Hall in Flames

Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Colby Katz

On an objectively perfect weekday afternoon at Fort Lauderdale's Swimming Hall of Fame aquatic complex, dozens of squirming teenagers take laps in the 50-meter pool. Jack Nelson, stout as a runt pumpkin, with a mall-Santa belly and the built-in smile befitting a grandfather of 13, strides across the deck and reaches a deeply wrinkled hand into his USA Swimming polo shirt. The former coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team pulls out damp paper, like a KGB agent producing a dossier from a trench coat pocket. It's a copy of a letter from swimming demigod Mark Spitz that reads like many others Nelson has collected lately.

Spitz writes: "I have just returned from the Olympic Games and have learned that the Board of Directors of the International Swimming Hall of Fame [ISHOF] has not ... remove[d] current President and CEO, Mr. Sam Freas. Therefore, please accept this letter as a formal request to remove my name, likeness, and any memorabilia, from the Hall of Fame." That would presumably include the wax statue of Spitz on the second floor of the main museum building, and the seven faux-gold medals around its neck.

It's as though Teddy Roosevelt asked that his face be dynamited off Mount Rushmore.

"He just wanted to wait until after the Olympics," Nelson says. "That's the coup de grâce, as far as I'm concerned." Golden boy diver Greg Louganis has requested the same. So have butterfly maestros Mary T. Meagher and Melvin Stewart. And so have about 20 others, including Ron O'Brien, the eight-time Olympic diving coach who taught at the Hall of Fame pool for years and whose son, Tim O'Brien, trains divers there today. In July, John Neuberger, a revered former executive director of USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, bailed as chairman of the Hall of Fame's board. In his resignation letter, Neuberger wrote that the hall "lacks credibility within broad segments of the aquatic community, and virtually all of the unhappiness emanates from the arrogance and self-interest of Mr. Freas."

This Fort Lauderdale landmark of nearly 40 years -- which claims to host 20,000 visitors annually -- is breaking apart in the spectacular and baffling fashion unique to things beloved. Freas and sundry developers have flirted with moving the hall to Hollywood, then Pompano Beach, and now Daytona Beach. A board member inspired ire when he suggested city pool employees and coaches cost too much; they've responded by lobbying honorees to jump ship. Though Freas, a massive, voluble man who's something of a legend himself, complains of "a sleeper cell" of board members aligned against him, the group recently renewed his contract for three more years. Local pols are sniping, and pool employees are exasperated.

The Hall of Fame meltdown is largely attributable to Freas' admitted political incorrectness, ambition, hubris, and naïveté. In his effort to expand the Swimming Hall of Fame's reach, he has lost enough friends and allies that some in Fort Lauderdale can't wait for him to pack up his landmark and scram.

The sharpest and perhaps most surprising criticism of Freas comes from Nelson, who last week received a letter from the swim hall CEO's lawyers warning him against distributing "false and defamatory" statements. Nelson has spent 54 years teaching practically everyone in Broward County to swim; he coached the national team eight times, and set three world records back in the day.

"There are intelligent people who are sucked into Sam Freas' lies," Nelson said before receiving the cease and desist order from Freas. "Have you ever known a person who never told the truth? I've known one.

"He's a goofball. He's a banana bread."

A tall fellow with short hair, a frosty goatee, and rectangular glasses, Freas wedges into a booth at Tommy D's American Eatery near Fort Lauderdale Beach, whence he launches his day with a Diet Coke, coffee, and jalapeño Tabasco sauce on white toast. While talking, he often gazes out the window, past dusty fake plants and a framed, autographed photo of Dolly Parton that sits on the sill. At one point in the breakfast, a miniature roach scuttles from the wall onto the table. Freas daubs it with a napkin and continues speaking, unfazed. He's not easily upset.

Freas has long bucked orthodoxy. Born in the late 1940s in Philadelphia, where his mother taught phys-ed and coached track, he was raised a Quaker. After stints at Peekskill Military Academy and West Point for two years, he graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts. Why did he leave the military? "I had to figure, was I afraid, or was it my religious beliefs?" he says. "I still don't know."

He spent a year coaching at the State University of New York at Potsdam, then seven at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He got married, and had a kid named Sam. He gained tenure. He worked like crazy, coaching swimming, soccer, and track. "I always had very, very big teams," he says. "I wouldn't cut anybody. We'd have 80 people on the swim team, including women when women weren't allowed to swim."  

In 1976, he says, he felt God was nudging him away from coaching, so he left Allegheny for the University of Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. in Administration and Supervision in Physical Education and Athletics. He was there for a little more than a year when University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles recruited, then hired him to coach swimming.

