Swimming, at its core, is an individual sport. There is big money to be made for the best in the sport, and that money doesn't come from winning team championships.
That's what makes what David Marsh has done at Auburn so remarkable.
Auburn really doesn't fit the profile of a school where a championship swimming program could be built. The state of Alabama produces very few world-class swimmers, departing senior Margaret Hoelzer being an exception. There are no lottery scholarships in Alabama. As in other equivalency sports, that gives a big advantage to the states that do have them.
Yet, Marsh won his eighth national championship last week. That's more than any coach in any sport in the history of the state of Alabama. He's done it by getting swimmers to happily put aside their individual identities for the good of the team.
Auburn's men won just two individual titles last week, but they were the ones who leaped into the pool to celebrate a national championship. It says a lot about Marsh's program that, a week earlier, the women were extremely disappointed because they finished second.
David Marsh was one of the first people to stop and talk with Slater after he was introduced as Auburn's new baseball coach last year.
Marsh's impact doesn't stop in the pool. Auburn swimmers also succeed in the classroom and make a positive impact in the community. They proudly carry the Auburn banner wherever they go. They are, in every sense of the word, student-athletes.
"I'm not anything special," Marsh says. "I wasn't a fabulous student. I wasn't a fabulous swimmer. I have come to understand that God has a special plan for me. I'm sure somehow or other God routed me to coaching. The best skills I have come out in coaching."
Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, still considered the greatest swimmer in Auburn history, begs to differ. Gaines says Marsh, his former Auburn teammate, is indeed special.
"You saw that leadership in him when we went to school together," Gaines says. "I didn't know he was going to be the greatest coach in Auburn history, but I knew he was going to be a great leader one day. He obviously proved me right. He was a great teammate and a great friend. Having him as a teammate was one of the keys to my success."
Regardless of the sport, any coach will tell you that, as difficult as it is to get to the top, staying there can be even more difficult. Marsh has managed to do that, and there is no end in sight.
While Marsh continues to make history, a newer and younger Auburn coach is making quite an impression of his own.
Tom Slater has Auburn's baseball team playing with fire and determination that is truly fun to watch. This team isn't as talented as many in the SEC or many in Auburn's past. Yet, the Tigers went to Alex Box Stadium and took two of three from LSU over the weekend. They've won three of their last four games, all over teams ranked in the top five.
The Tigers have taken on the personality of their hard-nosed, hard-driving coach. Slater has a terrific combination of toughness, compassion and fierce loyalty. The harder he pushes his players, the more they seem to love him. Auburn has no more than a handful of players who could crack LSU's starting lineup, but when games were on the line Friday and Sunday, the Tigers won because they were tougher. They believed they would win and they did.
Slater explains his approach to baseball and, really, to life in my book, The Auburn Experience: The Traditions and Heroes of Auburn Athletics.
"To me, toughness isn't whether you can win a fight," Slater says. "Toughness is going to work every day and working hard at what you do, no matter what it is. My biggest thing with players is that, if you want to get better, you need to work. If you want to be a better hitter, work on hitting. If you want to be a better fielder, work on fielding. When you struggle, don't give in and quit. Just keep working.
"I think the players that have played for me – at least this is what they've told me – like to play for me because they know I'm going to spend time with them. They know I'm going to push them, but even if they struggle, I'm not going to bury them."
Slater coaches the game the way he played it, with passion and determination. His words are sometimes hard, but his heart is never hard.
"Anybody who has ever played this game knows it's not easy," Slater says. "You can't just start burying guys because they don't perform on a given day. I like to be around the guys and work with them and spend time with them. I guess that's where the kinship and bond develops."
And that's why Auburn baseball is in good hands.