HEAD COACH DENNIS PURSLEY
After getting his start as a volunteer coach on Crimson Tide legend Don Gambril’s first Alabama staff, Dennis Pursley has gone on to one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport of swimming, a career that led him to be named one of the 25 most influential people in the history of USA Swimming in 2003.
With a career that has taken him all over the globe – including stops as the first head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport, the inaugural director of the United States National Team and most recently the head coach of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic squad – Pursley is a proven program builder who has made an immediate and significant impact on every team he has touched.
That’s why when Alabama was looking for a head coach to take its program back to the highest levels of collegiate swimming and diving, it turned to Pursley.
It didn’t take Pursley long to work his magic with the Crimson Tide. In 2014, his second year in Tuscaloosa, Pursley led Alabama to a record-shattering season that saw the men’s and women’s teams break a combined 21 school records including 19 of 36 swimming records. Both the men and the women made significant moves up the rankings at both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championships. After moving up six spots at the SEC Championships and 16 spots at the NCAA Championships, the Tide men were named the 2014 “Break-Out Team” of the year by the College Swimming & Diving Honors program.
“As a team, we are very proud of this honor,” Pursley said. “The progress we enjoyed this year was truly the result of a team effort from both staff and athletes who fully embraced the culture of excellence we are building here at Alabama.”
In 2015, his third season at Alabama’s helm, he led the Tide men to their first top-10 NCAA finish since 1994 and the Tide women to their first top-30 national finish since 2005. The Tide also continued rewriting the school record board in 2015, breaking 21 Alabama marks for the second year in a row.
Continuing its amazing run in 2016, the men posted a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, their highest finish since 1983 while the women took 28th their best finish since 2005. With 10th-place finishes in 2015 and 2017 and a sixth-place finish in 2016, Alabama’s men posted back-to-back-to-back NCAA top-10 finishes for the first time since 1981-83.
The Tide has also enjoyed standout team performances in the classroom since Pursley’s return. In 2017, for the first time in the history of the honor, one school put for student-athletes on the CoSIDA Academic All-America At-Large Team in the same year. That school was Alabama, and all four student-athletes were swimmers Luke Kaliszak, Anton McKee, Connor Oslin and Pavel Romanov. In addition, all four earned first-team honors, giving Alabama swimming and diving nearly a third of the 15-member first team. Overall, Alabama swimmers and divers have earned nine Academic All-America honors during Pursley’s tenure.
McKee also became the first UA swimmer to be named the H. Boyd McWhorter Southeastern Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2017. McKee’s honors gives Alabama the overall highest number of SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors with 11 and the most on the men’s side of the slate with six.
On the team side of the classroom, after turning in the highest grade point average in the nation during the fall of 2013, the women’s team was third during the 2014 spring semester with a 3.65. In 2015, Alabama’s women were one of just four teams that finished in the top 30 both at the NCAA Championships (29th) and by grade point average (16th) with a 3.560 team GPA. The Crimson Tide men were also in good company in 2015 as one of five teams to finish in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships and post a team grade point average better than 3.10. In 2016, Alabama was the only school to have both its men’s and women’s teams post better than a 3.35 team GPA, with the women earning a GPA of 3.65 and the men posting a 3.44. The Tide men and women were both ranked sixth by team GPA and were first and second, respectively, in the SEC.
In 2017, Alabama's men tallied a 3.43 team grade point average while the women posted a 3.46 in the spring. The men's GPA ranks them 12th nationally among NCAA Division I teams and first among SEC squads. The Crimson Tide men were also second by team grade point average among teams that finished in the top-25 at the 2017 NCAA Championships.
“Our mission at Alabama is to build a culture of excellence that will enable each of our athletes to achieve their full potential in the pool, in the classroom and in life; so we are very pleased that our academic accomplishments paralleled the progress we’ve made in the pool,” Pursley said.
