Bryan Robbins, SMU’s unknown Olympic Coach Part One: The legacy of diving

It started in a small local pool during the summer. A few dives here and a few dives there. W.B. Ray High School didn’t have a swimming and diving team or the facilities, so Bryan Robbins settled for playing basketball. However, diving owned his summers and his heart.

“I remember swinging in swings and flipping out of them backwards. I would hang upside down from trees and flip out of them. I don’t know what really drew me to diving, I just liked to do it.” Robbins said.

For Robbins, the decision to attend SMU was an easy one. He had always wanted to be a Mustang, and it was the only school that offered him a scholarship. So in 1964, freshman diver Bryan Robbins enrolled at SMU. From his first day of practice to his retirement in 1980, Robbins was a pleasant surprise for the SMU diving program.

Unable to compete his freshman season due to NCAA rules, Robbins spent his first year on campus training, learning, and practicing. While some athletes struggle with having to sit out a year, Robbins took advantage of having access to the school pool and coaches to prepare himself for what many considered a surprising college career.

When Robbins graduated from high school in 1964, SMU was on the rise as the dominant power within the Southwest Conference. Rivals with the University of Texas, SMU had managed to win 10 of the last 12 conference championships. In a time that saw Mustang athletics dominated by football, SMU swimming and diving was making a name for itself, and so was Robbins.

During his time as a diver at SMU, Robbins went above and beyond. A five-time Southwest Conference champion, Robbins was named an NCAA All-American three years in a row. In 1968, with that year’s Olympics in Mexico City on the line, Robbins took to the board determined to prove that he was deserving of the title Olympian.

“I was like a wildcard,” Robbins explain. “I had this one dive that always gave me trouble. I tried it and landed on my back. In reality the guys that made it were better than me,” he admitted.

After realizing that his dream of being an Olympic diver was not going to become a reality, Robbins learned a lesson early on that would become very important later in his life – knowing when to walk away. Robbins finished in 5th place at the Olympic trials that year, just two places short of qualifying. However, he quickly moved on to pursuing his next goal: a career in coaching.

“In 1965, I had a good feeling that I was going to coach,” Robbins said. After graduating in 1968, Robbins accepted a position at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville as a diving coach, and began working towards a masters in education. However, Robbins had a hard time adjusting to being a Razorback, and after just one year at the university he would return to his home: SMU.


Robbins [bottom] poses with three of his divers at SMU. Photo courtesy of: TSDHOF.

When asked about Fayetteville, Robbins was very quick to say, “It was terrible. They had one movie theater and one radio station. I couldn’t wait to come back to Dallas.”

Robbins returned to Dallas in 1969 and was hired as the diving coach and as an instructor in the physical education department at SMU.

Robbins was excited to begin a new journey, one that was transitioning from athlete to coach, from diver to teacher. But success at such a young age caught up with him. Having just graduated a year prior to being hired, Robbins dove with many of the athletes that were now his responsibility.

“It was a little bit of a disadvantage. I was still a little immature and I had a hard time flipping the switch from friend to coach.” Robbins said.

As the head diving coach Robbins ran a program that was different, but successful. Early on in his tenure of coaching, Robbins began requiring his athletes to participate in yoga before practice.

“My wife used to joke that I would get fired,” Robbins chuckled. “I started having an actual yoga guru come before practice. He wore the robe and everything.”

Under Robbins’ leadership SMU diving won 10 straight conference titles, adding to the previous 15 titles the university had won prior to Robbins taking over the program. It was during this time that Robbins would be selected as Southwest Conference Coach of the Year in 1975 and 1979.

Although Robbins had been unable to make the Olympics as an athlete, much to his surprise he would be given another shot as a coach. After being selected as the head women’s diving coach in 1976, Robbins’ Olympic journey had finally come full circle.

“I was completely surprised,” Robbins said. During the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Robbins had two divers compete, and although the other divers brought their own coaches, Robbins was the figure head of USA Women’s Diving.

Four years later, Robbins was preparing to return to the Olympics as the women’s head coach again when President Carter ordered a boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow.

“When we boycotted the Olympics in Moscow it was devastating to the divers. I was excited to go, but the athletes had sacrificed hours and hours, it was terrible for them.” Robbins said.

Having coached NCAA national champions, U.S. national champions, world champions, and Olympians, Robbins had surpassed even his own expectations and began to consider retirement. His family responsibilities weighed heavily on his mind as his desire to spend time at home started to outweigh his desire to spend time at the pool.

For a young and successful coach, Robbins found himself at a crossroads…

For Part Two of the Bryan Robbins biography, click here.

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2 years ago
Swimming & Diving
Written by Jesse Carr
Jesse is journalism major at Southern Methodist University and co-founder of The Stable. A die hard Texan, Jesse loves Lonestar beer, tattoos, God, anything sports related, and contributes coverage of all SMU athletics.