Sept. 4, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Augie Busch is not afraid to aim high. The program that Mark Bernardino built at UVa rules ACC men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and Busch wants that to continue. He also wants his teams to peak at the NCAA championships each year.

“This is a program that warrants the focus being in March,” Busch said in his office at the Aquatic & Fitness Center.

“We’re too good of a program to not put our eggs in that basket. That’s not an easy thing. I don’t want to make that sound easy. You gotta get there before you can do anything, but I feel like I have a recipe for getting more and more people there, and then certainly I feel I have a recipe for making sure that we’re at our best at NCAAs.”

Virginia’s highest finishes at the NCAA championships are eighth for the men, in 2011, and seventh for the women, in 1988. This March the UVa women placed 18th and the men 27th at the NCAA meets.

A graduate of the University of Arizona, where his father led one of the nation’s premier swimming and diving programs, Busch raves about UVa’s tradition in the sport, its history, its academic reputation and its recruiting footprint.

“There’s absolutely nothing here that would keep us from winning an NCAA title,” he said. “We won at Arizona. There’s nothing Arizona has that we don’t have, except they have more facility space.”

Busch, 37, spent the past two seasons as head women’s coach at the University of Houston, which doesn’t have a men’s program. He expected to be back at Houston in 2013-14, but then UVa announced July 1 that Bernardino was retiring after 35 seasons as head coach at his alma mater.

Busch’s interest was piqued, and his father urged him to pursue the UVa job.

“He thought it was a special opportunity,” Busch said, “and I knew it was.”

Frank Busch had a storied coaching career at Arizona before being named USA Swimming’s national team director in 2011. Under Busch, the Wildcats regularly finished in the top 10 at the NCAA championships, and in 2008 they swept the men’s and women’s national titles.

“I know Mark very, very well,” Frank Busch said from Colorado Springs, Colo. “I got to put him on the Pan American [Games coaching] staff when I took over this job. I’ve known Mark for a long time, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he did and the way he coached and all that he’d accomplished in his career.”

Bernardino left a remarkable legacy at the University. During his tenure, the UVa men won 16 ACC championships and the women 11, and each program will try to capture a seventh straight title this season. Bernardino was named ACC coach of the year 31 times: 18 on the men’s side and 13 on the women’s.

The program’s tradition of success in the pool was not the only reason Frank Busch believed UVa would be a good place for Augie.

First, the elder Busch said, “it’s one of the best universities in the country, and the tradition there from an education standpoint is second to none.

“I’ve never been to Charlottesville, but I hear it’s an absolutely beautiful place and beautiful campus. And so when I hear something like that, I think, `Wow, this is a special place. Forget athletics. This is a special place.’ Special places draw special people, and so whether you’re an athlete or a coach or member of the faculty, you know that there are going to be people, not only great students but great professionals, that want to come and be at a place like that.

“So you match that up with the fact that Mark had done such a great job at Virginia for so many years. I said to Augie, `I think this is an amazing place, and I think this is a place that you would be very, very comfortable and probably would stay for a long, long time.’ ”

By the start of the fall semester, Augie Busch had rented an apartment, moved into his office and assembled most of his staff, and so he was able to follow something resembling a regular schedule.

Infinitely more hectic were his first couple of weeks on the job. Busch was hired July 10, nine days after the start of a critical contact period on the recruiting calendar.

“So I was scrambling to get on top of everything recruiting at that point,” Busch recalled. “That was priority No. 1. It was just a case of locking myself in a room for a week and just talking on the phone.”

Early last month, Busch announced the hiring of three assistant coaches: his youngest brother, Sam, Cory Chitwood and Clif Robbins. Busch is in the process of hiring another swimming assistant and a diving coach.

“The divers are going to feel like they are absolutely on the same level, equal to, as involved, as thought about, as the swimmers,” Busch said. “I’ve never experienced it any other way. I’m very fortunate to have been shown that model by my dad, and at Houston our diving program was top-notch.”

Sam Busch, who’s about seven-and-a-half years younger than Augie, was an assistant at Auburn for two seasons before joining his brother’s staff at UVa. A 2008 graduate of Arizona, he also has served as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater (2007-09) and at West Virginia (2009-11).

“For my money, he’s maybe the best recruiter in the country,” Augie said. “The next step is really seasoning him with all things coaching. He’s really earned a reputation as being a great lead-dog recruiter. He’s an exceptional networker. He knows everyone. He hasn’t been in the sport nearly as long as I have, and it’s very impressive the connections he’s made in a very short period of time. That’s going to be obviously his main administrative job, recruiting coordinator.”

Frank Busch said: “Sam has worked very hard to develop people skills, and that’s why I think he’s such a good recruiter, because he enjoys a person’s story. If he sat down and talked to you, he would immediately ask where you’re from, how did you get here, what was your path, because he finds that very interesting. And I think that that’s what makes someone a good recruiter, when they genuinely are interested in someone and someone’s path and someone’s life. Sam does that very, very well. He puts people at ease.”

A native of Cincinnati, Augie Busch moved west with his family when his father became Arizona’s coach in 1989. Shoulder problems ended Augie’s competitive swimming career when he was in high school, but he also excelled in basketball and volleyball.

Busch spent two years at Ohio State, where he played on the volleyball team, before returning home and transferring to Arizona. The Wildcats didn’t offer varsity men’s volleyball, and Busch decided against playing for a club team.

“Plus I needed to get some work,” he said. “So I started coaching [swimming] with the local club team, Hillenbrand Aquatics, and I was volunteering with the U of A staff at the time, just sort of really lightly.”

Coaching hooked him. Busch was head coach at Salpointe Catholic High in Tucson while volunteering with the program at Arizona. He also coached a summer-league swimming program in Tucson. In 2001, his apprenticeship served, he left to become an assistant coach on the women’s team at Arkansas. In 2003, he returned to Arizona and joined his father’s staff as an assistant.

After about a year, Frank Busch recalled, Augie “took over his own group [of swimmers] and began to pretty much take over the recruiting responsibilities, and from that point he began to develop All-Americans, and then before you knew it he had national champions.”

His son’s strengths as a coach?

“Integrity is very, very important, and loyalty is very, very important to him,” Frank Busch said. “It doesn’t matter what generation that you’re working with, those are things that people sense and people see. And he’s very, very intelligent about the sport of swimming. Probably more than anyone else on our staff, including myself, he did tremendous amounts of filming with our athletes. So he really spent a lot of time studying the sport.”

To both Augie and Sam, Frank Busch said, he gave similar advice when they expressed interest in coaching. “I told them, `You need to start at the grass-roots level. You need to start with age-group kids and learn how to break down a stroke and build it up and then work your way up to high school and then be a volunteer at a college program, and then work your way in.’

“I look at this way: I could probably have maybe pulled some strings and had them going in a different way. But if you’re going to be good at something, you need to understand the grass roots of whatever you’re trying to be good at. Most people don’t fall out of a plane on the top of the mountain. They work their way up. I really feel like the most successful people have worked their way up, and that’s the best way to go.”

Asked how closely his coaching style mirrors his father’s, Augie said, “I think we’re leaders first. Whether we know the most about the subject matter or not, I think our innate talent is, we know how to get a group of people to believe in the ideal of unselfishness, and being a part of the team is so much greater than anything that is individual.”

At Virginia, his challenge is to elevate an already successful program. That will involve changing the Cavaliers’ recruiting strategy, Busch said.

Under Bernardino, UVa became known for producing elite distance swimmers, including Fran Crippen and Matt McLean. Crippen, who died tragically in October 2010, was the ACC swimmer of the year in 2003 and ’04 and an 11-time All-American for the Wahoos. McLean was a 15-time All-American at UVa and won the NCAA title in the 500-yard freestyle in 2011. He also has won five international gold medals, including one at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Busch wants to emphasize sprints and relays as well as distance events. That, he believes, will enable the ‘Hoos to compete for NCAA titles.

“And that’s what I’ve been telling recruits,” he said. “We want to be well-rounded. We still want to kick butt in the mile and the 400 IM and the 500 free. But we want to be relay-centered. It’s the mark of a team, it’s the show of a team, it’s the pride of a team. When you start putting top-8 relays up consistently, men and women, you start to really gain ground in recruiting. And relays are double points. When you’re talking about bang for your buck, you’d have to be out of touch with reality a little bit to say, `OK, a great miler is as good as a great 100 freestyler.’ There’s three relays associated with [the sprinter]. There’s none with [the miler]. So there’s going to be a different recruiting focus.”

Bernardino’s abrupt departure in July stunned and dismayed many of his former swimmers, some of whom voiced their displeasure publicly. That doesn’t bother the Cavaliers’ new coach.

“I talked to one alumnus of program for an hour [recently],” Busch said, “and I told him what I told the others: The moment I saw the outcry or whatever you want to call it, I thought, `This is nothing but a positive. This just means that there’s a bunch of guys, bunch of women, that are really, really passionate about this program, really invested, concerned about its direction, and care a lot about it.’

“I started to envision, OK, down the road, when we get this thing really humming at NCAAs, we’re going to have fans screaming like lunatics, so passionate about the Wahoos. I think it’s great. I’ve told people this, `I know I can’t sell you completely right now, and everything takes time, but I feel like over time that my leadership will show, and I know the direction of this program is going to make you guys proud.’ ”

UVa’s first season under Busch begins Oct. 25 against Navy in Annapolis, Md.

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