Marsh was excited and confident as looked at the list on the baseball coach's door. He knew his name would be there on the list of players who had made the team. In tryouts, he'd had the second-fastest time from home to first. He'd hit the ball hard on four of five pitches thrown to him.
But as Marsh looked down the list once, then again, he felt sick. His name wasn't there. He had not made the team. Little did that baseball coach know that his decision would send Marsh on a journey that would lead him to become one of great college coaches of our time.
Marsh laughs as he remembers. If he couldn't play baseball, he decided, he'd give swimming a try.
"My brother was swimming at the time," Marsh says. "There seemed to be great parties. The best thing was that the boys and girls swam together. I liked that because I was about six feet and 130 pounds. Girls didn't give me a second look."
And so it began.
"I was an okay athlete, but I was a terrible swimmer," Marsh says. "I kind of swam everything. I wasn't any good, so it didn't matter."
Marsh worked on his swimming and became an All-American at Auburn and today he stands at the top of the swimming world. In 17 seasons at Auburn, he built a dynasty that might never be equaled. When Auburn's men destroyed the field last weekend to win their fifth consecutive national championship, they gave Marsh his 12th overall. He is the only coach ever to lead men and women to national championships in the same season, and he's done it four times.
Marsh will leave his alma mater this week to become head elite coach and CEO at the U.S. Olympic Committee Center of Excellence in Charlotte, N.C. But first there'll be a celebration at Toomer's Corner on Tuesday night. It'll be for the men and women who won championships again this season, but it'll also be for Marsh. How could it not be?
Auburn has a proud history of accomplishment in many sports, but only in swimming can it claim to be clearly the nation's best. The swimmers have done the winning, but Marsh is where it all began.
Even Marsh can't really explain it.
"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."
The Auburn men's team celebrates a fifth consecutive national championship on Saturday night in Minneapolis.
When Marsh arrived as coach in 1991, it seemed Auburn's swim program's best days were behind it. Long gone were the likes of Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines. Marsh went to work. The James E. Martin Aquatic Center was built in 1993 and the program took off.
It was a long shot for Marsh to have even showed up at Auburn in the first place. He'd been an All-American at Indian River Junior College, but his options were limited. When Eddie Reese left as Auburn swim coach and went to Texas, Richard Quick took over.
"They had a little bit of scholarship money and I got a little bit of a scholarship," Marsh says. "I never made a recruiting visit to Auburn."
Quick would go on from Auburn to win 12 women's national championships of his own at Texas and at Stanford. He retired after last season, but he's returning now to replace the man he signed at Auburn all those years ago.
Marsh joined a team that included Gaines, David McCagg and Bill Forrester, all world champions. Gaines would become an Olympic gold medalist. Marsh more than held his own, winning the SEC championship in the backstroke in 1980.
"We had a great team, a fun team," Marsh says. "Five of the guys I swam with were in my wedding 15 years later. That's the kind of relationship we had."
But even that team, with all those superstars, couldn't win a national championship.
Marsh stayed at Auburn until 1985 as an assistant. After he coached club teams for the next five years, his school called.
More than anything else, Marsh has proved masterful at convincing competitors in what is essentially an individual sport to put team first. Auburn hasn't always had the best individuals, but in recent years, it has almost always had the best team.
Marsh has accomplished all there is to accomplish in college swimming. He's won the most coveted championships. When he leaves, he says he'll take Auburn with him in his heart.
"It's the Auburn Family thing," Marsh says. "That's what we sell recruits and that's what they experience when they come here."
Editor's Note: Auburn's men's and women's 2007 national championship teams will be honored at 6 p.m. Tuesday with a celebration at Toomer's Corner.