Two weeks have passed since the abrupt retirement of beloved UVA swimming and diving coach Mark Bernardino, and a successor is already in place. But for the University’s swimming diaspora, which includes some of the sport’s top international athletes, a lot of questions remain unanswered—and they’ll likely stay that way, thanks to an apparent nondisclosure agreement between Bernardino and his former employers.
On July 1—the first day NCAA coaches are allowed to begin formal recruiting—UVA Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage released a statement saying Bernardino was stepping down, effective immediately. The release included a brief statement from the coach, who called it “a difficult day filled with mixed emotions,” but offered no explanation for his departure.
Bernardino was the longest-tenured coach in UVA history, and one of the most successful. He took his teams to more Atlantic Coast Conference victories than any other ACC aquatics coach, and has sent at least one swimmer to every Olympic games since 1996.
His sudden exit shocked and mystified his former swimmers, many of whom rallied online to demand answers. In a sport that is both insular and isolating, your coach is the head of your family and your biggest ally, they said—and for hundreds of athletes since the ’70s, Mark Bernardino has exemplified both those things.
Bill Ripol was a freshman swimmer in 1986, the first year a Bernardino team won an ACC championship. Like a lot of other former swimmers, he talks about Bernardino’s departure as if it were a death.
“The right word was devastated,” Ripol said. “It didn’t seem to fit.” They believe the man they knew would never have abandoned the program without an explanation unless he’d been forced to do so.
Matt McLean agreed. The 25-year-old freestyle Olympic gold medalist was a star during what turned out to be some of Bernardino’s final years at UVA. The retirement came two weeks before McLean heads to the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, where he’s expected to be a standout.
McLean is one of the few recent alumni who has spoken with Bernardino since the retirement announcement—his former coach is still running his practices—and while he said he doesn’t know any details, he and others believe that’s because Bernardino is under a contractual agreement not to say anything. It’s a conclusion supported by documents obtained by the Washington Post last week, which show Bernardino agreed not to speak negatively about the University in return for his full $104,000 annual salary and benefits through March 31, 2015. “And Mark isn’t the type of person who would put his name on something and then ignore his word, regardless of the circumstances,” McLean said.
So what happened? Ripol said the alumni hope a sit-down with UVA President Teresa Sullivan, who knows a thing or two about backlash in the wake of the removal of a well-liked leader, will offer some transparency. They’re not afraid of what they’ll learn.
“If we were worried about that, it wouldn’t have made sense to continue to push as we did,” Ripol said. “We still want to find out the answers.”
But UVA has refused that request, and nine days after the first press release announcing Bernardino’s departure came another heralding the arrival of Augie Busch.
Busch, 37, comes to Virginia from the University of Houston, where he’s coached the women’s swimming and diving teams for two years. Before that, he spent eight highly successful seasons as an assistant coach and recruiter at the University of Arizona under his father, Frank Busch, current director of the USA Swimming National Team.
The swift appointment appears to have checked the cries of many alumni, who had flocked to a Facebook page created by married former UVA swimmers Bo and Megan Greenwood in support of Bernardino.
“Even if Mark had produced teams and student-athletes that were half as successful as we all were, it would be disgraceful for a respected institution like the University to turn its back on a man who has devoted his entire career and being to its betterment for so long,” read the page’s initial post.
But when Busch’s hire was announced days later, the alumni dialed back the rhetoric. They still have concerns, they said in a post on July 10, but their primary concern was supporting the team.
Maintaining that alumni support is crucial, said Joel Shinofield, executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, which Bernardino led as president from 2009-2011. Shinofield called Bernardino a close friend, “and in my mind, one of the best ever in the sport.” The U.S. swimming community is abuzz over the abrupt retirement, he said.
“The key to success in any college program is stability and longevity,” he said. “Mark raised so much money for that program, and for the athletic department. Those connections to the alumni—that’s what sustains Olympic sports. They’re not given a wide-open budget.”
McLean says the connection goes much deeper than money, and it’s not going away. He believes Bernardino’s legacy is solid, and so is the future of the team. “I think as much as Mark has done for the program, the University, and everyone—I just don’t see that being something that people will forget anytime soon.”