One thing that Pursley has learned over the years is to surround himself with the best people possible. To that end, he has built a staff in Tuscaloosa that includes some of the best coaches in the country, including former world record holder, Alabama NCAA champion and Hall of Fame coach Jonty Skinner, the Tide’s Senior Associate Head Coach, who is one of the top sports science coaches in the world. The staff also includes associate head coach James Barber, assistant swim coaches Will Leonhart and Angie Nicolletta along with diving coach Chuck Wade.
“I’m very excited about the staff we’ve assembled here at Alabama,” Pursley said. “Everyone brings something special to the team and every one of them is dedicated to getting the absolute best out of the athletes both in the water and in the classroom.”
Pursley is energized by a campus that is enjoying both unprecedented growth and success in all areas. Enrollment has grown to a school-record 38,563 in the fall of 2017 and there are new buildings throughout campus, including the Presidential Village which includes a second student center and a new suite-style campus living community.
“There is no doubt that this is an amazing time at this University,” Pursley said. “There are great things happening everywhere you look and I’m just very proud and excited to be involved and I look forward to our program being a part of the Crimson Tide story of success.”
The excitement and success that pervades campus is especially prevalent within the athletics department. The Crimson Tide won four national team titles during the 2011-12 academic year, the most among NCAA Division I schools, including football, gymnastic, women’s golf and softball. Since that championship season, Alabama has won two more national football championships and two NCAA Men’s Golf Championships. A football title in 2009 and an NCAA gymnastics championship in 2011 gives the Tide 10 national team titles since the fall of 2009.
“I could not be more impressed with the commitment of the University of Alabama to the pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics,” Pursley said. “I truly believe that the potential of the Crimson Tide swimming and diving program is unlimited.”
The Louisville, Ky., native, who was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Hall of Fame in 2006, worked under Tide legends John Foster and Don Gambril to start his coaching career in the mid-1970s, following an Alabama career that included earning All-Southeastern Conference honors and the 1969 SEC 200 breaststroke title. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Alabama in 1972 and 1973, respectively.
Following his initial stint with the Tide, he returned to his hometown to become head coach of Lakeside Swim Club. During that time he was appointed to the coaching staff of the 1979 USA Pan American Games team. In that competition one of his swimmers, Mary T. Meagher, surprised the swimming world by establishing her first of several world records.
Meagher, who would be crowned “Madam Butterfly,” earned a place on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and went on to set world records that stood for decades.
In addition to Meagher and four others, Pursley coached Glenn Mills to a spot on the USA Olympic squad in 1980. Mills would go on to swim for the Tide, winning the NCAA 200 breaststroke title in 1983.
After placing six swimmers on the 1980 USA Olympic Team who accounted for two world records and four No. 1 world rankings, Pursley was appointed to the USA Olympic Team staff and was awarded 1980 “Coach of the Year” honors by the American Swimming Coaches Association.
During the first decade of his career, Pursley’s swimmers accounted for seven world records, 12 American Records and 20 U.S. National Championship titles as well as numerous medals in major international competitions - including the Olympic Games and the World Championships.
In 1981, Pursley was named as the first head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), where he served as head coach of the combined team for two years and the men’s team until August, 1984. Six AIS athletes who had trained under Pursley (four men and two women) accounted for half of Australia’s medals at the 1984 Olympic Games. Only one of those Olympians was ranked among the top 20 in the world in 1983.
Appointed the first USA Swimming National Team Director in 1989, Pursley was responsible for all aspects of the Team USA program. During his 14-year tenure, the medal production of the USA team skyrocketed.
The USA team finished first in the medal count in both men’s and women’s competitions in all three Olympiads of his tenure, culminating with 33 medals, including 14 gold, at the 2000 Olympics which was described by “Sports Illustrated” as the greatest team performance of all time. In recognition of his contributions, Pursley was awarded the United States Olympic Committee Chairman’s “Coaching Award” for 2000.
The Hall of Fame coach returned to the deck of the Alabama Aquatic Center after leading Great Britain to a UK-record 23 spots in the championship finals of the London Olympics in the summer of 2012.
Pursley and his wife Mary Jo have five children, Lisa, Brian, David, Steven and J.J. Lisa and David are both past members of his Alabama staff as assistant coaches, while J.J. competed for the Tide men’s team from 2014-17.