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 during his current stint with the Crimson Tide. In the 2014-15 academic year, just his second back in Tuscaloosa, he 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 "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."
The Tide also enjoyed a standout season in the classroom during the 2013-14 academic year. After turning in the highest team grade point average in the nation during the fall of 2013 the women's team was third during the spring semester with a 3.65. The Tide checked in at No. 25 on the men's list. The Alabama men, 12th at the 2014 NCAA Championships and 25th by team grade point average, were one of just four teams, including Stanford, Duke and Michigan, that finished in the top-25 both in the pool and in the classroom.
"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 made in the pool this year," Pursley said.
One thing that Pursley has learned over the years is that the secret to success in any endeavor is to surround yourself with the best people you can. 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 and Alabama NCAA champion Jonty Skinner, who has developed into one of the top sports science coaches in the world, and Pat Greenwell, the most decorated diving coach in Southeastern Conference history. The staff also includes James Barber, Lisa Ebeling, Bradley Manning and Will Leonhart.
"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 his return to a campus that is enjoying both unprecedented growth and success in all areas. Enrollment has grown to a school-record 36,152 in the fall of 2014 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. That run of national championships continued in 2012-13 with football earning its third BCS title in four years while men's golf won its first of two back-to-back NCAA Championships, giving the Tide nine national championships in the past five years.
"It is a great honor and privilege to return to my alma mater," Pursley said. "I could not be more impressed with the commitment of the University of Alabama to the pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics, and 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. It was during this time that 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.
Following his time in Louisville, Pursley became head coach of the Cincinnati Marlins and led them to their first three national championship titles. Eleven swimmers on his 1980 championship team accounted for 28 top-25 world rankings in individual events and eight Marlin relays were ranked among the top 25 in the world in that same year. 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 Pursley's career, his 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 of the AIS athletes who had trained under Pursley (four men and two women) accounted for half of Australia's medals in the 1984 Olympic Games. Only one of those Olympians was ranked among the top 20 in the world in 1983. After the 1984 Olympic Games, Pursley began a three year term as head coach of the Olympian Swim Club in Edmonton, Alberta, where his team progressed from fifth to first in provincial championship competition.
He was appointed the first USA Swimming National Team Director in 1989 and 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.
Pursley returned to the deck in 2003 as the head coach of the Brophy East Swim Team in Phoenix Ariz., before becoming the head coach of British Swimming in 2008. 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 joins him on the Alabama staff as an assistant coach, while J.J. is a sophomore on the 2014-15 men's team.