The Greatest Coach You’ve Never Heard Of

When discussing the greatest SEC coaches of all-time, more often than not our thoughts turn to football. And why not? The two most prominent names that spring to mind are ones with which we’re all too familiar. The University of Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant collected 6 National and 14 SEC Championships in his career, and Nick Saban just added his 6thNational and 7thSEC Championship to his resume. But what if we look beyond the gridiron for coaching excellence? Another Crimson Tide coach, Sarah Patterson, won 6 National Championships and 8 SEC titles with her gymnastics program. The late great Pat Summitt won 8 National and 15 SEC Championships with Lady Vols’ basketball. But perhaps the greatest coach in SEC history did not coach on a field or court.

Can’t think of the answer? Here’s a clue: think about water.

David Marsh grew up outside of Miami, Florida. After being cut from his high school baseball team in the 10thgrade, he took an interest in swimming. After graduating high school, he swam at a junior college before transferring to Auburn, were he would become a 5-time All-American and the 1980 SEC Champion in the backstroke.

Upon graduating, Marsh, remaining on the Plains as an assistant coach, often made recruiting calls deep into the night, sleeping on a couch in the coaches’ office to avoid being late for 5 a.m. practices.

In 1985, Marsh chose to leave Auburn to accept the head coaching position of Atlanta’s Dynamo Swim Club. Three years later, he took over as the coach of another club, the Las Vegas Gold Swim Team, where he led ten swimmers to the 1988 Olympic Trials, including former Auburn standout Rowdy Gaines. 

After working as a coach for different club teams, Marsh decided that he wanted to dive into the college coaching waters, but found himself struggling to score interviews. At one point, for motivation, he kept a file of all the rejection letters from people who he felt had overlooked him. He was turned down by every school at which he applied, including his alma mater.

But in 1990, Auburn Athletic Director Pat Dye was in need of a new leader for his swimming programs, and Marsh, recommended by a colleague of Dye’s who remembered his hard work as an assistant, received an interview with the Tigers. Dye was impressed with Marsh’s vision and work ethic and brought him on board.

David Marsh. Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics.

Marsh took charge of a tradition-rich program on the national swimming scene that was in the doldrums. Under his guidance, the Tigers transformed into a juggernaut. In just his third year, after finishing 20thand 15ththe two prior seasons, the Tigers finished #6 in the NCAAs. The team would never again finish outside of the top 10 with Marsh as the coach. The women also proved equally successful, vaulting from #30 in Marsh’s first year to #8 in his second. The women’s team failed to finish in the top ten only four times in 17 seasons. 

The men’s team won their first national championship in 1997, and the women soon followed, collecting their first crown in 2002.

In 2003, Auburn claimed both the men’s and women’s SEC titles, becoming the first school in conference history to hold both championships simultaneously. Later that season, Marsh accomplished a feat that had previously been considered impossible: leading both his men’s and women’s teams to victory at the NCAA Championships—a first in collegiate swimming. Marsh and the Tigers went on to score another sweep in 2004; astonishingly, the team repeated the achievement in 2006 and 2007. His 2005 men’s national championship team became the first swimming and diving team to be ever honored at the White House.

David Marsh and Kim Brackin. Photo courtesy Auburn athletics.

After 17 successful seasons and a plethora of championship banners adorning the James E. Martin Aquatic Center, Marsh left Auburn, his work centering on Olympic level coaching. Marsh was an assistant coach on the men’s Olympic teams in 1996, 2000, and 2012. In 2016, he served as the head coach of the U.S. women’s team that captured 16 medals at the Rio Olympics.

During his 17 year tenure on the Plains, Marsh accumulated 12 National Championships—7 with the men’s teams, including a run of 5 straight from 2003-2007—and 5 with the women’s teams, all of which were captured during a remarkable six year span. The Tigers boasted 17 SEC Championships—13 by the men’s teams, including 11 consecutive from 1997-2007—and 4 by the women’s.

During his run at Auburn, he coached athletes to 89 individual NCAA Championships, 277 individual SEC Championships, and 1,312 All-American honors. While the head of the Tigers, he coached 49 Olympians from 19 different countries, and his swimmers tallied over 90 medals in international competition. Marsh, an 8-time national and 12-time SEC Coach of the Year, has been elected to the Auburn, the North Carolina Swimming, the Indian River Community College, and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

David Marsh had a truly remarkable career on the Plains. “As I have said hundreds of times, Auburn is the point where not only did my swimming take foothold but my manhood took foothold, my faith took foothold and my career was launched,” Marsh said.

In 2017, he returned to coaching college swimmers, taking over as coach of the University of California San Diego men’s and women’s teams.

So when someone asks, “Who is the greatest coach in the history of the SEC?” don’t forget the water. H&A

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