By Jeff Shearer
If a successful head football coach in the Big Ten left to become an assistant in the SEC, media outlets across the country would lead with the news.
In swimming and diving, the reach may not be as vast, but the impact on the programs certainly is.
That's what John Hargis did nearly three years ago when he left Penn State after five seasons to come home to Auburn.
Hargis, an Olympic gold medalist and member of Auburn's first men's NCAA Championship team in 1997, returned to the Plains in 2013 amid unprecedented turmoil at Penn State.
"Penn State's a wonderful place. I had kids born up there. My in-laws still live there. Wonderful university. Wonderful athletic department. We were going through some extremely tough times," Hargis says.
In 2012, Penn State's football program landed on NCAA probation.
"It made it extremely difficult to recruit the types of people we wanted in our program," Hargis says. "The shadow, the cloud, the constant PR, the constant negativity that was going on around that environment made it extremely tough.
"We had these huge plans for facility improvement, facility enhancement. Things that the university needed. That obviously when all this happened, plans changed. So that made my job even that much more difficult," he says.
So when Auburn head coach Brett Hawke offered his former Tigers teammate an opportunity to be Auburn's associate head coach, the decision was easy.
"Being able to come back to where I swam, what I would consider home. And being able to work with athletes, and work within an athletic department that shares those values, shares those visions, to work with a head coach like Brett," Hargis says. "A guy that I've known for 20-plus years, and we were great friends and teammates then, and we remain great friends, it was just too much to say, `No,' to.
"Take all the factors that were going on at Penn State. Take all of the factors that were going on at Auburn, with everything that goes on at this place. Everything that's provided to these kids from facilities, which we had a hard time with up north, that we don't have a hard time with down here. It made the transition in my mind pretty simple."
Hargis and Hawke are teaming up just like they did in the pool in 1997, when Auburn earned the first of 13 national championship banners, eight for the men's program and five for the women's.
"I think we work great together," Hargis says. "I think we both want the same thing. We work tirelessly on those things. I think we've got a great staff now that we can do some special things."
Before Hargis won a national championship, he won Olympic gold. At the Atlanta Games in '96, he was part of the USA's gold-medal winning 400 medley relay team.
Two decades later, his most vivid memories occurred out of the water.
"When people ask, 'What do you remember?' the one thing I don't remember is the actual performances. I don't remember those at all. What I remember are the people. The conversations. The hanging out in the village. Going to closing ceremonies. I even remember the ushers and sitting in Turner Field before opening ceremonies in our opening ceremonies outfit, and it's a hundred-something degrees out there, just sitting in the sun baking for three hours and talking to the people around us," he says. "Talking to the groups from other sports in front of us, just waiting for our turn to walk into that stadium. Those are the things I remember.
"That's really what I would like to tell people who are in that situation. 'Get everything you can obviously out of your performances.' But, in 20 years, that's not what you're going to remember. You're going to remember who you sat with and had lunch with and got to talk to," Hargis says. "I remember sitting down and talking to Toni Kukoc, who kids today probably don't know who that is. But he played with the Chicago Bulls and that was unbelievable to me to be able to sit down and have a conversation with Toni Kukoc."
Now, Hargis and Hawke are hoping to form their own Dream Team in the James Martin Aquatics Center.
"We as an entire staff from Brett down, we all excelled at the highest level of our sport. Brett was an Olympian, I was an Olympian, Ozzie (Quevedo) was an Olympian, Tyler (McGill) was an Olympian. To be able to try to give those experiences to those athletes is rewarding. To try to take that and mold those kids and hopefully allow them to reach those levels that we were able to, is kind of the goal that we have. So I think we've got some special times ahead of us," Hargis says.
"Ultimately, it's working with young people, and it's molding them. And it's trying to make them the best men and women they can possibly be in all facets of life. Not just swimming," he says.
To help them get there, Hargis relies on a discussion he had with his older teammates all those years ago, when John, an uncertain freshman, wondered if he would fit in and make an impact.
"And those guys looking at me and saying, `You don't have a choice. You are going to be an impact.' That made such an impact on me. I've never once forgotten that conversation," Hargis says. "It's now from a coaching standpoint: how can I look at these young people and basically say the same thing?
"It's not, `Can you?' It's, `You will.' And then it's our job as a coaching staff to make them believe that they can. So it's a different way to look at it, but I think the same lesson I was taught as a freshman still holds true today."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer