COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina assistant Mark Bernardino is glad to be back in the pool coaching, even if it isn't what the one-time Atlantic Coast Conference championship leader expected at this point in his career.
Bernardino's Cavaliers dominated the ACC, winning 27 titles from 1978-2013. But Bernardino and Virginia parted ways last year, a split that still stings the longtime coach. After a year on the sidelines attending high school parent meetings and lacrosse games for son, Kevin, Bernardino accepted an offer from Gamecocks coach McGee Moody to become the team's associate head coach.
Bernardino, 62, said he's excited about starting this chapter at a program.
"The opportunity here is great. I think this is a program ready to explode," Bernardino said. "Just the chance to have the opportunity to help build something, to help grow something is pretty exciting to me."
Bernardino didn't think he was done growing things at Virginia. Both the men's and women's teams had won six straight league titles from 2008-13. He had sent swimmers to the Olympics every time since the Atlanta Games in 1996, including five two years ago in London.
"I think we had a family there," he said.
Still, in 2013 he announced his retirement from the program he had built into one college's top teams. Bernardino said he can't talk about the decision publicly and "there'll probably never be a time that I will."
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage provided a statement to The Associated Press when asked about Bernardino's leaving, but would not address that move.
"Bernardino is a tremendous coach as is evidenced by his record of achievement both in women's and men's swimming and diving at Virginia. His teams were always competitive not only from a conference standpoint (ACC) but also nationally," Littlepage said.
Bernardino hated to leave as he did.
"Great disappointment and great hurt," he said.
For Moody, the eighth-year South Carolina coach, hiring Bernardino was a no brainer: Think of a young football coach landing the Gamecocks' Steve Spurrier as offensive coordinator. "I tried to approach it more like recruiting," Moody said.
After gauging Bernardino's interest in returning, Moody courted him through meetings and campus visits. Moody saw a coach who still had the skills and passion to make a difference on the pool deck. Moody did not worry about Bernardino's successful history overwhelming what was being built with the Gamecocks.
Moody talked with Bernardino about the end of his tenure with Virginia and is glad to have a high-character leader on his staff.
"I did my due diligence," Moody said. "But even if I hadn't, I might've hired him anyway because that's how much I respect him."
Bernardino spent the year away from college at high school, attending the sporting events and gatherings he was never able to before because of his job. He's also looking forward to his time as assistant, getting more up close with athletes than in the past because he won't have the head coach's duties to worry about.
"Often times when you're the assistant coach, you get to do some hands-on things the head coach doesn't," Bernardino said.
He won't discount taking over his own program again one day, although he told Moody he'd like to stay with South Carolina at least four years.
Moody says he tries to live by the hiring principle of the late Alabama great Bear Bryant that you should always hire someone you can learn something from.
"Mark fits that perfectly," the Gamecocks head coach said.
Bernardino understands his role and that program decisions are for Moody to make.
"It's not something I had to do, it's something I wanted to do," Bernardino said. "I wasn't finished coaching yet."
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