It's Just a Number
Bernardino celebrates 30 years at the helm of swimming programs
By Katharine Palmer, Athletics Media Relations
He was given a chance. It turned out to be his passion.
This season, Virginia’s Mark Bernardino is celebrating his 30th year as the Cavaliers’ head swimming coach. Although, celebrating may not be the best way to phrase it. Bernardino doesn’t care about milestones. He cares about his student-athletes, his program. He cares about making young people become better students, better athletes and better citizens.
When Bernardino was named the interim coach in August 1978 he coached his first swimmer who went on to earn All-America honors. Now, that list has grown to more than 100.
Bernardino says his coaching career started because he was in the right place at the right time. After graduating from UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce, the Philadelphia native took a job in the field of industry.
“I fully intended to be involved in industry of some form or another,” he said. “That’s what I started my career in. I was performing well but there was this competitive streak in me. I was really missing competing. I was competing in my job because I was in the sales field but there was a physical need that wasn’t being met.”
So Bernardino came back as a graduate assistant under his former coach, Ron Good, and was paid $1,000 a year to work with the swimmers and help motivate them.
“It was never with the intent that it was going to be my life-long career,” Bernardino said of coming back to be a GA to his alma mater. “But it was fascinating doing it every single day, learning from Coach Good and learning from the student-athletes. I think the best teachers that I have are the athletes that I coach. They in many ways helped me to become better at my job.”
Bernardino was hired on an interim basis when Good resigned his post in late summer. Since nobody was going to take a job in August, Bernardino became the person the administration turned to. Then-athletics director Gene Corrigan asked Bernardino to stay on for a year, and at the end of the season the two of them would evaluate where the program stood. Now, 30 years later, Bernardino is still going strong.
When he took over the program, Bernardino’s first goal was to coach somebody to the NCAA Championship meet.
“That happened rather quickly,” Bernardino said. “Then I wanted to coach somebody to score at the NCAA meet, and that happened. Then I wanted to coach somebody to win an NCAA championship, and that happened. And then I wanted to coach an Olympian, a championship team for both genders, a top-10 team for both genders, and all of that happened.”
When Bernardino was being recruited out of high school, he never thought seriously about leaving the Philadelphia area. That is until his father, who was a World War II veteran, suggested taking a trip to UVa.
“My father went to a war college at Washington & Lee before they shipped him overseas,” Bernardino said. “He said: You know, I remember when I was down there, a bunch of us took a trip over to the University of Virginia, it’s a gorgeous campus, let’s go visit it. So we took a father-son weekend. I fell in love with the campus.”
Bernardino completed his swimming career at UVa with six school records. He also qualified for three NCAA Championship meets, the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials and was named the 1974 Virginia Male Athlete of the Year.
Though the history and tradition of the University remain just as strong as it was when Bernardino attended as an undergraduate, the athletics department at UVa has come a long way.
“Winning matters now,” Bernardino said. “When I first came here, winning wasn’t important. The opportunity to participate was important. People didn’t care whether you finished first or last. You were a student first, and as an athlete, you had the opportunity to pursue excellence to whatever level you personally desired. Now winning is paramount, and the lessons one learns from winning are important.”
Bernardino’s athletic scholarship at Virginia was similar to what would today be a work-study job. He lived above Memorial Gymnasium with other student-athletes, and it was their job to unlock the building every morning and close it up every night. They cleaned out locker rooms and swept the floors before going to bed.
“Now we do things differently at Virginia,” Bernardino said. “We try to make it the best athletic experience as well as the best academic experience. When I was here, it was just about having an athletic experience.”
Bernardino truly loves coming to work every day. Each day presents new challenges and no two days are ever the same.
“I love putting forth the best energy I have to the young people in this program,” Bernardino said. “They give their heart and soul to me every day. For me to give them anything less would be completely unfair. Knowing that you have a group of 50 people that come in prepared, motivated, hungry and ready to work, that keeps me going. It’s not even a challenge it’s what I do with passion and all the love I have in my heart.”
Over the years, all the All-Americans (240 individual selections), the handful of Olympians (seven, including two gold medalists), the ACC championships (15), still do not compare to Bernardino’s best memories of the past three decades: the people.
“I want to produce good people,” Bernardino said. “People who when they leave here, are awesome young men and awesome young women. They go on to the next phases of their lives and they lead, contribute, become wonderful parents and community members. Those are the best memories.”