"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.

Early forecasts were rosy. In 1966, the Miami Herald wrote: "When the shrine is complete... a fresh era of affinity between Fort Lauderdale and aquatic sports will begin." Dawson wrote in Fort Lauderdale Magazine in 1966 that the hall "will be no ordinary museum or Hall of Fame mausoleum. It will be a science fair of swimming designed to appeal to everybody...." The museum opened in 1968, the same year that the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the sport's worldwide governing body, approved it to become an international institution.

Around its 20th anniversary in 1985, a Sun-Sentinel story remarked on the hall's "bizarre mixture of lonely sports trivia and gaudy Hollywood sensationalism." A Miami Herald story that year called it "the world's wackiest sports hall of fame," owing largely to Dawson's panache. (The swim hall director did have to throttle back at times. He censored a mural by caricaturist Linzee Prescott that featured bare-chested mermaids and that accomplished swimmer Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick.) "I liked it better when we were building something," Dawson told the Herald. "From here on out, we have a future that's not as flamboyant and exciting."

He was half right. Freas maintains the Hall of Fame's mission involves more than housing trophies, and to increase its influence and income, in the mid-'90s he dabbled with the notion of opening branches overseas. Nagoya, Japan, got its hall off the ground, while a proposed museum and swimming complex in Ireland went down the tubes.

The Fort Lauderdale museum now resides in two buildings that flank the aquatic complex. The rear structure contains, among other things, the world's largest swimming trophy and the Henning Library, one of the best collections of aquatic books, periodicals, and memorabilia anywhere. There are also various medals from past Olympic games, including one that appears to be as old as Homer. "This is a copy," Freas says. "We have an original Greek Olympic medal. People don't understand: We have the finest Olympic medal collection in the world."

Problem is, only bits of the hall's holdings are on display. The building at the hall's entrance houses a gift shop and, under vaulted ceilings upstairs, a modest few displays. The exhibits on swimmers in various countries are mostly sun-faded maps and photographs mounted on wire lattices on the walls. The paint on the wall behind Yugoslavia is peeling; China consists of two photographs, one labeled. Mark Spitz's grinning wax figure -- the one that he apparently wants removed -- is missing a couple of fingertips.

Some artifacts resonate, such as Louganis' gold medal scorecard from the 1984 Olympics, and a smattering of 100-year-old Olympic medals bedecked with frayed ribbons. But the "science fair of swimming" too much resembles a science fair of middle school. Hang a left at the top of the stairs, it gets even lamer. The exhibit space evaporates after a dozen steps, because the Hall of Fame is renting about a third of the floor to a neighboring scuba diving company.

The state of the exhibits is a common gripe in the honorees' resignation letters. "It's in shambles," diving coach Ron O'Brien says.  

The not-for-profit Hall of Fame doesn't own the land beneath it. Rather, it must share the aquatic complex with the city's swim team, dive team, and beach patrol. The pools there -- two 50 meters in length, a dive well 18 feet deep, and one for little kids -- are owned and operated by Fort Lauderdale's Parks and Recreation Department. The ISHOF, like all halls of fame, is genetically designed to lose money. Thus, to keep its head above water, Fort Lauderdale's swim hall must remain popular, important, and famous despite its halfhearted displays. It also needs, ideally, government largesse.

Stu Marvin, who runs the city's aquatics programs, has a great view of the facilities from his second-story poolside office. A tall, lanky man with the build of a former swimmer, Marvin contends that the city's tight relationship with the private institution has fueled confusion.

"The responsibilities were, the city ran the pool and the Hall of Fame ran the Hall of Fame," says Marvin, gesticulating with long arms. "[Then] everybody hung their name all over everything. It's this mishmash of swim team, dive team, city, Hall of Fame. So everybody referred to it as the Hall of Fame. And therein lies some of the problem."

The swim hall and the city used to cooperate. Between 1990 and 1992, the hall helped to successfully lobby the state for two two-million-dollar grants for improvements to the pools and the museum. In 1991, the city granted the Hall of Fame rights to collect all the parking fees at the shared lot (parking there costs a buck an hour now, a bounty totaling about $70,000 a year).

Both the hall and Fort Lauderdale would like a new pool. The 40-year-old facility doesn't conform to the modern depth requirement of seven feet for Olympic-caliber competitions. The pool did host the 2002 nationals, but only because USA Swimming granted an exception. "The pool at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, people love to come there," said Don Hart, rules and regulations chairman for the national group.

