Willis Casey’s river of talent found a source in the North

December 19, 2011
By Chris Saunders
Willis Casey. Photograph courtesy of NCSU Libraries Special Collections.

Willis Casey. Photograph courtesy of NCSU Libraries Special Collections.

We  profiled John Calvert ’71 for the upcoming winter issue of  NC State magazine that should be in your homes in early January. He was an ACC champion swimmer here in the 1960s and a part of Willis Casey’s storied swimming dynasty at NC State. But Calvert, a Philadelphia native, was just one in a powerful pipeline of talent from the North that Casey brought to Raleigh.

Ed Spencer ’64 was one of the first in that lineage. A Philadelphia swimmer who excelled at the butterfly, he arrived on campus in 1959.  By that time, he says Casey had established a lot of experience working with champion swimmers and knowing how to make them tick. Casey approached his swimmers with an easy manner.  “He wasn’t the kind of guy that screamed at you or pounded his fist on the starting block,” Spencer says. “He never broke the relationship by scorning [swimmers] or insulting them or making them feel less of a person. So many times coaches burn bridges and they can never get that relationship back.”

Philadelphia was a great area for swimming with strong club programs at the time, and Spencer says he stayed tuned into that community when he’d go back home during the summers and holidays. One visit he ran into Pat Gavaghan ’67, who was considering Kansas at the time. Spencer told him to give State a look. Gavaghan came, won multiple ACC championships and stayed on to coach with Casey as an assistant.

But one of Gavaghan’s strongest contributions was becoming Casey’s connection to the North.  “I recruited eight to 10 guys from the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas,” he says. “Willis Casey had one of the top 10 programs every year. We created a pipeline of talent from Paterson, N.J., to Philadelphia.”

Since Gavaghan was from the area, he always knew who the best swimmers were and would set his sights on recruiting them for Casey. One he targeted was a 6-foot-7, 190-pound swimmer from Paterson, N.J., who was “one of the great physical specimens I’d ever seen.” And the recruitment of future Olympic gold medalist Steve Rerych ’69 began. (Read a 1967 profile of Rerych in Sports Illustrated here.)

But it wasn’t until a visit that Rerych was ready to commit. “I’ll tell you what convinced me,” he remembers. “My dad and I flew down to Raleigh. It was in springtime. In Jersey it’s spring and still snowing. We came down for a spring weekend and it was just gorgeous.” He says that his father and Casey then went to a local restaurant and mapped out the strategy to bring him here.

Calvert, Gavaghan and Rerych all say that Casey took care of his swimmers. Given his role as assistant athletics director, he gave them gigs selling programs at football and basketball games. “Steve Rerych and I went to the same church,” says Dr. Larry Lykins ’68, a swimmer on the team during that era from Georgia. “We’d pool the money we’d make on Saturday and go to church on Sunday and then go out and blow it on a lunch buffet after church.”

But Casey’s loyalty was accompanied by a zero-tolerance policy for nonsense. He was particularly wary of the influence of his native California swimmers on other members on the team when it came to one extracurricular activity. Rerych says at one point the California guys got a lot of the team into skateboarding. “We got to going down a hill one time,” says Rerych, who says their exploits were often met with wrecks.  “It looked like we had road rash. He was very sincere. He said the next time he saw us on a skateboard, ‘You’re off scholarship.’ ”

The guys from the North are just a part of Willis Casey’s legacy at NC State. The Wolfpack won 11 ACC titles under him and were consistently a top 15 national program. As athletics director, a position he held from 1969 to 1986, he hired Lou Holtz, Jim Valvano and Kay Yow.

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