Of course, Franklin accumulated six Olympic golds before
enrolling at Berkeley. And winning takes more than some hidden mojo.
But with McKeever's finest adjudged recruiting class yet, her 22nd
year of coaching at Cal promises even greater success.
That hardly seems feasible given her accomplished past, which
includes three NCAA championships, three Olympic coaching positions
including head women's coach in 2012, being named Pacific-12
Conference Coach of the Year five times, and a sparkling 153-52 dual
meet record entering this swim season.
What's hard to believe is that all of her achievements nearly
didn't happen. Early on at Cal, McKeever nearly chucked it and walked
"People were saying that I only got the job three years before
because I was a woman, and that I wasn't ready," recalled McKeever.
"So I was going to get the program back into the top 10 (nationally),
then I was going to leave. I just didn't want to leave it worse than
when I found it."
McKeever's problem, she decided in the nick of time, wasn't only
the outside voices she heard, but her own inner voice.
"I was trying to be like Richard Quick (at Stanford) or Mark
Schubert at Texas, an imitation of that, and not being comfortable
with who I was," she said. "I wasn't connecting with the athletes. I
was just trying to make people happy."
But not making herself happy.
"I've done a lot of work since then on who I am, my strengths and
weaknesses," she noted. "Now I'm comfortable with who I am. When you
grow up as the oldest of 10 children, you're supposed to have all the
answers. So when you walk into a new situation, part of me said I
couldn't ask people for help, or where I could go for help.
"I was treading water."
She found that help, first from Cal baseball coach Bob Milano,
who grounded her by giving her a sense of connection on an
unconnected, spread-out campus. Then she reached out to Kathie
Wickstrand-Gahen, a Northwestern coach whose swimmers were having fun
at NCAA meets even without much success. Wickstrand-Gahen counseled
McKeever for eight years, showing her that coaching is teaching first,
"She made me like myself better," said McKeever.
Finally, by getting her own swimmers, including the likes of
Coughlin, McKeever's perspective and her job situation improved in
perfect tandem. Once her national team involvement began in 2001, this
showed her "that some of the best swimmers in the United States valued
my opinion. That gave me confidence."
Tied into that ego boost was "coming to the realization that my
job wasn't to fix people, or make make people enjoy swimming, but to
provide an environment where people can be their best." She and Cal
both benefited by that new mindset.
Besides Coughlin, McKeever has groomed Dana Vollmer, Staciana
Stits, Haley Cope, Caitlin Leverenz and Elizabeth Pelton, who as a
freshman last season was voted swimmer of the meet as Cal took second
at the NCAA Championships.
Thus McKeever has done more than stabilize Cal women's swimming;
she's elevated it into one of the nation's best programs. And with
success comes progress, i.e., a new swim complex at what is now a
parking lot across Bancroft Avenue from Edwards Stadium, the site of
Cal track and field.
"We need more water," said McKeever. "We're climbing all over each other."
Cal's other swim site, Spieker Aquatics, is congested from
sunrise to sunset, which means the juggling of practice times for both the
men's and women's swim teams, who compete now the full academic year.
The men's and women's water polo teams share pool time, too. Plus Cal
divers now must travel to Stanford twice weekly to do platform work.
Cal, Stanford and USC are the only Pac-12 schools with men's and
women's swimming and water polo. The new pool complex at Cal will relieve all
the present congestion by providing all the needed diving boards - and
access time for everybody. McKeever is encouraged by the target date for
the new pool by late next year.
McKeever, 52, is contracted to coach at Cal through 2018. She'd
like to extend that until 2020, then try something new. But she isn't
one to hurry. She waited until she was 45 before marrying.
She met her husband, Jerry Romani, now 65, through circumstance.
Their seats at a Cal football game happened to be side by side. He had
no idea who she was until he saw her go down on the field with
Coughlin for some halftime recognition following the Athens Olympics
It wasn't a whirlwind romance; they didn't even exchange names.
And just when McKeever believed she wouldn't ever find the perfect
mate, he sent her a card. When a friend advised her to stop talking
to potential suitors "like a coach," things changed. In 2007, she
married Romani, a Cal alum who has worked in the real estate division of
the City of San Francisco for 30 years.
But Romani already knew her family history, that she was the
daughter of Mike McKeever, who along with his twin brother, Marlin,
were standout USC football players who appeared on the cover of Sports
Illustrated in the late-1950s.
Which, by the way, didn't make her entrance to Berkeley any
easier. Old Blues were quick to remind her of the 1959 incident
when Mike McKeever caught Cal running back Steve Bates out of bounds
with a forearm and crushed his cheekbone. This incident created such
controversy that USC President Norman Topping was forced to issue a
public apology; otherwise Cal was prepared to break off athletic
relations with USC.
Teri McKeever, who wasn't born until two years later, never
really knew her father, who was in a coma following an automobile
accident -- he was hit by a drunk driver -- and died in 1967. But
her father's lingering memory accompanied her to Cal.
"My mother told me that Cal would find out who I was and that I
would never get the job," she said. "Two or three years after I came
here, I went to a Bear Backers event and two older gentlemen said,
'Are you going to teach them to swim dirty like your dad?' ''
Then at a Cal-USC football game a few years ago, there was a
personal foul against a Trojan, and a man sitting near Teri and her
brother shouted out "McKeever!" The man was informed about the two
people sitting in the same section, and held his tongue.
Might there be a connection between swimming and football, or
swimming and any sport, when it comes to starting a program? Is there
any difference between what Sonny Dykes is going through now on the
Cal gridiron than a swimming coach just beginning?
"By no means was the cupboard bare when I got here," said
McKeever. "But any time you have a coaching change, the (returning)
athletes didn't sign up for you. And I definitely struggled the first
two to five years, for swimming is a lifestyle."
A lifestyle like other time-consuming sports in this age of
year-round involvement in one athletic endeavor, though the sheer
numbers in swimming are smaller than football.
"To win a national title, you need three to four superstars,"
said McKeever. "But it's that supporting cast that takes you to the
next level. There are lots of names people don't know who are as
gratifying to me as Natalie and Dana, because I've walked with them on
When McKeever makes home visits, she talks about recruiting
students as well as athletes. This isn't lip service. While swimming
at USC, where she was twice an All-American, she was the school's
outstanding student-athlete in 1983. And her Cal swimmers, for the
past 21 years, earn A's and B's in the classroom -- and in the pool.
"I'm a teacher," she said, "and I feel like the pool is a classroom."
Coughlin has 12 Olympic medals, Vollmer four Olympic golds, and
that's just a sampling of Cal's swimming Olympians, dating back to
Ann Curtis' gold at London in 1948. There's no telling what Cal's
medal count will look like now with Franklin in school - and in the pool.
Or, more realistically, until McKeever retires.
Dave Newhouse, retired Oakland Tribune columnist, writes
occasionally for bearinsider.com. Read his two e-books, "Before Boxing
Lost Its Punch" and the Cal-related novel "White Lightning", on
amazon.com at $5.99 apiece.