It’s not the fault of the Cal men’s swim team that it comes in so low on this list. After winning NCAA championships in 2011 and 2012, the Bears finished second at the NCAAs in March, a finish that felt disappointing only because the team has done so much in recent years to raise the bar.
But in spite of last year’s slip from the pinnacle of college swimming, the men’s swim team has cemented its status as one of the few elite teams in the sport. It’s a label that few teams at Cal can boast.
It’s one thing to have a good season. It’s another thing altogether to make such a habit of winning that second place is utterly insufficient.
Cal’s most recent NCAA bling outshines even the back-to-back titles Cal nabbed in 1979 and 1980. The Bears have finished fourth or higher at NCAAs each of the past six years, and they’ve finished in the top two each of the last four. If the 2011 championship put the Bears back on the map, the 2012 championship ensured Cal would never sneak up on its opponents ever again.
The architect of this recent success has been coach David Durden, who came to Cal after a four-year stint as an Auburn assistant in which its men’s and women’s teams won three NCAA titles apiece. After Durden joined Cal in 2007, the Bears improved each year — from fourth to second to back-to-back firsts — until last year’s dip.
So with the Bears firmly embedded in the upper echelon of college swimming, the only question is how often they’ll reach the tippy top.
Last year’s squad can take solace in ending Stanford’s 31-year streak as conference champions, but Durden’s seasons are geared so much for NCAAs that every other result is effectively irrelevant. The only true measure of Cal’s success is its place on the leaderboard at NCAAs.
So which Cal swim team is better: the men’s or the women’s? Though the men lack a surefire superstar akin to Olympians Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma, they boast arguably the deepest squad in the country. The loss of Tom Shields next year will hurt, but there’s enough talent in the pipeline — including two of the country’s top 10 recruits — to ensure the Bears won’t fall much further than they already have. The men are just as poised for a title run in 2014 as they were a year ago.
Even further down the line, a proposed new aquatics center could be another boon to the program. Though construction is pending the UC Regents’ approval of the project, the multimillion dollar facility would be a massive upgrade over the cramped Spieker Aquatics Complex.
If Durden’s past is any indicator of his future, the Bears could be in a position to win NCAA titles for decades to come. But if last year’s second-place finish was a sign of things to come, the next few years could leave a lot to be desired.