This is a story about Shaka Smart’s school, and about building a winner in an unexpected place. But it’s not about VCU.
This is about the making and breaking of an unfathomable winning streak. But it’s not about UConn.
This is about David v. Goliath in a riveting down-to-the-last-second championship battle. But it’s not about Butler.
If you like your drama high and your coaching clutch and your athletes gutsy – if you like your madness in March -- this is the story for you.
But it’s not about basketball.
We begin with Shaka Smart’s school. Not Virginia Commonwealth. Smart went to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He turned down Harvard and Yale to play point guard there. Kenyon is where Smart’s career started and that’s where this story starts.
In 1976, a 26-year-old coach named Jim Steen took over the swim team at Kenyon. He was a bit of a paradox -- slightly scattered in his daily life but laser-focused at the pool. He’d be five or 10 minutes late for an appointment but obsessed with every second of every swimmer’s lap. His hope was to win a national title at the Division III school, which had never been done before.
Four years after Steen arrived, in 1980, it happened. Kenyon won a national swim championship – its first in any sport. It was kind of a big deal at the rural school of 1,600, but the rest of the sporting world was more interested in events like the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid.
The next year, while the sports world marveled at Larry Bird, Steen won another title at Kenyon, thanks in part to a demon freestyler named Gregg Parini, who was the school’s first-ever individual sprint champion.
Steen and Parini won a third national title in 1982. Then Parini graduated and Steen kept winning, year after year after year. While the world learned the names of swimmers like Janet Evans, Greg Louganis, Lenny Krayzelberg, Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps, Kenyon kept going. The Lords won it all in the year of the ’84 Olympics, the ’88 Olympics, the ’92 Olympics, the ’96 Olympics, the ’00 Olympics, the ’04 Olympics, and the ’08 Olympics. They won 17 straight women’s titles and 31 straight men’s titles. That’s right: 31 straight titles. No other team in NCAA history – at any level -- has ever won more than 13 straight.
Put another way: The median age of Americans is now 35, meaning half of Americans alive today have no memory of the last year Kenyon did not win the national title, in 1979.
This year, 2011, looked like more of the same.
For the better part of a generation, Kenyon’s bridesmaid in swimming has been Denison, another small liberal arts school near Columbus. The Big Red put together 26 straight top 10 finishes, but finished second to Kenyon nationally seven times since 1987. Last year, Kenyon beat its rival in the championship meet by 400 points – a total rout in swimming. “I thought there’s no way we’re going to close 400 points in one year,” says Denison’s coach of 24 years, who also happens to be Gregg Parini – the same guy from Kenyon’s first title team in 1980.
Still, Parini told his swimmers this season the motto would be “This is our year to be remembered forever.” That was Parini – the quintessential sprinter – sure of himself to the point of being a bit brash. Or, as he says, “perpetually hopeful.” It worked: Denison entered the final night of the championship meet last Saturday knowing that this would go down in history as the closest swimming final in the history of the NCAA.
The meet only got tenser as the night went on. The last event of the season would be the 400-freestyle relay. And swimming the anchor leg would be a freshman. His name is Spencer Fronk.
Denison swimmers on the deck put towels over their heads because they were too afraid to watch. They had seen this movie before and in the end, Kenyon always won. And because the first three swimmers on the relay team were worried about scratching, they got mediocre starts and fell behind. Fronk, the freshman, had to anchor a third-place finish at least, or it would be another year of the Lords. It was, in Parini’s words, “the longest three minutes of my life.”
With only 25 yards left, Fronk was sitting in fourth and Denison was destined for yet another national runner-up. “I was just beside Emory,” Fronk says. “I knew I had to beat the guy from Emory.”
With less than 15 yards to go, Fronk slipped into third. Barely. The race would come down to the length of a hand, or less. And the championship meet, usually decided by dozens or hundreds of points, would be decided by just one.
Fronk touched. He poked his head out of the water and spun toward the clock, ripping his goggles and cap off.
And then, in Parini’s words, “It looked like a bomb went off underneath our bench.”
Denison won the national title by three-tenths of a second. Decades of dominance ended in the blink of an eye. Parini’s mind flooded with a generation of memories – from the time he won for the legendary coach to all the times he couldn’t beat the man.
“I’ve been watching Kenyon go up to that podium for 31 years,” he thought. “How in the heck did we do it?”
In the week since, the reality of the accomplishment has hit. Denison swimmers have been congratulated on campus by teachers. Fronk is a mini-celebrity. “It was one of the best feelings in the world,” he says. “We’re all going to be remembered forever.”
Parini is “too tired to enjoy it.” He was 19 years old when he helped start the streak. Now he’s ended it at age 50. This week he’s thought a lot about Steen, his mentor, and how amazing the streak really was.
“I’ve got real love and respect for Kenyon, its team, its coach, its legacy,” he says. “I’ve been dealing with this for more than half my life.” There were times when Parini thought he would never take that last step up to the top of the podium. An alum chided him every year about how he refused to die until Denison beat Kenyon. This week he got a note from the man that read, “I’m digging the grave!”
Jim Steen got home to a flooded house. His roof sprung a leak over the weekend. It was appropriate. He says the hard part was not losing the streak, but simply losing – and by such a small margin at that.
Steen says he never used the word “streak” in all his years of coaching. The streak was something for others to discuss; his team would discuss doing better than the year before.
“That’s the only way to do it,” he says, “One stroke at a time. When you attempt to live up to a narrative in your mind and not enjoy the moment, then things change.”
But still. Steen was 26 when he arrived on campus, and now he’s 62. His career will be defined by the streak. No matter what Shaka Smart does – and Steen does remember watching him play at Kenyon – Steen will be the most successful coach in Kenyon College history by a long shot. He will always have a claim as one of the best coaches in NCAA history, whether he wants it or not.
And well, to be honest, he doesn’t.
Kenyon and Denison aren’t schools that cancel classes when a team wins a title. Nobody leaves early for the pros. No boosters offer “money handshakes.” No coaches do American Express commercials. The only “next level” anyone speaks about is graduate school. So this really isn’t of the magnitude of a Chris Webber time out or a Gordon Hayward halfcourt miss. “In D-III, you get right back on the saddle,” Steen says. “But the horse they ride is academics.” Asked if he ever thought about leaving for a bigger job, Steen says, “I thought about it, but not too hard. This is a great place to raise a family, to live a life.”
His life will be a bit different now. The old man will be the hunter again, for the first time since he was a young man. And a phrase that every other coach in America has had to embrace over the last 31 years will once again be his to use:
Wait 'til next year.
-- Eric Adelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.