Mo’s Gallery on East Fort Lowell Road has an inventory of Rick DeMont paintings worth more than $100,000. “Heavy,” as DeMont would say in his familiar 1970s chatter.
DeMont paints desert landscapes, at which he is exceptional. His “First Canyon Catalinas” is available for $4,500. Mo’s lists his “Sonoran Afternoon” at $5,400. Heavy stuff.
For 25 years, DeMont has lived a dual life, painting for 20-25 hours a week and coaching many of the world’s most-skilled swimmers for another 40 or 50.
“I couldn’t live off either one individually,” he says. “So I welcomely trapped myself into doing both. I loved it.”
This idyllic lifestyle as a prominent artist and one of the NCAA’s most distinguished swimming coaches reached a breaking point in the early evening of Oct. 19. That’s when the Arizona Wildcats returned from Salt Lake City, humbled and embarrassed after losing to Utah’s off-the-grid men’s swimming program.
Even though it was the equivalent of a baseball spring training game, UA coach Eric Hansen was livid enough to order a full workout at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center.
Two days later, Hansen left the team, taking a leave of absence that expired this week.
“I really haven’t painted since,” DeMont says. “This all just fell in my lap.”
Inside college swimming, where Arizona has been a Very Big Dog for 20 years, this is the equivalent of Lute Olson mysteriously leaving his UA basketball post a few days before the season opener.
At 57, DeMont has for the first time in his career been a head coach. He doesn’t have the title yet — on Monday, UA athletic director Greg Byrne appointed DeMont the interim swimming coach — but it’s unlikely any kind of search can find a better man for the job.
“For Rick to become the head coach would be fantastic,” says Frank Busch, the man who built Arizona into one of college swimming’s Big Four programs from 1990 to 2011. “He’s really, really good.” DeMont was Busch’s co-pilot for all of those years, a compelling period during which the Wildcats won a pair of NCAA championships and generated so much success that the UA’s sports Hall of Fame took a year’s hiatus in 2013 to figure out how to process all of the All-American swimmers.
But because DeMont had such a devotion to painting, and because coaching for the father-like Busch made it all work harmoniously, DeMont never paused to pursue his own program as did fellow assistants Greg Rhodenbaugh, Missouri; Augie Busch, Virginia; and Whitney Hite, Wisconsin.
“I’ve been approached, but Tucson is my place, and I could honestly never see moving anywhere,” DeMont says. “This is all a bit crazy, but I’m enjoying it. I love the challenge.”
Maintaining Arizona’s excellence as a swimming power can’t be easy. The men’s team is ranked No. 5 and the women’s team No. 10, which is its lowest ranking in more than 15 years.
Hansen’s exit was ill-timed in that it came two weeks before recruiting letters of intent were signed. DeMont and assistant Brandy Collins Maben had been working on the Class of 2014 for a year, but the unexpected summer departure of assistant Geoff Hanson created tremors inside the program.
Instead of working with about 20 swimmers a day, DeMont now works with almost 60. Instead of going home to paint between two-a-day workouts, he does administrative and recruiting work.
If DeMont is worried, it will never show. He is from the zen/karma culture of the ’70s, low-key and resilient.
“We took a bit of a hit in recruiting, but we’ll get back,” he says. “I’m pretty well-received on pool decks around the country.”
The man his swimmers endearingly refer to as “Rocket,” a term that has followed him since his world-record-setting days of the ’70s, has discovered that he enjoys the front seat.
There will be no break-in mileage. The Wildcats swim at Cal and Stanford this weekend; the Bears and Cardinal are probably the nation’s two leading swimming programs this year.
“I know it’s been a hard time for everyone there,” says Busch, now the national team director for USA Swimming. “But with Rick, you have some clarity rather than doubt.”
DeMont isn’t new to turbulence. His mentor from his Olympic and global swimming days, Dick Jochums, the man who brought him to Arizona as a student and later hired him to be the UA’s top assistant coach, was fired 25 years ago.
Busch soon arrived from Cincinnati and asked DeMont to stay. Life continues to throw some curves his way.
“I’m a grandpa now, believe it or not,” says DeMont. His three daughters are 5, 8 and 28. His wife, Carrie, operates the DeMont Family Swim School near Marana.
In the meantime, his paint brush gathers dust.
“I’ve painted all my life, and I’ll get back to it someday,” he says. “My goal is to keep my eyes on the road and maintain this program as a national powerhouse.”