The geography of American swimming underwent a startling, seismic shift Friday when Bob Bowman became the new coach at Arizona State University.
Bowman is best known as Michael Phelps' coach since childhood, though he has developed other internationally elite swimmers as well. Other than a stint at Michigan prior to the 2008 Olympics, the Bowman-Phelps tandem has done its work at North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Phelps' hometown.
Now, after the startling press conference sight of Bowman flashing the ASU pitchfork Friday afternoon while wearing a maroon-and-gold tie, that will change. Bowman is headed to Tempe to put some juice into a historically underachieving college program, and Phelps – winner of a record 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold – will come along to make Arizona State his training base heading into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Bowman said he plans to be in Tempe full-time in August. Attempts to reach Phelps Friday for comment were unsuccessful.
It would be a bold change of long-established routine 14 months out of the U.S. Olympic Trials. But the 29-year-old Phelps, who had his first competitive swims in months last week in Mesa, Ariz., (after a USA Swimming suspension for a second DUI), has been inseparable from Bowman.
Also considered likely to join Bowman is women's freestyle standout Allison Schmitt, a North Baltimore swimmer who has won six Olympic medals – five of them in 2012, and three of those gold. Phelps and Schmitt have been close friends and training partners for many years.
This was another splashy hire by Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, who has not been hesitant to shake up the school's status quo since being hired in January 2014. Last month Anderson fired longtime basketball coach Herb Sendek and replaced him with Buffalo's Bobby Hurley, a golden name in college basketball history. He previously had hired baseball coach Tracy Smith away from Indiana after leading the Hoosiers to the NCAA tournament, and lured Zeke Jones away from USA Wrestling to head the Sun Devils' program in that sport.
Anderson also green-lighted the start of a varsity ice hockey program at Arizona State, scheduled to debut in 2015-16.
Now he has replaced the fired Dorsey Tierney-Walker with one of the biggest international figures in the sport. Bowman-coached swimmers have set 43 world records and more than 50 American records. He has served as U.S. assistant coach in the 2004, '08 and '12 Olympics, and has been the head men's coach or an assistant for the U.S. team in seven FINA World Championships.
"Today marks a seminal moment in the Sun Devil Swimming program," Anderson said in a statement released by the university. "Bob is an icon in this sport and one of the most respected coaches in the industry. Under Bob's guidance we will compete for individual, conference and national titles, produce All-Americans and Olympians, and create the most expansive developmental swim program in all of collegiate sports."
Arizona State had dropped men's swimming and wrestling in 2008. The sports were reintroduced, but the swimming program had remained underfunded. That assuredly will change under Bowman, who would not have taken the job otherwise.
"I wanted to be at a place where we could build something special," Bowman said in his introductory press conference Friday. "Everything I could want in a school is here."
Arizona State's program has been dwarfed on the West Coast by California, Stanford, USC and in-state rival Arizona. Given the number of powerhouse club teams in Arizona and California, Bowman should have little trouble recruiting a new caliber of swimmer to Tempe.
Bowman previously coached collegiately at Michigan, from 2005-08. Phelps also moved with him to train there, but as a professional was ineligible to swim collegiately for the Wolverines. Bowman was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2007 and '08. After the Beijing Olympics, in which Phelps won a record eight gold medals, the tandem moved back to Baltimore.
Now the tandem is aiming to make its fifth (and assuredly final) Olympics together from a completely different locale. It's a stunning move at an intriguing time, but don't bet against it working out.