Jan. 30, 2004
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
For most, a trip to their alma mater brings back fond memories. Florida State University swimming and diving head coach Neil Harper is no exception when it comes to his old school, Louisiana State University. But unlike your average alum, once a year he finds himself in direct competition with the school and the program that he was a part of for ten years.
On Saturday, Harper and his Seminole squads will take on the Tigers in the same pool that made him one of the best swimmers in school history. Any other day and the fifth-year FSU deck boss is pulling for Purple and Gold, but on this day, he is focused on a victory for the Garnet and Gold.
“It’s always fun to go back to the place where I swam for four years and coached for six more and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the ten years that I spent there weren’t good years,” Harper said. “It’s good to go back and I pull for them every other day of the year, except when we’re playing them in anything, whether it’s baseball, football, tennis and certainly swimming and diving.”
Calling Harper’s time as a swimmer at LSU as just “good” might be an understatement. A 1988 graduate, his sophomore year he captured the Southeastern Conference Championship in the 100-yard backstroke. He added a pair of relay titles in the following two years. All-told, Harper earned seven All-America honors and holds four school records.
During his final year, LSU captured the SEC championship and finished sixth at the NCCA meet, the best finish in school history. As a coach, the success continued as he had a hand in 21 All-Americans, seven conference titles and six top-15 finishes at the national summit.
“I usually get some questions because some of my All-America certificates are on the wall and there is a banner from when we won the SEC championship my senior year,” Harper added. “I expect to see some faces that I know – some coaches, administrators and former swimmers that are still in the area – but for the two, two and half hours that we’re competing it’s just me and the swimmer and everything else can wait.”
One thing memory that Harper doesn’t want to relive comes from the Seminoles’ trip to Baton Rouge two years ago. In his first two seasons at Florida State, he could not get a win against his alma mater. Finally in 2002 both teams broke through for a victory. In celebration, Harper and LSU transfer Candice Nethercott jumped off the ten-meter platform. Unfortunately when he hit the water from that high it felt like hitting the ground and Harper tore his medial collateral ligament in his knee.
“After me telling them not to do stupid stuff before the meet, in a moment of pure happiness I jumped off and injured myself,” Harper noted. “I just told that story to this year’s team and the reason I did it was because we hadn’t beaten them in a while and it was a monkey off our back, but there shouldn’t be any need for me to jump off the ten-meter this time.”
Also along for this trip is Harper’s wife Paige – herself an All-America swimmer at LSU-along with their two daughters Katherine, age nine, and seven-year-old Kelly. This is the first time Harper has taken the kids back and he sees it as a chance to share a part of his life that is very important to him.
“Louisiana is a state unto its own,” Harper said. “The heritage is deep and the way of life is different. We spent ten great years there and we want our kids to be able to see where we spent a lot of our time. It’s also a chance for them to travel so that they can see different places and appreciate what’s out there in this country.”
Harper assures that, naturally, the girls will be wearing Garnet and Gold.