Don’t confuse the casual rapport N.C. State swimming coach Braden Holloway has with his team for leniency.
The Wolfpack swimmers, who enter the men’s ACC championships on Wednesday in Atlanta with an unbeaten record against the conference and a No. 7 national ranking, call Holloway by his first name.
In a red polo shirt and a black backpack, the 35-year-old still looks like he could pass for a college student. By any name, he’s still the coach.
“He’s always on top of us,” senior John Newell said.
There is no detail too small for Holloway, a former All-American swimmer at N.C. State, who has helped a once-proud program become a national factor again.
Holloway, hired in 2011 by athletic director Debbie Yow, led his alma mater to a top 16 finish in the NCAA championships last year for both the men and the women.
Holloway has helped the Wolfpack make strides with improved talent but also what he calls a “high energy” approach. One, he says, is shared by his staff of coaches, whom Holloway gives the bulk of the credit for the program’s progress.
“Our entire coaching staff likes what we do, and we’re passionate about what we’re building here,” Holloway said.
Holloway said there are no shortcuts or tricks. The men’s program finished 13th last year at the NCAA meet, its best national finish since 1979. The women finished 16th in the NCAAs, their best result since 1982 and up from 37th the previous year.
“We are in their faces all the time,” Holloway said. “The way I look at it, we don’t allow you to have a bad practice; it doesn’t exist.”
Holloway defines his coaching style by what he calls “realistic demands.” He admits it’s not for everyone.
There is a level of honesty, Newell said, which can be difficult to take if you’re not prepared for it.
“He doesn’t sugar-coat anything,” Newell said, “But he makes you believe you can do anything.”
The men, who finished second last year in the ACC, are seeking their first conference title since 1992. They wrapped up the regular season with a 180-118 win over North Carolina.
There was a time when N.C. State ruled the ACC swimming landscape. Under former athletic director Willis Casey and legendary coach Don Easterling, the Wolfpack won 18 ACC titles in a 20-year span from 1966 to 1985.
But when Holloway inherited the program in 2011, the Wolfpack had sunk to the bottom of the ACC.
“We were nowhere close to where we are now,” Newell said.” We weren’t even ranked.”
Worse than that, the team didn’t have the mindset or confidence to win.
Senior Nicole Haynes said there were 23 swimmers, of both sexes, in her class when Holloway was hired. Four years later, there are a total of 10 seniors left, Haynes said, and that’s not an accident.
“Braden put his foot down,” Haynes said.
Holloway worked to find the right competitors, notably standouts junior Simonas Billis and freshman Anton Ipsen for the men’s team, and junior Riki Bonnema and sophomore Alexia Zevnik for the women’s team.
“He has recruited a different kind of swimmer, who wants to come here and compete and be successful and not for the social aspect of college,” Haynes said. “With a lot of other classes, that was kind of the goal.”
Yow hired Holloway, previously an assistant at Virginia Tech, with the goal of building a top 25 program. Holloway has accomplished that in a short time.
“There is no deficit in his master plan,” Yow wrote in a text message. “He hires excellent coaches, recruits successfully and is a master motivator.”
Holloway is far from complacent with the work he has already put in. N.C. State has taken the first step from average to good, but there’s still another step from good to great.
That won’t come until the program can produce individuals who have success on the Olympic and World Championship level, Holloway said.
“We have to keep building our reputation,” Holloway said.
He chafes at the label of an “up and coming” team. It’s clear he’s interested in more than just being good.
“For a few years with our men’s team, we’ve been called ‘up and coming,’ ” Holloway said. “That’s fine, but how long are they going to keep saying that? We want to become a staple.”