New WVU swim & diving Coach Brent MacDonald eager to get started

By John Antonik, wvusports.com

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The allure of coaching in the Big 12 and recruiting to a state-of-the-art, 50-meter pool was simply too tempting for Brent MacDonald to pass up.

MacDonald, who swam collegiately at Valparaiso, had established roots in Cincinnati as Xavier’s longtime men’s and women’s swimming coach. 

The Musketeers’ men’s program won the Big East six times during MacDonald’s 16-year head coaching tenure there, most recently in 2021, and he was named conference coach of the year five times, including once when Xavier competed in the Atlantic 10.

His wife, Krista, is a lifelong Cincinnati resident, and MacDonald’s parents also made the move to the Queen City to be closer to their son. But he was sort of spinning his wheels without a 50-meter pool to recruit elite swimmers, and a lack of funding required him to hire mostly young assistant coaches, graduate assistants and volunteers.

That meant he was doing just about everything.

Aquatic Center at Mylan Park
The WVU Aquatic Center at Mylan Park ranks among the top collegiate facilities in the country (All Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo).

“We got to a point with our resources in the Big East that it was a battle every single year, so I love this aspect (of the Big 12),” MacDonald said yesterday morning. “I love the potential here. There is a world-class facility and sometimes that’s an amazing base. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but man, it matters.”

Why it matters is because the best swimmers in the world want long-course training, which he couldn’t provide at Xavier.

West Virginia University’s new swimming facility at Mylan Park is like Disneyland when compared to most other facilities in the region.

“Without a 50-meter pool, there are some people who just immediately check off that box and say, ‘No, that’s not going to be a fit for me,'” MacDonald explained. “Our sport is certainly year-round, and there are team goals and individual goals in regards to the NCAA season, but there are also goals outside of that, and I think embracing that and finding the right athletes who want to be a part of what we’re doing with the facility we have, I think it’s going to open more doors.”

Whenever MacDonald went to watch the annual Futures meet sponsored by USA Swimming, which is comprised of the top young male and female swimmers in the country, he knew most of them would not be interested in his program because it didn’t train in a 50-meter pool.

Which meant that basically crossed off just about anyone capable of qualifying for the NCAA Championships when they were old enough to go to college.

As a coach, you can be resourceful and have the best developmental program in the world, but there is only so much one can do before genetics take over.

“When we recruit, we look for people who are going to raise the level of that training environment,” he said. “Sometimes that’s through talent and sometimes that’s through working your tail off. You want to put good people in those spaces.”

But now, when MacDonald goes to big events wearing his Flying WV and Big 12 logos, and he tells top recruits about that beautiful, 50-meter pool they can train in at Mylan Park, some of them will at least listen.

As will elite international athletes.

His men’s and women’s rosters at Xavier were made up exclusively of domestic swimmers, specifically from Ohio. The women’s team featured eight Buckeye State residents while the men boasted seven.

Neighboring states were also sprinkled in, as well as some far-off places such as Yuma, Arizona, San Antonio and Houston, Texas, Corvallis, Oregon, and Jupiter, Florida.

At WVU, MacDonald will be able to use his passport to hunt for those ambitious, open-minded swimmers who are looking to continue their development in a great, positive training environment.

That’s what Sergio Lopez once did here back in the mid-2000s when he regularly sent men’s and women’s swimmers to the NCAA Championships. Those years produced some of the best swimmers in the history of the Mountaineer program.

“Once you get one of those dominoes to fall, then you’ve kind of got a better way to spread the word,” MacDonald said of international recruiting. “In Europe, swimming can sometimes be a very small world, and it just takes one or two good experiences to get connected to others.

“International makes a lot of sense,” he continued. “Swimming is a worldwide sport, and you must find talent in a lot of different places. That has to be wide open. Having a 50-meter pool brings great value and becomes very attractive to international athletes. The way Morgantown is, I think it’s a great place to recruit folks to.”

The transfer portal is yet another means of building his roster, although MacDonald indicated that he plans to proceed carefully there.

“One of the things that seems to be going well right now is everyone that is committed before, save for one or two, is still committed now, so maybe we won’t have to do this drastic overhaul,” he noted. “The transfer portal is great, but you certainly want to know and get to the bottom of each athlete. ‘Okay, what is your reason for being in there?’ What is your reason for not being in the right situation and making sure we are a good fit.

“Coming in my first year, it can be tempting to throw a bunch of new bodies in here and figure out what sticks versus the idea of really just trying to build and look for a multi-year plan that’s going to make a whole lot of sense,” he said. “(The portal) is something we have to embrace and be prepared for, and we are going to have to act really fast to get some of those things done, but I’ve seen people transfer well into the summer, too.”

MacDonald is by no means taking over a Mountaineer program that is broken. West Virginia has managed to send at least one athlete to nationals each year since 2018, including breast stroker Mia Cheatwood earlier this spring.

Danny Berlitz qualified in the 200 and 400 individual medley for the men in 2023, and the diving program has sent multiple performers to NCAAs in recent years. 

Keep in mind, Xavier didn’t even have diving, so overseeing such a well-rounded and diverse program will be something new and exciting for MacDonald. 

