Virginia swimming alums question reasoning behind Coach Mark Bernardino’s retirement

July 8, 2013

A group of former University of Virginia swimmers wants to know why the school’s longtime swimming and diving coach, Mark Bernardino, abruptly retired last week. The group has called on the athletic department to not hire a new coach until a formal review is conducted.

In a letter to university President Teresa Sullivan, nine alumni with ties to the swimming and diving team asked for a review of what led to Bernardino’s announcement July 1 that he was stepping down after 35 years as head coach at his alma mater. They said they believe Bernardino’s decision was not voluntary.

Bernardino could not be reached for comment.

The group wrote that Bernardino’s silence since retiring via a school-issued news release has led them to “conclude that Mark is contractually bound to refrain from discussing the circumstances of his departure.” They called his announcement “out of character” because it left the program with no transition strategy and came on the first day NCAA coaches are allowed to contact recruits.

Bernardino, who was the school’s longest-tenured coach, led the Virginia men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams to their sixth straight ACC titles last winter, a feat that had not been accomplished in conference history.

“We haven’t talked to him, and there’s many of us who’ve been able to contact him whenever we’ve wanted. . . . That kind of speaks to there is something wrong,” said group spokesman Bill Ripol, a 1990 Virginia graduate who said he has known Bernardino for 30 years. “People are just dumbstruck. They just don’t have any idea why it would happen this way.”

Through a university spokesman, Sullivan directed all inquiries regarding the situation to the athletic department.

“I want this time to be about Mark Bernardino and we should use it to reflect on his outstanding coaching career and his contributions to Virginia athletics and the University of Virginia,” Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said in a statement. “I will have no further comment until we have hired a new head coach to lead the Virginia men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.”

Ripol said his suspicions about the announcement were raised immediately because he spoke with Bernardino last month, when he dropped off his children at the coach’s swim camp in Charlottesville, and got no indication Bernardino was considering retirement.

“Based on the person I know, it’s just not in character for him to have behaved this way or just left,” Ripol said. “He always cares about family and his team first . . . and it’s left the team in a bad position. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not how he does things. He’s up front, straightforward and open and lets people know what he’s thinking. Nobody saw this coming.”

A Facebook page called “Friends of Virginia Swimming and Diving for Mark Bernardino” was started by 17 former Cavaliers swimmers last week and it had more than 1,100 “likes” as of Monday afternoon.

Ripol said his group simply wants more clarity on why Bernardino retired and “why it was so sudden.” They would also like the school to hold off on hiring a new coach until the review is completed and made public, “because once you get a new coach in place, it’s really hard to change direction,” Ripol added

Including his time as a student and assistant coach, Bernardino had spent 41 years at Virginia. He won an ACC-record 27 conference titles and mentored at least one Cavaliers swimmer to every Summer Olympics since 1996.

Bernardino was also named ACC coach of the year 31 times and holds the NCAA record for dual-meet wins.

“It is a difficult day filled with mixed emotions and I have not come to this decision lightly,” Bernardino said in his school-issued statement on July 1. “This job and this university, along with my family, have been my life and my passion for nearly as long as I can remember. But I come to this decision with confidence in the future.”

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