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March 25, 2009
Beyond their shared status as driven, creative and highly successful coaches of pride-inducing Golden Bear women's teams, Teri McKeever and Joanne Boyle have one important thing in common. In the past three years each committed Cal coach was confronted with a full-throttle poaching attempt by her respective alma mater?and, against all logic, turned down her perceived dream job to remain in Berkeley.
McKeever, a former USC swimming standout whose late father and uncle were Trojan football legends, was being wooed back to take over the L.A. school's entire swimming program, men included, in the spring of 2006. Had she accepted the job, she'd have enjoyed more money and power and would have been closer to her mother and many of her nine siblings and their children.
It seemed like a no-brainer, and in the end, for McKeever, it was. The intuitive and forward-thinking teacher stayed at Cal, because she felt like it was where she belonged.
A year later Boyle, a former Duke standout, was the school's first choice to succeed one of her coaching mentors, Gail Goestenkors, who had left to take the Texas job. Boyle had been in Berkeley only two years, guiding a long-moribund program to a pair of NCAA tournament berths, and was being offered a lot more cash to come home to the Durham area, where her mother lives, and take over a perennial Top 10 program.
Again, it appeared to be an easy and obvious decision, but Boyle didn't view it the way the rest of us might. After coming to the conclusion that she hadn't yet done what she'd set out to do?make Berkeley the Duke of the West, and then some?Boyle stayed, too.
What I said to her then, as I'd said to McKeever a year earlier, was this: You're crazier than I thought. And, whether you've admitted this to yourself or not, you're a Bear for life now.
Think about this for a moment: I revere Cal largely because I fell in love with the school as an undergraduate, and I've continued to bleed blue and gold as a means of holding onto that precious experience, one which my wife and many of our closest friends don't believe we could have enjoyed anywhere else.
McKeever and Boyle, on the other hand, were hired guns who arrived in Berkeley viewing the job as a sweet career move and stayed because, in the course of coaching the student-athletes at their disposal and wooing some talented newcomers to replenish the ranks, they became enamored with and emotionally connected to the culture.
These weren't wide-eyed young adults on an excellent adventure; these were wise women who'd been around and realized they'd landed at the greatest university on God's earth.
That's a whole other kind of love, and it, too, is powerful and everlasting.
I bring up McKeever and Boyle now because, over the past week, they've validated those decisions to stay and honored their school by taking their respective programs to unprecedented heights.
Last weekend in College Station, Tex., McKeever's Bears shocked the aquatics world by winning the school's first NCAA swimming and diving championship. In a sport in which true upsets happen about as frequently as warm-water swells at Northern California beaches, this resourceful coach took a team ranked ninth in the country going into the meet and guided McKeever's Overachievers to victory.
In researching my 2005 book Golden Girl - How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenge Conventional Wisdom and Became America's Olympic Champion, I spent a year with McKeever's program and saw first-hand how her alternative approach to preparing her swimmers was in the process of challenging the sport's predominant philosophies.
I devoted chapters to McKeever's mindset, but the gist of it was that she favored a mentality that valued quality, cutting-edge and race-relevant training over robotic yardage accumulation. She also managed to take competitors in what is inherently an individual sport and get them to buy into a team concept, with the most tangible manifestations showing up in Cal's success in relays and charged dual meets.
When McKeever's 2007 team finished third at the NCAAs, the best showing in the program's history, I figured it was as high as the program could go. Because McKeever is brutally honest with recruits and refuses to say negative things about competing programs, and because she places such a high value upon academics (her swimmers had the school's highest GPA among sports teams this past fall), she consistently loses out on ultra-talented swimmers. And because Cal's diving facilities are substandard and the school has struggled to attract even mid-level talent in that area, it's always an uphill battle against well-rounded swimming powers like Stanford, Arizona and SEC powerhouses Georgia and Auburn.
This season, which included dual-meet defeats to the Cardinal, Wildcats and even the Trojans, seemed to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for Cal, despite the presence of star senior Dana Vollmer. And even Vollmer, for all her talent, was a chancy proposition: An Olympic gold medalist in 2004, Vollmer had failed to qualify for the '08 team and seemed a prime candidate for tanking her senior season and disappearing from elite swimming circles forevermore.
Instead, McKeever managed to inspire a level of performance from Vollmer that the swimmer never realized was possible ? and Vollmer's leadership helped put Cal in position to pull off the impossible. As the meet's second night of competition concluded last Friday, with the Bears taking a slight overall lead, the texts, emails and instant messages being exchanged by everyone in the greater Cal swimming community intensified, with "Can you (expletive) believe this?" the most common refrain.
It was an exciting and emotional development for everyone concerned, and a lot of that had to do with a feeling that McKeever, more than anyone we knew, deserved to be in this position and appreciated it in that blue-and-gold obsessed way we all know and love.
Thanks to the magic of live stats and streaming Internet video, many of us got to experience the spectacular Saturday night climax in real time. As Cal pulled back ahead by a single point heading into the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, what struck me was that each and every one of the former swimmers with whom I was communicating, from an 11-time Olympic medalist to a recent graduate who joked that "I wouldn't be allowed on this team; I'm too slow" weighed in with virtual certainty that the meet was about to be won.
One email said simply, "It's a relay. That's what we do. There's no way Teri McKeever will finish anything less than first in a relay with a championship on the line. She just won't let it happen."
In classic McKeever Overachiever fashion, the relay's first leg was swum not by Sara Isakovic, the fabulous freshman who won a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle for Slovenia at last summer's Olympics, but by Hannah Wilson, a Hong Kong native who one noted swimming coach described as a "little pear-shaped 5-6 English girl with tiny hands and tiny feet. Only Teri McKeever could turn her into a sprinting champion."
Earlier Wilson had finished third in the 100-meter butterfly, a stroke she began swimming seriously a little more than year earlier. Again, only McKeever could've pulled that out of her.
After Wilson's opening leg came freshman Liv Jensen, regarded as an afterthought to Cal's recruiting class after attending high school in Palo Alto, of all places; she was followed by sophomore Erica Dagg, whose early Cal career had been so unimpressive that, as recently as Feb. 1, McKeever was trying to figure out a way to get her to College Station as an alternate to reward her for being so tuned into the process.
It may have defied logic, but three legs into the biggest relay in school history, Cal had a nice lead. Then Vollmer dove into the water, and it was like watching Jimi Hendrix go at it with a bunch of bluegrass musicians in a guitar-solo standoff.
Vollmer, in the moment and of the moment, swam a sizzling 46.48 relay split, one of the fastest in history, to set off a giddy celebration that ended with McKeever in the pool and a whole lot of us around the country ? around the world, actually - staring open-mouthed at our laptops through watery eyes.
One of the people who texted me that night was Boyle, whose team had just won its first-round NCAA game against Fresno State in Los Angeles.
"Great moment for Teri," Boyle wrote.
Two nights later, Boyle's Golden Bears played what was probably their best game in her four-year tenure, dismantling fifth-seeded Virginia by a 99-73 score to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. Whether or not the Bears shock the world Sunday in Trenton, N.J. against top-ranked Connecticut, an undefeated juggernaut that has beaten ranked opponents by an average of more than 30 points this season, Boyle is well on her way to joining McKeever at the top.
Next year the Bears welcome seven student athletes that, collectively, have been judged as the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Yet it should be noted that of the current crop of stars, several of whom Boyle did not recruit, the greatest player of all is senior forward Ashley Walker, who was not supposed to be all that when she arrived in Berkeley.
Could Walker have become as great as she has had Boyle bolted for Duke two years ago? Possibly, but my gut feeling is that she's as fortunate as the rest of us that the lure of returning to Durham proved resistible to this special Bear For Life. It turned out Boyle, like McKeever, came to the conclusion that she already had her dream job.
For that, Golden Bears can be eternally grateful.
Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. He also contributes his love of Cal sports to BearTerritory, and as the most respected sportswriter in the Cal community, we are proud to feature his work. Feel free to send him a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast by clicking here.