The recently reconstituted Big 12 provides another job-changing challenge for MacDonald.

On the men’s side, the Big 12 is exchanging Texas for Arizona State, which won its first national championship in school history this past spring. The league now has seven men’s programs with four – Arizona State (first), Arizona (27th), BYU (35th) and Utah (36th) – placing at this year’s NCAA Championships.

Women’s swimming boasts 10 programs, and although not quite as top-heavy as the men, Arizona State (24th), Arizona (25th), Kansas (32nd), Cincinnati (38th) and Houston (40th) each placed at nationals this past spring.

MacDonald admits that’s alluring.

“An opportunity to be a part of something like that, and to bring my family into something like that, just seems pretty awesome,” he admitted. 

“There are some teams in this conference with some really deep roots and tradition, and I think West Virginia swimming has that as well,” he added. “All of this is done in a great city like Morgantown and a great facility like we have at Mylan Park.”

Since accepting Athletic Director Wren Baker’s job offer last week, the current roster and those committed to swimming here have been his top priority.

“Who is our team right now? Who do we have? I think the ones that were most in flux were the committed athletes coming to college here in a couple of months,” he explained. “They certainly have their questions, and so I want to make sure that they are taken care of. I’ve been reaching out to them the most. 

“Then, spending time with our current roster and our leadership group to figure out what do we have from a leadership standpoint? What are they used to and what do I want to see? I think you have to morph that into what fits best with the team. It’s all things related to the current roster,” he said.

While doing so, he’s also got to hire a new coaching staff that will include four full-time assistants and a diving coach. For MacDonald, that’s another exciting aspect to this new endeavor. 

“I’m trying to find the right people to come in and coach and work really well together as a staff. I love the idea of diverse backgrounds and people who are going to come in with different ideas to allow us to create a really fun groupthink in how we attack all 65 athletes or so,” he explained.

Getting experienced assistants with expertise in specific areas will allow MacDonald to explore aspects of coaching that he simply didn’t have time to do while at Xavier.

“It’s funny, because I had a conversation with a commit who asked me what groups I coached,” he recalled. “I kind of chuckled because due to our assistant coaching positions and just what I felt like we needed to do, oftentimes the positions we had were sometimes people who were right out of the pool and very new to the profession. I’ve been responsible for anything and everything for years now, and to me, that’s going to be a fun one because this will allow me to really focus on some things that I may have not had time for before.

“We had some amazing people at Xavier that have spent time with me and volunteered their time, so I’ve been very, very lucky in that regard, but at the same time, I look forward to truly adding some great professional coaches in a diverse group to our staff,” he said.

The one group MacDonald admits he’s eager to work more closely with are the sprinters.

“I love the sprinters,” he said. “I think they are a misunderstood commodity in our sport, and they’re just different mentally and physically. Sometimes our sport, at the age group level, doesn’t embrace the idea that some people’s bodies are built just to sprint, and they’re not meant to be these great aerobic creatures, so I love working on ways to be creative with them. That might be a group that I choose to work with.

“I also enjoy working with the IM’ers,” he said. “There is something about swimming all four strokes and finding that balance, and those are some really fun and complex races, so I enjoy coaching them as well.”

MacDonald said he has plans to continue developing the club programs here and establishing events to showcase the swimming facility at Mylan Park. He likens it to what Ohio State has been able to do in attracting top young swimmers to its facility through the years, which has always given the Buckeyes a great recruiting advantage.

“Having something like that in your building is always a great benefit. The other positive is there are a lot of meets that can be hosted in that facility because of its size and just the infrastructure that Morgantown has,” he explained. “It’s about getting kids through the door as much as we possibly can.

“Now you are putting 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-olds in that facility in our city and on our campus and that will advance things as much as possible. The club piece certainly helps,” he said.

Down the line, he indicated his desire to involve alums as much as possible in the program, and he’s been pleased with the reception he’s already received since his hiring.

“I was getting text messages right away, and it was such a great feeling to know how supportive they are and want to be supportive,” he said. “Their goal is to make sure that West Virginia swimming is competing for Big 12 championships. I was pleasantly surprised to see this.

“I don’t know as much about the tradition and the history yet. I can look at it on paper, but the story is much greater than that,” he pointed out. “I think that’s where alums are really going to help paint that picture. I’m very excited to get that rolling here and making sure that we have some events alumni are going to be excited about coming to.”

As for his immediate plans, MacDonald said he’s spending this weekend with his wife house hunting and touring elementary schools. Their children, Carys, Teague and Everly, are ages 12, 11 and nine and because of birthday cutoffs, they will be seventh, sixth and fifth graders this fall.

MacDonald says family is a big part of his life.

“I love to have my kids around, and our teams have kind of become a family in a way so introducing my actual family to them has been very, very valuable and a big part of who we are, and I talk about them a lot,” he said. “They get to be around the pool and my son, who has done the most in sports, he’s mainly been involved in baseball and soccer.”

On Sunday, his wife will return to Cincinnati to continue tying up loose ends while MacDonald said he will remain in town and be ready to go on Monday morning.

“My passion is being on the pool deck with the athletes,” he concluded.

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