Feb. 4, 2008
Berkeley, Calif. - During the usually lazy days of mid-summer, the California men's swimming program went through a flurry of activity, perhaps generating more attention than during the normal course of the year. But now that the Golden Bears are embarking on the 2007-08 season, it is time to properly introduce new head coach David Durden, and to honor the program's guiding force for over 30 years - Nort Thornton.
Since taking over the reins of the team, Durden has spent long hours getting to know his swimmers and surroundings, all under the guiding eye of Thornton, who continues to add his support on deck after retiring as Cal's fulltime head coach.
"I think coach Durden is doing a great job," said Jernej Godec, one of 12 seniors on the Bears' nationally-ranked squad that began the season seventh in the national poll. "No one knew what was going to happen when we heard about the coaching change, but we knew David was a great coach and we were pleased when we heard he was coming." When co-head coach Mike Bottom left the program to join an elite swimming camp in Florida, it kicked off a series of events that resulted in, what Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour called, a perfect fit for Cal Aquatics. Soon after the Aug. 27 announcement, Durden selected former Cal star and world-class swimmer Bart Kizierowski as assistant coach and affirmed that Thornton would continue in his role as the head coach emeritus.
"I was at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis with a group of six athletes when asked if I would be interested in having a conversation with Sandy Barbour," explained Durden. "At the time, one of my long-term goals in coaching was to lead a men's-only program in pursuit of a national title. In stepping back and looking over the landscape of college environments around the country, I have always felt that there are a handful of programs that, with university resources behind them, could pursue a national title year in and year out. Cal definitely fit that profile." Durden certainly had impressive credentials to bring to Berkeley - two seasons as head men's and women's coach at Maryland and five years as an assistant coach at Auburn, where he helped the Tigers to six NCAA team championships (three men, three women).
While with the SEC school, Durden mentored several world and NCAA record holders, and in 2004, he coached multiple athletes that competed at the Olympic Games. He also served as the head coach for the Panama team at the 2004 Olympics and the 2003 Pan American Games. Before joining the Auburn program, Durden was an assistant for the highly regarded Irvine Novaquatics under Dr. Dave Salo. As a competitor at UC Irvine, Durden was the 1997 Big West Conference champion in the 200 butterfly before earning his degree in electrical engineering in 1998. Now at Cal, Durden has embraced the presence of Thornton and the leadership he provides in and out of the water. Associated with Golden Bear men's swimming since 1974-75, Thornton guided Cal to the pinnacle of the sport in just a few short years, leading the team to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1979 and 1980.
Throughout his 33 years at the helm of Cal swimming, Thornton's squads won more than 230 dual meets, captured 48 individual and relay NCAA crowns and won 108 Pac-10 individual, relay and diving championships. His teams ranked in the final Top 10 in the national polls 28 times. Thornton's resume boasts an impressive collection of Olympians, including multi-time Olympic medalist and world record-holder Matt Biondi; Anthony Ervin, who won the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; and Duje Draganja, a silver-medalist in the 50 free at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Under his guidance, Cal swimmers captured 29 medals Olympic medals - 14 gold, 10 silver and five bronze. The veteran coach was honored for all of his accomplishments in May 1995 with his induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
"It was a great experience working with Nort over the past four years," said Patrick O'Neil, the 2007 NCAA champion in the 200-yard butterfly. "I know many people have enjoyed the same experience and would say it's one of the greatest times they've ever had. He has taught me not only a great deal about swimming, but a great deal about life."
Another part of the Thornton legacy is how well his teams have performed in the classroom. Over 30 of his athletes have been named Academic All-Americans and numerous Cal swimmers have been awarded postgraduate scholarships and earned postgraduate degrees. Last season's squad had a team GPA of 3.019 and featured four Academic All-Americans - Richard Hunter, Louis Vayo, Graham Lentz and Justin Pollard.
Yet, in typical modest fashion, when asked about the keys to his success and his career highlights, Thornton simply says, "Good recruiting of excellent young men and the day-to-day association with wonderful people." "Nort has been fantastic in helping me get up to speed with our athletes, the traditions at Cal, and the campus," said Durden. "I always leave each day with a nugget of information from Nort, whether through a technical aspect of swimming or the psychological make-up of developing a team. His presence on the deck in working with the guys is tremendously appreciated."
The 2007-08 Bears' squad looks to continue the long-time success of one of the Athletic Department's most successful programs, and this year's edition of Cal men's swimming and diving features nine returning All-Americans.
"Our top returnees this season fall primarily within our senior class," said Durden. "Dominik Meichtry is coming off a second-place finish at NCAA's in the 200 freestyle. Mark Eckert and Louis Vayo return as NCAA scorers in the IM events. Will Copeland, Joe Whittington and Jernej Godec anchor our sprint core, and junior backstroker David Russell is coming off of a successful summer in which he represented the U.S. at the Japan International Meet in August.
"The guys have been absolutely fantastic to me and my wife, Cathy, in our transition to Cal. Their investment in this program supersedes any personal glory that they will take away from their Cal experience. I have been fortunate to be on the receiving end of their selflessness." Godec, who was recruited by Durden to Auburn before ultimately deciding to pursue his education at Cal, may have the best sense of anyone on the Bear squad what the new head coach ultimately will mean to the program. "I think David will do a lot of wonderful things here," he said. "David knows where he wants to take us, and he knows how to get us there."