Before returning to his alma mater as head swimming and diving coach, Hall of Famer Dennis Pursley has some business to attend to in London.
That’s because Pursley is coaching Great Britain in the Olympic Games, which start at the end of this month. Afterwards, he’ll pack up his family in Arizona and move to Tuscaloosa.
Pursley graduated from Alabama in 1972 and was hired to replace longtime head coach Eric McIlquham back in May.
Initially, Pursley wasn’t so sure about coming to coach at Alabama right after the Olympics, telling reporters on a conference call Wednesday that he wasn’t sure he wanted to “jump off the Olympic boat and into something like this,” and that he “kind of had other thoughts in mind.”
He quickly followed up saying, “But when I saw what was going on with the campus, in every aspect of it, I felt a real environment of optimism and excitement everywhere I saw in the athletic department … It just kind of blew me away to be honest and I felt like it would be a real privilege and rare opportunity to get involved in that environment.”
The Crimson Tide’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs are lagging behind in the SEC and nationally. So what can Pursley do to raise the bar?
It starts with getting a new staff in place, which Pursley has already done. In his first order of business after accepting the job, he hired swimming standouts Mike Davidson (Olympian and All-American), Jonty Skinner (former world record holder and Bama alum) and Lisa Ebeling (a three-time All-American at Arizona).
But aside from that, the program simply needs more talent to be successful.
“The most important ingredient of all is the athletes,” Pursley said. “The ones that are there now have potential to be a lot better, but we need to get more talent and athletes on board.”
Pursley vowed to get the top swimmers in the country, who may not have considered Alabama otherwise, on the phone and commit to visiting.
However, the problem with getting kids on campus is that the older Alabama Aquatic Center (opened in 1981) doesn’t exactly stack up to some of the other sleeker swim centers around the country.
“I’m hoping for new facilities,” Pursley said. “As far as what we need to get the job done in preparation for peak performance, it’s adequate. We’re a little disadvantaged because it doesn’t have the appeal to the recruits, the attraction that more modern, impressive facilities do, and that’s significant.”
Though he hasn’t been promised new facilities, Pursley did say that he’s been assured there is something in the works.
“I know there’s one in the pipeline, but I can’t tell you when it’s going to become a reality,” he said.
Pursley has other advantages on the recruiting front though, like his Olympic prowess, for example.
Before becoming Great Britain’s coach, Pursley spent 14 years as director of the United States national team. He said his fondest Olympic memory was the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, when the U.S. out-medaled the rivaled Aussies 33-18, 14-5 in gold.
Those types of experiences will attract kids to Alabama, he says.
“I remember back when I was a high school swimmer looking at schools,” he said. “The thing I looked at first was coaches and not just swimming coaches, if I’m honest. I went to Alabama because of [Paul] Bear Bryant and the football program even though I was a swimmer.”
That is still the case with many athletes, which bodes in Bama’s favor as the athletic program is coming off four national championships in the 2011-12 school year in football, gymnastics, women’s golf and softball.
But again, before Pursley dives into all things Crimson Tide, he has the British National Team to attend to.
Even though he says the “U.S. would have to roll over and play dead” to not be on top of the medal count and that Australia will probably finish in the No. 2 slot, he feels Great Britain finishing third is “not an unrealistic goal to strive for” and that this will be “the best Olympics that British swimming has ever seen.”
Before signing off the teleconference with a “Roll Tide,” Pursley emphasized how excited he is to return to his old stomping grounds.
“I hope this will be my last coaching job,” he said. “It’s where I started out—as a grad student under [Don] Gambril in his first year—and to finish where I started out would be a dream come true.
“The campus has moved forward in a lot of ways, but it’s still the campus I remember in a lot of ways. It stays with you forever. I feel real privileged.”
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