Recruiting in college athletics is often a fragile mix of fate, fortune and frustration. Bill Mulligan, the UC Irvine men's basketball coach, will attest to that. He and his staff chased five out-of-state and five California high school players this year but couldn't land one.
The Anteaters ended up signing one player they weren't originally interested in--Brett Pagett, a lightly regarded guard from Los Alamitos High School.
Sometimes, however, the best recruits turn out to be the ones that you didn't recruit at all. Just ask Charlie Schober, the UCI swimming coach.
Schober was directing a workout one afternoon two years ago when a young man and his father approached him. The father did all the talking, explaining in heavily accented English that his son was going to attend UCI and was interested in swimming there as well.
When Schober discovered that the young man was a member of the Italian national team, he suddenly became equally interested.
Mauro Macchi, who was so embarrassed about his command of the English language that he barely spoke a word during his first few months in Irvine, is now the captain, top point-getter and even spokesman for the UCI men's team.
He holds the school record in the 500-yard freestyle (4 minutes 30.28 seconds) and has the second-fastest times in school history in the 200-yard freestyle (1:40.94) and the 1,000-yard freestyle (9:35.90).
"It was pure luck for us to get him," Schober said, "but I don't mind being lucky."
Macchi, who learned English in a three-month crash course, feels fortunate as well. He doesn't mind being away from home (Varese, a city in northern Italy), either. He came to the United States primarily to get an education, but he's learning a great deal in the pool and out of the classroom.
"I love the campus life here," said Macchi, a junior economics major who will graduate next spring after taking an average of 16 to 20 units every quarter since his arrival. "I was shy at first, but swimming is like being in a fraternity. I made a lot of friends.
"When I left home, my mother thought I would last only a few weeks because they thought I wouldn't learn English quick enough to get into school."
He concedes he had doubts about how long he would be swimming in the United States after just one summer of training in 1985 with the Mission Viejo Nadadores under then-coach Mark Schubert.
"Mission Viejo? I call it the Animal Farm," he says, smiling. "We swam 20,000 meters a day. It's too much. But I love training and swimming at UCI."
Macchi says Schober understands that a college swimmer's training must be adjusted to fit a routine that includes much studying and a bit of social life.
Schober and Schubert convinced Macchi, a sprinter in Italy, to become a middle-distance swimmer, and the switch has proven successful. Schober thinks Macchi has a good chance of making the Italian Olympic team. He has already qualified to compete in Italy's Olympic trials next June. But he might not go.
"I'm taking my swimming one month at a time," Macchi said. "If I keep improving and do very well in the conference meet and senior nationals in March, I might go back to Italy."
But Macchi, who seems to be more proud of making the dean's list than of qualifying for his country's Olympic trials, worries that a trip to Korea will interfere with his studies.
"I'm anxious to get to graduate school," he said. "My studies here are broad, and I want to specialize in international business. This is more important than the Olympics."
The UCI men's cross-country team qualified for the NCAA championships with a third-place finish in the NCAA Region 8 meet Saturday. But the Anteaters probably would have finished higher if their top runner had not suffered from a stomach disorder that he thinks was caused by a bad milkshake.
Richard Graves, the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. individual champion, finished 20th Saturday after he ingested the foul fluid on Thursday night.
"Richard and his wife, Kim, both drank the milkshakes and Kim was real sick Thursday night," said Vince O'Boyle, cross-country coach. "It didn't hit Richard until Friday when we drove up to Fresno."
Graves said he was feeling better by race time. "All I ate was a banana and a few pieces of bread," he said. "I was pretty weak and just trying to get through it.
"I didn't feel too bad and I was trying to think positively, hoping it would reflect on the other guys. Once the race started I thought I could move up, but I just didn't have it."
O'Boyle said that if it had been anyone other than Graves or Gus Quinonez (who was UCI's top finisher with a sixth place in the Region 8 meet), he would have replaced him with the alternate.
"I knew Richard would gut it out, and he did," O'Boyle said.
Dean Andrea, women's basketball coach, announced Wednesday that Geanine Hobbs, a 6-foot 1-inch forward from Banning High School in Carson, has signed a letter of intent to attend Irvine.