LEXINGTON, Ky. - For the first time in 22 years, the University of Kentucky swimming and diving program will be led by someone other than Gary Conelly, who retired in April. That someone new, however, is a familiar face as UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced Tuesday that associate head coach Lars Jorgensen has been selected to succeed Conelly.
"We are excited that Lars has become our head coach and for the enthusiasm he has for the University of Kentucky," Barnhart said. "During his year here, he has been impressive as associate head coach and as a recruiter and we believe he'll do an outstanding job in his new role. With his success as head coach at Toledo, as an assistant at LSU and as a student-athlete, assistant coach and interim head coach at Tennessee, Lars has the ability, experience and desire to succeed at Kentucky."
"It's a dream of mine to be the head coach at the University of Kentucky," said Jorgensen. "I know we can be very successful here. We have a lot of work to do, but this past year we laid the foundation for future success as we have a really good recruiting class coming in. I think we're going to have a lot better team next year and in the years to come."
Conelly hired Jorgensen prior to the 2012-13 season, giving Jorgensen an opportunity to learn the program and state, build a relationship with the athletes, and form a bond with the athletic department.
"I think, for one, that we have a really great athletic department," said Jorgensen. "I want to thank Mitch Barnhart and (Senior Associate Athletic Director) Jason Schlafer for giving me this opportunity and trusting me with the University of Kentucky swimming and diving program. I think we're in a great location. We have great support being in the SEC. There's no reason why we can't become a more competitive program."
The Southeastern Conference boasts an incredible pool of talent when it comes to swimming and diving. Three men's and women's programs finished in the top 10 nationally at the NCAA Championships in 2013, including the National Champion Georgia women's team. The road will be difficult, but it's a challenge that Jorgensen, a former University of Tennessee swimmer and coach, is quite familiar with and welcomes.
"We want to consistently perform in the SEC and at the NCAA level," said Jorgensen. "We want to lay a foundation built by work ethic and toughness. If we do the little things, then we're going to be competitive, and that's our goal."
While changes to the program are certainly forthcoming, Jorgensen plans to continue to use much of what he learned from Conelly and his 22 years of coaching experience. The 2012-13 season served essentially a transition period as Conelly looked to leave his program in capable hands. Conelly's guidance and wisdom will be prevalent for years to come as Jorgensen settles into his new role.
"Gary was wonderful this past year," said Jorgensen. "I believe in a lot of the same things that Gary taught. It was really nice because I got to know the athletes for a year, so it's an easier step.
"But it's a different role and we have to be accountable in all areas of our program, and my responsibility as a head coach is that our coaches are working hard, our athletes are working hard, and that we're moving the program forward."
Before coming to Kentucky last season, the San Diego, Calif., native and former UT product served as the interim head coach at Tennessee for the 2011-12 season.
During his stint with the Volunteers, Tennessee had a top-12 finish nationally and a third place finish at the SEC Championships while posting a 6-2 (2-1 SEC) record during his first season as an assistant in 2010. He helped coach 12 All-America honorees and they broke three school records during his time there.
Before his time at his alma mater, Jorgensen served as head coach of the Toledo Rockets swimming and diving programs beginning in 2003 and spanning to the 2010 season, where he was twice named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year. In his time at Toledo, Jorgensen led the Rockets to new heights, capturing the program's first MAC Championship in 2009-10 and finishing 35th nationally at the NCAA Championships. The Rockets were also fantastic out of the water for Jorgensen, tallying a 3.4 GPA in the classroom, which ranked 17th among NCAA Division I schools that season.
At Kentucky, Jorgensen hopes to continue the Wildcat tradition of academic success while creating a competitive, well-rounded program.
"First, it's creating a culture of excellence across the board -- academically and athletically," said Jorgensen. "Being a great team, that's important and getting our team to believe in itself that we can be competitive. Those are the missions of the program. We will do things the right way. Continue to excel in the classroom because we were pretty good last year, but we have to improve athletically and I think you can do both at a high level."
Prior to his time at Toledo, Jorgensen also spent four seasons with LSU as an assistant coach including his final season with LSU as the Tigers' associate head coach. In all four years at LSU, his teams finished in the top-20 nationally including a 16th-place finish.
As a student-athlete, Jorgensen was a standout swimmer for UT and the United States, representing the USA in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He also has six USA National Championships to his name.
Jorgensen also holds the current UT record in the 1000-freestyle, tapping in at 9:05.38 in 1992. In addition, Jorgensen holds the Ironman Triathlon record for fastest swimming time in competition history.
Now, Jorgensen hopes that his success in the pool and his experiences at various stops throughout his career as a coach will translate to a winning culture for the University of Kentucky.
"I'm super excited," said Jorgensen. "I've been involved with swimming my entire life, and to lead a program like Kentucky is something that I've worked very hard for and I can't wait to get started."