So on May 1, 2001, the hall bid on a parcel of land to the west across the Las Olas Boulevard causeway. The plan was to pay for a spanking-new museum and aquatics complex by building condos on the current site, less than a mile away. Freas sought Nelson's aid in pitching the idea to the city. Nelson assented and brought about 100 members of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, in their red uniforms, to the commission meeting in a show of support for new facilities. When the commissioners voted 3-2 against the plan, Nelson says, Freas was apoplectic.

Nelson says he told Freas after the meeting that he could no longer support him. "I work for these people," he remembers saying, referring to the commissioners.

At that meeting was Ernest Burkeen, who was Fort Lauderdale's Parks and Recreation Director for three years until June, 2004. He chuckles when he recalls the scene. "I don't think Sam Freas was politically astute enough to take on the things he wanted to take place," says Burkeen, who is now Parks and Recreation Director in Miami. "You can't hit somebody upside the head with a two-by-four and not expect that they hit back. No matter how right you are, you cannot embarrass the politicians."

Then-city commissioner Tim Smith, who left the board in 2003, says he voted against the plan because it included too many beach condo units. "When the Hall of Fame wasn't picked, they were really offended," he says. "It was ugly. The whole damn thing was ugly."

Freas admits that he made mistakes in the aftermath of that failed bid. When it was publicized that he was considering moving the Hall of Fame, he says, probably 20 cities called, and when he entertained their offers, it just irked city officials further. "It wasn't fair for them," Freas says, referring to the commissioners. When the development issue resurfaced that August, the commission again rejected it.

Thus began the Hall of Fame's long journey to nowhere.

Freas accepted pitches from Pompano Beach, Sunny Isles, and Las Vegas. Then an advisory group to the Fort Lauderdale City Commission proposed spending $30.7 million to upgrade the aquatic complex and the Hall of Fame facilities.

The Hollywood deal, which would have put the pool smack in the middle of Broward's funkiest beach, was perhaps the most attractive of all the plans. In mid-2001, former Hollywood commissioner John Coleman introduced Freas to mega-developer Michael Swerdlow, who had built some of South Florida's most prized locations. But Swerdlow had also been politically radioactive since 1997, when Broward County purchased 291 acres near Port Everglades from him for at least twice its assessed value, then leased him 97 acres. The deal touched off a state attorney's investigation and sank three supportive commissioners.  

"You gotta like him," Freas says of Swerdlow. "He can be charming, he can be rude, he can be super-intelligent. He knew that we wanted to renew ourselves. He talked to our board, and our board believed him. Did we know he was politically incorrect in Broward County? Hell, no."

The upshot was, in November 2001, Freas announced that the swim hall would move to Hollywood Beach. The proposed $30 million Hall of Fame facility would be financed by taxes from a $240 million project that included a trio of 20-story condo towers. Fort Lauderdale withdrew its proposed millions, the Hall of Fame's parking revenue, and a $405,000 grant of parks money for museum programs.

Swerdlow, Freas, and Hollywood mayor Mara Giulianti tried to move quickly on the proposed facility. Giulianti called for a vote on the measure November 14, 2001, just 12 days after the city's proposal was announced. Opponents balked. Citizens said the deal was being ramrodded. Freas ducked out the day before the measure came to a commission vote.

Pompano Beach was on deck. In late 2001, its city commissioners voted to allow negotiations with the Hall of Fame and Swerdlow. The ungrateful citizenry balked at possible 40-story beachside condos. Last year, after nearly 18 months of discussion -- and the toppling of mayor Bill Griffin, its prime supporter -- the Pompano plan perished.

All had not been lost with Fort Lauderdale. But while the prudent thing for the Hall of Fame to do might have been to tread lightly with the city, Hall of Fame associates were burning bridges.

Marvin and Freas recall a disastrous tête-à-tête in 2002 in which representatives from the city met with Freas and Swerdlow. "The worst meeting I've ever been in," Freas says. "Michael Swerdlow is a genius. Would I like to hang out with him? No. Is he hard? Oh, man. And he talked down to those guys. I felt very bad. There he said, 'I'm going to endow the pool and I want him' -- pointing at me -- 'to run it.' I would never say that. It's not fair. I'm sure Stu thought for sure that I was behind him saying that." Marvin just remembers Swerdlow pounding the table and demanding the city finance the Hall of Fame.

Then late last year, John Fletemeyer, vice chairman of the Hall of Fame's board, filed public information requests, asking among other things what Fort Lauderdale was spending on Jack Nelson and the O'Briens. He suggested a firm called Ellis and Associates might help trim costs.

