There is a different vibe on the pool deck at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center these days.
The Arizona men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams are working much harder, having more fun and enjoying the results.
The men’s team is 1-1 and the women are 3-1 heading into the Texas Invitational in Austin, which started Wednesday and runs through Saturday.
While the team is focused on times to quality for the NCAA championships in March, rather than their win-loss records, the source of their turnaround is directly related to Augie Busch, signing on as head coach in July.
If his name sounds familiar, it should. Busch has strong ties to Tucson.
An Arizona alum, he was an UA assistant coach from 2003-11, helping the men’s and women’s teams to national championships in 2008. He started his career as an assistant coach at Hillenbrand Aquatics club team, now Ford Aquatics. He was the head coach for the swim team at Salpointe Catholic.
His father is Frank Busch, who coached at Arizona for 22 seasons and is in the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Most recently, he was USA Swimming’s National Team Director and coached the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams. His father is “Mr. Swimming” at UA.
For the past four seasons, Busch was head coach of the men’s and women’s teams at Virginia. He led the Cavalier women to three ACC championships and posted two fifth-place finishes at the NCAA championships, the best finishes in program history. Busch was named the ACC Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year three times.
At a recent practice, a short one that ran only two hours, Busch sat in a pool deck chair watching his group of sprinters, as they swam laps in the diving pool. While his assistant coaches passed out sheets with the day’s training on it, Busch barked out his orders.
Assistant coach Jesse Stipek, the lone holdover from last year’s coaching staff, said that sometimes Busch passes out training sheets; it all depends where they are in the season.
In addition, the swimmers are working harder than in the past and adapted to more intense training sessions right away.
“It’s phenomenal,” Stipek said. “This is the healthiest the culture has been. The swimmers are the happiest they ever been on the pool deck.
Augie changed everything that needed to be changed. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had (as a coach). Part of it is just getting the team to believe how good they are and setting expectations.
“Augie is great on building relationships and that is important especially to millennials who want to feel a part of it. He met with everyone on the team one-on-one when he got here, just getting to know them as people.”
In a few short months, Busch has also had a significant impact on Stipek. A swimmer at Wisconsin, Stipek has served as a graduate assistant coach while earning a master’s and now working on his Ph.D. at Arizona.
“This is my third head coaching change since I’ve been here,” he said. “I was getting stagnant. Augie helps me with creativity. He is so brilliant and perceptive.
“You can name a drill and he improves it. It’s astounding to watch.
“What’s so awesome is his history, and he brings that pride of UA. His pride that ‘we built this’ and now it’s more that he’s proud to be an underdog. It’s his passion and breathing life into this program. For me it’s unbelievable. I walk on the deck and look at the record book; I could tell you every record on the Board and who Augie’s coached. I am so blessed and lucky that Augie has given me this shot. I do pinch myself that I get to wake up every day and do this.”
The UA swimmers Busch coached include Albert Subirats of Venezuela and Jake Tapp of Canada, both Olympians. At Virginia, he worked with Leah Smith (Olympic gold medalist and four-time NCAA freestyle winner) and Courtney Bartholomew (four-time NCAA runner-up in the backstroke).
Busch gave his sprinters their final task of the day: the power power or power brick. It’s a resistance drill; filling a bucket that sits outside the pool with water, putting a belt on and swimming for various lengths in the pool, such as a 10-meter burst.
Even after these athletes swam rounds and rounds of laps with and without their bag of tools including fins, kick boards, hand paddles and snorkels, they seemed excited for this drill.
According to Busch they do a lot of resistance training and the sprinters love it. Not exactly what you’d expect, but then no one could have predicted how positively they would have responded to all the changes. It’s gone much better than any of the coaches could have scripted.
“My perspective is that the kids have adjusted extremely well,” said assistant coach and former UA swimmer and Olympian Beth Botsford. “It appears they were ready for a change and this is the change they wanted.
“The fact that three of five coaches on staff were part of this program in the past. Corey (Chitwood) and Augie were here when they were the ultimate national champions. I was here and part of some of the greatest teams. The swimmers see we are so invested. This is sacred ground. They pick up how much we love it here and they see our passion. Everyone has a deep connection to UA and for Augie it’s not just a coaching job.”
Tucson and the UA do have a special place in Busch’s heart. It is home, and he always knew that if this position was open he would go for it.
“It’s so nice to be back,” said Busch. “There is something to be said about fit and emotional attachment that makes you want to work harder. It felt surreal for a long time, to be sitting in my dad’s office. I love this program and it means everything to my family. I take heart to do right by it; now, to be the caretaker of it is pretty awesome.”
When Busch took the job, his brother, Sam, a member of the 2008 national championship team and most recently an assistant coach under his brother at Virginia, was slated to come back to Arizona.
That all changed when Sam was offered the head coaching job at TCU. Not having his brother on staff has actually turned out to be good for UA’s culture.
“I was happy for him,” Busch said. “Yet, when parents have a good relationship and kids see that, they learn from that. When the team sees this with Jesse, Corey, Beth, and Clif (Robbins), the trickle affect is comforting for them. You’d think every staff is like that, but it’s not.
“There is whispering that undermines them at times. With Sam not coming here is the best thing for both of us. With siblings there are no boundaries. It’s good without Sam here and it’s important that we separated.”
The Wildcats will see the Horned Frogs at Texas this week, but the brothers aren’t competing against each other just yet.
“Sam is trying to put his own fingerprint on the culture there,” said Busch. “His team has a lot less talent and have never had much relevance. They will under Sam and he will recruit his tail off for talent. I hope they get some finals qualifiers at Texas and don’t get swallowed.”
These days when Sam and Augie talk it’s about sports in general, including their favorite teams the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals. They don’t talk too much about swimming. Instead, Augie saves that for his dad.
“My dad, his mastery was team building and culture, working hard for each other,” said Busch. “I’m a stickler for a good, respectful culture. I am a big believer that if you have a good competitive culture, the most important thing is a great work ethic. When unselfishness is the order of the day, so many positive things come from it.
“Being considerate and respectful always and pushing it. That’s when individuals do things they never dreamed of.”
And just how far does he think this team of individuals on the UA swimming team can go?
“The sky is the limit over time,” he said. “If it’s been done before why not again? Why can’t we win the title?”
One of the accomplishments Busch is most proud of at Virginia was creating a culture of respect between the men and women on the team. When he took over the program, the culture was “misogynist and male-dominated.”
“How men talk to and around women is important. I don’t tolerate disrespect. I took a hard line with the men (at Virginia). (Recently) since the rash of allegations have come out I do speak a lot about respect and just what being a gentlemen is.”