Every year Florida State University swimming and diving head coach Neil Harper seems to set the bar a little bit higher for the Seminoles, but as he enters his sixth season on the deck for the Tribe the 2004 Atlantic Coast Conference Women's Coach of the Year still enjoys the challenge and keeps clearing the bar by a large margin.
Since Harper returned to Tallahassee in the fall of 1999, the women's team has continued to make huge strides, not only in the league, but on a national level. This was never more evident than last season when the Seminoles proved their mettle at the NCAA Championships.
Florida State finished the national summit in 17th place, the best finish in school history and tops among league schools. FSU moved up 19 spots from 2003 when it finished 36th and the 600 percent jump from nine points to 84 points was the best improvement in the country in 2004.
During the dual meet season the women's team set a school and conference record with their 15 victories. The 15 triumphs in 2003- 04 propelled Harper's record on the women's side to 58-15 for winning percentage of .795 that ranks him second in the history of the ACC. The men's team racked up nine victories last year, moving him into second place all-time in school history with a 43- 18 (.705) mark.
As to be expected, the women's team accomplished many feats that havn't been replicated in some time. Florida State had multiple All-Americans--Emma Dutton and Tiffany Manning--for the first time since 2002 and Dutton's pair of honors made her the first Seminole since Kathy Isackson in 1988 to garner more than one award in the same year. In addition, all four of FSU's relays earned Honorable Mention All-America status.
At the ACC Championships the Seminoles were well represented on the winner's stand with 12 titles between the two squads--the most since the 1995 squad amassed 19--with the men finishing second for the second year in a row and the women adding a thirdplace finish. The league schools also thought a lot about Harper's teams outside the water as both the men and women earned the ACC Sportsmanship Award.
While the women's team has made huge strides during Harper's tenure, the men's program has maintained its standing as one of the best programs in the conference. Matching its best finish at the conference meet, the men's squad placed second as it took home a trio of championships, including the 200-yard medley relay, a race that Florida State has won six of the last eight years.
The men's team continued its streak of five-straight years of at least one individual champion under Harper as Wickus Nienaber took home the 100-yard breaststroke title and Joel Roycik captured the gold medal in the 100-yard butterfly.
On the award's stand at the conference meet, Florida State has won 24 individual titles on the women's since and 17 more during the men's meet since Harper took over in 1999. The women's championships during Harper's tenure are ten more than the previous eight years, while the men's total is the second-best haul in a five-year span.
In conjunction with the improved times in the pool and on the board, the accolades have increased for both the women and men. Florida State has earned 36 All-ACC awards on the women's side in the last five seasons, the third-highest total in the league since 2000. During that same time span, the men rank second with their 29 all-conference honors. The women's ten selection in 2004 are a school record for men or women and tie the 2003 Virginia and 2001 North Carolina squads for the most since 1998.
At the national level, the Tribe has produced ten All-Americans during Harper's five years while the men broke through with their first honoree in 2003. During his 16 years of coaching, Harper worked with 44 athletes who have produced 119 All-American honors.
As to be expected, the Tribe has been rewriting the school's record books. Sixteen of the women's 23 school marks have fallen during Harper's tenure, including nine marks that were reset or broke in 2004. On the men's side, four records have fallen during Harper's watch, including the second-oldest record in school history as freshman Thomas Bishop took down the 1,000-yard freestyle mark last season.
Not only are more of the Florida State records held by Harper`s swimmers, but the all-time top ten contains more of his athletes than any other coach in the program's history. Within the women's lists, 58 of the best times in Seminole lore--nearly half of all entrees--have been set during Harper's five years, including either the number one or two spots in all but one event. The men's team has put its name down 44 times since Harper's arrival in 1999.
Harper's acumen in the pool extends internationally as he has coached at the biggest international competitions in the last five years. This summer he was on the deck for his fourth Olympic Games as he traveled to Athens, Greece, to coach Wickus Nienaber as the head man for the Swaziland contingency. Nienaber was just one of four Harper's pupils competing in the Olympics as junior Chris Vythoulkas swam for the Bahamas and senior Golda Marcus carried the El Salvador flag.
In 2000 he was a member of the South African Olympic coaching staff in Sydney, Australia. The following year he traveled to Fukuoka, Japan to coach Nienaber in the FINA World Championships. During the summer of 2002 he mentored Nienaber at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, where he was joined by former Seminole All-Americans Stephen Parry and Brett Petersen, as well as Vythoulkas. During the summer of 2003 he returned to the FINA Wolrd Championships with Nienaber.
In May of 1999, Harper returned for his second stint in Tallahassee after two years as the women's head coach at Ohio State. In two seasons with the Buckeyes, Harper's team posted a 15-12 mark while qualifying six athletes for the NCAA Championships. In the classroom, Ohio State excelled just as well as both of his teams received NCAA All-Academic selections. Within the conference, the Buckeyes received more than 20 Academic All-Big Ten Conference honors during his two seasons.
From 1994-97, Harper served as the top assistant at Florida State under Don Gibb. One of his main duties was to coordinate the Seminoles' recruiting efforts. His work with the recruiting speaks for itself as during that time Florida State produced numerous All-Americans, including FSU's first NCAA champion Parry in the 200 butterfly. As a top aide, Harper was also in charge of the team's strength and conditioning, while working with the stroke and individual medley swimmers. His work in the pool produced the school's first female All-Americans in six years as former assistant coach Anne Blachford (200 IM), Helen Jepson (200 fly) and Samantha White (100 breast) all enjoyed NCAA success.
A 1990 graduate of Louisiana State University, Harper served as an assistant at his alma mater following graduation up until his first appointment with the Seminoles. During his six years in Baton Rouge, La., he helped Tiger swimmers earn 21 NCAA All-America honors and seven Southeastern Conference titles. During the 1991 season, both the men and women posted one of their best finishes at the NCAA meet as both came away with a 14th-place showing.
As a competitor, Harper is one of the top swimmers in school history. He first made his name in the SEC when he won the 100-yard backstroke at the 1986 meet. Throughout his career, Harper collected four league titles while participating at the NCAA meet in seven events. During his final year, LSU finished sixth at the NCAA championships, the highest finish in school history. He still ranks on the Tigers' all-time top ten in four different categories.
The London native represented Great Britain in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics as a member of the 400-meter medley relay with sixth and fourth-place finishes respectively.
The 39-year-old Harper is married to the former Paige Busch, who was also an All-American and SEC champion in the 100-yard breaststroke at LSU. The couple has two daughters, Katherine (10) and Kelly (8).
HARPER'S COACHING RESUME: 1999-present: Head coach, Florida State University 1997-99: Head women's coach, Ohio State University 1994-97: Assistant coach, Florida State University 1988-94: Assistant coach, Louisiana State University