Marshall: Tigers Rule the Pool As a "Team "

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn's perch atop the world of collegiate swimming.

They sang a loud, off-key version of the Auburn fight song. They mugged for ESPN's camera. They hugged. They gave high fives. Finally, they took the traditional leap into the pool.

Saturday night, Auburn's swimmers and divers knew they had done what they came to the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center to do. They had won yet another national championship.

Four seniors graduated with one of the more remarkable records in the history of college athletics. They won four Southeastern Conference championships, four national championships and every dual meet in which they competed. They did what the women had done a week earlier in Athens.

There's something magical about winning a national championship, and it doesn't matter what the sport is. It doesn't matter if it's Texas beating Southern California to win the football championship or Auburn winning the swimming championship. Being the best is hard. It is very hard.

To do it four consecutive times is more than hard. It takes a rare level of focus, determination and dedication.

Auburn coach David Marsh left Atlanta Saturday night with his 10th national championship. The women have won four of the last five. The men also won in 1997 and 1999. Marsh shrugs off credit, saying it should go to the assistants and to the athletes.

But assistant coaches have come and gone. Swimmers have come and gone. The one constant in the remarkable story that is Auburn swimming is Marsh.

He hasn't done it by recruiting the nation's most dominant individuals, though he's had some of those. Other than Steve Segerlin, who won the platform diving championship, the Tigers didn't have anyone finish higher than No. 3 in Saturday night's finals. In three days of competition, no Auburn swimmer won an individual title. They overwhelmed second-place Arizona with superior numbers. Though Arizona led by five points going into the final day, the issue was essentially decided after Saturday morning's preliminaries.

George Bovell celebrates with a teammate earlier this week in Atlanta.

Different dynamics are at work in swimming than in traditional team sports like football, basketball and baseball. Swimmers, really, are competing against themselves more than against their opponents. A football player can make a block or cause a fumble. A basketball player can snatch a rebound from an opponent, get a steal or block a shot. Baseball is a constant test of wills between hitters and pitchers.

A swimmer can do nothing about his opponent. Florida's Ryan Lochte was going to win the 200 backstroke Saturday. He's the best in the United States if not the world. There was nothing any swimmer from Auburn or any other school could do about that.

But Marsh hasn't built the most dominant program in NCAA athletics on individuals. He's built it on teams. And that is perhaps his most remarkable accomplishment.

Tiger swimmers cheer on their teammates at the NCAA meeet in Atlanta.

Swimming, at its core, is an individual sport. But at Auburn, it is very much about team. That's why the Tigers celebrated Saturday night. That's why they have won 10 straight SEC championships. That's why the women celebrated a week earlier in Athens.

That's why Auburn is the unchallenged ruler of NCAA swimming.

It doesn't make sense, really. There is nothing about Auburn that says it should be the nation's best swimming program. Unlike most of his competition, Marsh has no state-sponsored scholarships. It is rare that a world-class swimmer comes from Alabama or even Georgia.

Yet, in different ways and with different competitors, Auburn keeps right on winning championships.

A shoulder injury made George Bovell, the star of last year's championship run, a bit player over the weekend and for much of the season. No problem. Others picked up the slack.

The psyche sheets, which detail the best performances in each event going into the NCAA meet, projected Auburn would finish fourth behind California, Stanford and Arizona. It was clear that Marsh wasn't paying a lot of attention to that.

Auburn swimmers historically are at their best when it counts the most. And they were again on a memorable night in Atlanta.

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