men’s team captured ACC Championship crowns in all but two years, including six consecutive titles leading up to 2013. But in 2014, the team finished fourth at the conference meet, its worst result since 1997, and the team failed to rebound in the 2014-2015 season, going 1-5 in dual meets leading up to last weekend’s performance.

So what’s the cause of this dramatic turnaround?

For starters, after the 2013 season 31-time ACC coach of the year Mark Bernardino unexpectedly “retired,” and Augie Busch — protégé and son of USA Swimming Director Frank Busch — was named his replacement.

As a former Virginia swim team beat writer for The Cavalier Daily, I can tell you first-hand how much Bernardino was loved and respected by current swimmers and alumni alike. The man fostered what became known as a Virginia swimming “family,” and Bernardino was the father figure. He had a history of keeping in touch with his former swimmers decades after they left the program, and made everyone part of the family feel welcome despite differing levels of talent.

In the summer of 2013 when news broke of Bernardino’s retirement, it quickly became apparent the public wasn’t getting the full story. A group of swimming alumni called on the University to review the decision, suspecting some sort of mishandling. The Washington Post later revealed that the University and Bernardino reached a nondisclosure agreement regarding his leave, proving that the University took issue with him, but not to the point where it felt the need to go public about it.

Losing a coach in that fashion who has been with a program for 41 years — especially one loved and admired as much as Bernardino was — will naturally bring rise to a turbulent era for a team.

But Bernardino’s management of the program during his tenure would seem to have set the team up for a bright future, at least in the near term. In his statement announcing his retirement from Virginia swimming, he wrote, “Our team and staff have been enormously successful, and our program is near its prime, so perhaps, in a very real sense, this is the best time for me to step down, with the team poised for continued success.”

However, any continued success the men’s program was poised for was quickly dismantled by Augie Busch’s management of the situation.

While Bernardino’s time at Virginia was characterized by a welcoming attitude and uncompromised excellence, Busch’s tenure has been characterized by the opposite — most notably through suspensions.

Just a few months into his first year on the job, the new coach suspended eight Virginia swimmers for the opening meet, including six men. A year later — this past October — five men were suspended for all of fall competition. Then, just a month and a half ago, two more men were suspended for the Virginia Tech meet.

And Busch hasn’t suspended just anyone — he has suspended just about all of the top talent the men’s program has seen during the past two years.

Two of the men suspended by Busch this past fall — senior David Ingraham and junior Luke Papendick — subsequently left the program. These were two of the best Virginia swimmers ever. Ingraham’s times in the 200 fly and 200 IM are among the top five in program history, and his time in the 400 IM is second in program history. Papendick holds the 200 backstroke all-time record, and his times in the 100 back and 200 IM are also top four in program history.

The year before, Busch suspended six Virginia men for the opening meet, including Nick Alexiou and Chris Webb — both of whom subsequently transferred from the program. Alexiou and Webb were two of the best long distance swimmers the team had, with Webb posting a top five finish in the previous ACC Championships in the 1650 freestyle and Alexiou earning All-American honors the prior year in the 800 freestyle relay.

Senior Kyle Dudzinski, who holds the program’s top time in the 100 back, was also suspended last fall, and while he remains on the roster, he has not competed at all this spring due to injury.

Including current junior Yannick Kaeser and current seniors Charlie Rommel and Jake Pearce, Busch has now suspended six swimmers that hold one of the top 10 times in an individual event in Virginia swimming history.

So an easy answer to the Virginia men’s woes at the ACC Championships is simply that several of the team’s best swimmers have either left the program or at least missed significant time. But I lay most of the blame on Augie Busch and the attitude he has likely fostered on the team.

To give him some credit, Busch deserves praise for his success with the women’s team, where he led the Cavaliers to two ACC Championships in the past two years. But Busch has alway been a women’s coach. In his past three posts at Houston, Arizona and Arkansas, he either worked primarily or exclusively with women. His transition to leading a men’s program, however, has been anything but smooth.

Having played sports all my life, I’ve found that a team’s attitude is immensely important to success, and that it’s impossible to have a winning mentality when you have a coach that doesn’t believe in you. And I can’t think of anything more discouraging than a coach suspending a third of your team over the course of one and half years. It shows a great lack of faith, and if I were in these guys’ position, I would have strongly considered leaving myself.

Suspensions should always be a last resort action, and the best coaches are able to prevent undesirable behavior by instilling a strong ethical code, as Bernardino did. Busch’s decision to suspend these men was likely intended to show zero tolerance toward certain behavior (exactly what behavior, we may never know), but when this many people are suspended, you have to wonder whether a large portion of the blame rests with the coach.

Overall, where Bernardino mentored these young men and helped them grow, Busch seems to have pushed them away. It may be too much to ask for another Bernardino, but the program deserves better than what his successor has shown so far.

It is clear that Busch has a lot to learn when it comes to managing a men’s team. If he can’t get a handle on it, the Cavaliers are in for a long stretch of mediocre recruiting and even worse team development.

Matt Comey is a weekly Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.comey@cavalierdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcomey.

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