Coach Rich Morris has a history of starting swim programs, including at Rollins, and developing top-notch swimming talent.
(Photo by Scott Cook) Rollins College swim coach Rich Morris’ legacy will be his ability to create great swim programs from scratch.
In 1983 he interviewed for two jobs: the first was for the position of head coach and aquatics director at Goucher College in Baltimore; the second was to become an assistant coach at the University of Georgia. He faced a major decision: chase the opportunity to build his own swim program or benefit from working at a larger school.
His self-described independent streak led him to Goucher—and, eventually, Rollins. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the water and in the water and under the water by myself,” says Morris, pronouncing the word “wud-der,” the accent a result of those days in Baltimore. “I prefer doing things single-handed. I don’t think I would’ve made a good assistant coach.”
His first job at Goucher was restarting the women’s swim team, which hadn’t done well under part-time coaches and disbanded for a year. Two years later, the Gophers swim team became the first in school history to win an athletic title.
The success didn’t surprise Joan Salmon, then-Goucher athletic director. “I knew from the minute I began to speak with him I would recommend to the college to hire him,” she says. “After the first five minutes, I didn’t have to ask any more questions.”
Morris’ next task was harder: starting a men’s swim program at a women’s school.
Goucher became co-ed in 1986—a choice, Morris says, that alumni and students didn’t like—and the athletic department asked him to help lead the transition. The student ratio the first year was 1,000 women to 30 men, three of whom had swum competitively before.
“I just interviewed all 30 of them and found eight I could make into swimmers,” Morris says. “That was tough. The cross-country runners I made distance swimmers. I taught the football players to swim butterfly. Anybody that walked funny became a breaststroker.”
One of his swimmers that year was Jon Soderberg ’90, who wanted to start a swim team at Rollins his freshman year but couldn’t. He transferred after hearing about Goucher’s new program but couldn’t stop talking about his former school.
“He told me that first year, ‘Coach, you got to see this school. You’ll love this school,’ ” Morris says. “He loved Rollins. That’s what planted it in the back of my mind.”
After three more years of 36-hour round trips to Florida for winter training, Morris’ wife, Lisa, said he should just look for jobs there. But that was easier said than done.
“[She was] right,” Morris says. “I had to start a team from scratch.”
(Photo by Scott Cook) Stand on the deck of the Alfond Swimming Pool, just outside of Morris’ office, and you can see where the first intercollegiate swim meet in Florida occurred.
No, not the pool. Lake Virginia.
In April 1922, Rollins beat the University of Florida, 32 to 18. Following that win, Rollins regularly competed against the Gators, Clemson University, and the University of Miami, as well as Sunshine State Conference opponents Florida Southern College and the University of Tampa, before swimming became an intramural sport and later a club sport.
In 1990, then-Rollins athletic director Gordie Howell hired Morris. Howell wanted Morris to build a swim team at Rollins from scratch, as he had done at Goucher.
But there was just one problem.
“It was not part of the administration’s plan for Rollins,” Howell says. “But it was my plan and Rich’s plan. We needed to work quietly to expose the new opportunity of swimming at Rollins.”
Howell hired Morris to teach in the physical education department, and Morris’ background allowed the department to begin several new courses. After two years, Morris received the go-ahead on swimming.
“That was Gordie’s support entirely,” he says. “Gordie was scrambling for me, which was really nice.”
After three more seasons at the club level, men’s and women’s swimming became varsity sports for the 1995–96 academic year. Morris had successfully started another program from scratch.
Since the program’s inception, the Tars have improved each year. The men’s oldest team record was set in 2005, the women’s oldest in 2002. His swimmers set 15 team records last season.
Kamel Tejeda ’11 became the first Tar to qualify for the NCAA Division II championships. Audrey Kula ’16 finished fifth last year in the 200-yard butterfly.
“Every year, we work harder than the year before. I’ve always had great athletes who wanted to work hard,” Morris says.
He also credits his wife of 33 years, Lisa, for helping him succeed during his time at Rollins. In fact, she has earned the nickname “Mrs. Coach” for her dedication to the team.
The only question is how much longer 58-year-old Morris will keep going.
He still teaches and looks forward to the first day of practice. The excitement of close dual meets motivates him through the NCAA’s longest season.
“I love winning really close dual meets so much that I even enjoy losing really close ones, which is weird,” Morris says. “When it’s really close and the competition is tight and the team is clicking, doing what they’re supposed to do and everybody’s excited, that’s what it’s about.”
While swimming at Temple University in Philadelphia, he never imagined he’d become a professor and coach. But a knee injury his senior year led to his first experience as a coach, though he still thought he’d sail for a living.
Morris began sailing at the age of 4 and built a 14-foot boat from scratch at age 12. After a few years as a self-described boat bum, he took the path that brought him to Rollins.
“The only thing about sailing is there’s not a lot of money unless you get that one job being somebody else’s captain,” says Morris, who coached sailing at Rollins for three years as well. “My little independent streak got in there. I didn’t want to wear a uniform and work for somebody delivering boats. That didn’t excite me too much.”
Coaching at Rollins, however, allows him to somewhat hold onto his sailing background. Rollins’ Tars mascot comes from British sailors who crewed ships centuries ago and used tar to waterproof their clothing.
At practice, Morris will sometimes ask the team, “Who are we?” and the team shouts, “Tars!” He’ll then ask, “And what do we do?” and they respond, “Take over the world!”
Morris had an opportunity to become the head coach at the College of Charleston a few years ago but decided against it. The fact that his son, Nate, had graduated from Rollins and his daughter, Ashley, was a Rollins student made him realize that Winter Park was home.
Also, he couldn’t leave what he had built. “I really wrestled with that,” Morris says. “I think there’s a challenge there too, when you take somebody else’s program. I like it being mine. Win or lose, this has been my program.”