By Michael E. Miller
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"Sam Freas is an amazing person, and you can take that positively, you can take that negatively," says Brad Glenn, a childhood friend of Freas who left a swimwear contract with the Hall of Fame largely because of disagreements with Freas over a mail-order business. "There are probably some people who think he's the best used car salesman ever put on Earth."
Freas did sell cars, by the way, while studying at Iowa. In one section of his 1995 book "Sprinting," he tells of an exchange with one of his first recruits at Arkansas. The skeptical swimmer asked why he should compete for Freas, who had never developed a sprinter. "I told him the absolute truth: that I had destroyed every sprinter I had ever coached," Freas wrote, "but while selling cars I figured it out and promised I wouldn't screw up any more."
There must have been something to that. He arrived in Arkansas in 1978 and quickly turned a hangdog program into one of the nation's finest, largely through deft promotion. He trucked swimmers to a nearby lake to break obscure U.S. records (like the women's four-mile), enlisted the school's pep band and ragtime musicians to play at meets, held contests for fraternities, gave away shirts. The coach became known locally as the P.T. Barnum of college swimming. He also garnered coaching accolades and clout. He lobbied and got a new university facility that in 1984 hosted Eastern bloc teams. An East German swimmer defected. Then-governor Bill Clinton attended the meet. So did then-Fort Lauderdale swim team coach Jack Nelson.
After seven years at Arkansas, Freas bounced to Louisiana State University in 1985 and repeated much of the same success: converting slackers into team swimmers, team swimmers into All-Americans. In 1986 and 1988, he snared Southeastern Conference coach of the year honors. Freas spent a year as athletic director at Kenyon College, then the Hall of Fame called for him in 1989. The move came with a salary cut, but it also meant leaving small-town Ohio to live in Fort Lauderdale, and upholding the Hall of Fame's mission of advancing aquatics worldwide.
"My kids turned out terrific because of Fort Lauderdale," he says. "Ironically, because they all swam for Jack Nelson. They're productive, happy people."
Since his hire, he says he has drummed up $400,000 a year from donors; arranged teaching missions to India, Oman, Canada, and other distant points; secured money for a library; and, until 2000, enjoyed healthy relations with the city.
During the last 20 years, Freas has had formidable success, both in coaching and administration. But he's also moved a lot, and both oversold and overreached at times. His hype has alienated some and, perhaps, taught him an important lesson: moving an entire institution is tougher than moving your family.
"I honestly think when he went [to South Florida], his intentions were honorable," says Glenn, Freas' old friend. "But there were too many things that happened in a way that nobody would have thought... I just hope Fort Lauderdale, the Hall of Fame, and Sam -- I hope there's some way everybody can come out of this pretty good, or at least not destroyed."
One of the baddest hurricanes on record sucker-punched Broward County in 1926, killing an estimated 325 people and prompting Fort Lauderdale's mayor to declare martial law. It also paved the way for the city to embrace swimming as a salve. Commodore Auylen Harcourt Brook, an Englishman given to grandiose promotions of Fort Lauderdale until he died in 1940 on his 74th birthday while trying to stand on his head, was an early advocate of installing a concrete pond to revitalize the area. The Fort Lauderdale Sentinel supported the idea of a bond issue, and on June 28, 1927, proclaimed: "With such a bath house, our excellent beach, now notably popular, will become far more popular and a genuine attraction in drawing visitors to this city, both summer and winter." The paper also referred to the projected cost: "The proper site SHOULD NOT and MUST NOT cost the princely sum of $90,000 nor near that amount." Money has always been an object.
Within a year, the city plunked down $135,000 for a beachside pool that could be filled with seawater and glittered with a Spanish-Moorish exterior fit for a drug lord's summer home. The announcement for the pool's dedication meet on January 29, 1928, touted "A Sanitary Pool on A Safe Beach." It became the practice site for such swimmers as Katherine Rawls, whom the Associated Press voted the world's best female athlete in 1937. Beginning in 1935, the complex hosted the Swim Forum, a huge, twice-annual gathering of college athletes that helped establish Fort Lauderdale as a spring break mecca. Jack Nelson swam at the so-called Casino pool and began coaching there in the 1950s.
In the early 1960s, the city made a bid to the Amateur Athletic Union to be the site of a national swimming hall of fame. The AAU awarded the site to Fort Lauderdale over Louisville and Houston because of the built-in tourist trade, and because construction of a swell new pool was already progressing next to the Casino site.
With $100,000 in city bond money for each, the Hall of Fame and aquatic complex opened in 1965. The jovial tone of the place was set at the pool's opening, when Ted Williams yanked an 80-pound test fishing line in a tug of war against three collegiate swimmers. Two former silver screen Tarzans, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, were among the first inductees. Founding executive director Buck Dawson had to cancel a proposed all-dog swim meet because some coaches thought it would degrade the Hall of Fame, and city officials didn't want to expose humans to pools tainted with dog piss.