The coaching legends who work at the pool fired back, decrying privatization, "personal attacks," and the state of the museum exhibits. A former Hall of Fame treasurer wrote that the operation had lost nearly $800,000 in 13 years of management by Freas, whom the treasurer calls "Captain Chaos." On May 21 this year, Nelson resigned from the Hall of Fame in a letter that ripped Freas' and Fletemeyer's "selfish agendas" and "questions about how much money I make."

In the decades he has spent in Fort Lauderdale, Nelson has built a reputation as a shrewd, class act. He has been named the city's man of the year. He's in five other halls of fame. And his knives are out. He has distributed enough copies of the letters criticizing Freas that he refers to the collected correspondence simply as "the packet."

"No one 15 years ago, or maybe even 20 years ago or 39 years ago, thought that it would ever come to a war between the city and the Hall of Fame," Nelson says. "But when you've got idiots representing the Hall of Fame, you're gonna have some problems with the city."

Freas claims the letters and media coverage have been distorted and that he just wants to teach kids to swim.

"All the he said/she said," Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle sighs. "I try to stay out of it. Because it could consume you, trying to figure out who did what. Maybe we need some kind of marathon swim, and have them duke it out."

With the failure of the plans in Pompano Beach and Hollywood, Swerdlow and Freas began courting Daytona Beach. There, they have proposed three 25-story condo towers and a beachside aquatics complex. "What we have, if designed properly, is more Disney-style; I think we could have a great impact," Freas says.

But, like its predecessors in South Florida, that project has become snarled in controversy. It would require changes to the city's land-use plan and, according to a recent Orlando Sentinel editorial opposing the deal, "allow full-time residents on a strip of beach long designated for tourism... it just doesn't add up."  

The plan has also drawn fire from the Daytona Beach News-Journal and local merchants like Paul Politis, who owns a "tourist trap" beach shop and a Burger King in Daytona. "This is a crappy deal from the get-go, and I'm glad they screwed up enough times that we could gather support," Politis says. He offers four-to-one odds that the deal never happens. "If they ask the city for [taxpayer funds] in any way, I don't think it's a go. As many times as Sam Freas has gotten up publicly to state his case, he's stepped all over himself. A lot of double speak, no concrete answers. Nothing the community can get behind."

Even George Mirabal, the president of Daytona's chamber of commerce, who originally courted the Hall of Fame months ago, comments: "This thing, it's such a mess."

Freas is gung-ho on the potential Daytona deal. But he also sounds eager to keep a foot in Fort Lauderdale. "Let's talk about what we need to do to stay here," Freas says. "Will you allow us to meet our mission? Will you allow us to have a presence here forever and ever and ever?"

Whether the Swimming Hall stays or goes, Fort Lauderdale's bottom line is likely to be unaffected. The city ran 40 events at the pools last year. Marvin says those competitions poured $11.2 million into the economy. "People come here because they like the town," Marvin says. "If you're a traveling team, airport's right there, airfares are cheap, hotels are on the beach, restaurants are on the beach, pool's across the street from the beach. I think the Hall of Fame's a great thing. But, no, I don't think it [leaving] would have any kind of effect on our operations.

"Things move all the time. The Cleveland Browns moved. The Giants and the Dodgers left New York. People move."

With or without the Hall of Fame, the city seems intent on replacing the pools. It has approved $27 million from beach taxes to overhaul the venue on the current site. Those plans do not presently provide for museum space. Which means the city might soon have merely a very good swimming venue, without the name brand.

As Nelson leaves his office one evening, he takes the back stairs, which overlook the small pool where instructors and parents introduce babies to water. About a half-dozen little kids are splashing around, laughing and chirping.

"Just imagine for 54 years, thousands of little baby dolls coming out here to learn to swim -- to save their lives," Nelson says. "It's fabulous."

He totters down the stairs, across the pool deck and over to Tim O'Brien, who is overseeing his own parade of tots whirly-gigging off the three-meter board. Then Nelson walks to the pool's back gate, unfastens the padlock, and heads to his car. But he adds a final note.

"I have no reason -- well, I have reason, but I have no desire -- to see Sam go down the drain," he says. "I just want to see him leave the Hall of Fame, so we can keep the majesty for the people who are involved, and they don't have to be ashamed."

He boards his Lexus SUV and drives across the causeway, to the million-dollar, 80-year-old, two-story home he bought 26 years ago for a buck-sixty, right across the Intracoastal from the Hall of Fame. From his front yard, if you squint, you can read the scoreboard. He's that close to it.

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