“I don’t really remember if we believed that when he first introduced the idea,” recalled backstroker Mike Ross ’90. “But over the next year, Rob encouraged us to form one tight unit, where we did nothing but work on that relay and think about that relay.”
At the NCAA meet the following March, the vision became reality as the Tigers won the event, outracing powerhouse programs like Stanford and Texas. Princeton won the title again in 1990, with two new swimmers in the lineup. Ross, a member of both teams, said it was a lesson in the powers of belief and focus. “I carry that with me all the time,” he said. “It’s really affected my life.”
For Orr, who announced his retirement last month after 40 years at Princeton, the two national titles are part of an extraordinary tenure that included 23 Ivy League team championships, 38 individual All-Americans, 24 All-American relays, five Olympians, 330 dual-meet wins, and countless hours mentoring student-athletes.
Alumni recalled Orr’s lighthearted attitude, quirky turns of phrase, and his encouraging, personalized training — a feat in itself in a sport with rosters that typically include 35 to 40 athletes and a relatively small coaching staff. “Rob has been successful because he’s always put the student first,” said Doug Lennox II ’09, an All-American and Olympian who served as Orr’s assistant coach for the last two seasons.
Orr’s own career in competitive swimming started relatively late, at age 13. He had a knack for the sport and earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he was a four-time All-American in the 200-yard butterfly.
Orr joked that he pursued coaching in part because he “wouldn’t have to wear a tie every day.” He earned a reputation as a top junior coach for the Dad’s Club team in Houston, Texas, applied for the Princeton men’s job in 1979, and was hired by Bob Myslik ’61, the athletic director at the time. “I’m extremely grateful for him taking a chance on a Southern California kid,” Orr said.
Five years into Orr’s career at Princeton, his Tigers started a run of dominance in the league, winning or sharing the Ivy title 11 times in 12 years, including eight seasons with a perfect 7-0 Ivy dual-meet record.
Around the midpoint of that stretch, the Tigers moved to the new DeNunzio Pool, where the men’s team would win every home dual meet for nearly 21 years (the 92-meet streak ended with a 2011 loss to Navy). “It’s still considered one of the best facilities around,” Orr said. “It’s a good, fast pool, and we love hosting and swimming meets here.”
In December 2016, Princeton was coming off back-to-back championship seasons again when the men’s swimming program was suspended for “vulgar, explicit, and degrading behavior” on a University-sponsored listserv — an episode that tested the team’s reputation on campus and off. Orr said he remains disappointed by the actions of his team and is “extremely grateful” that Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91 and President Eisgruber ’83 gave the program an opportunity to work through its problems. “Hopefully we’ve learned from it and are better for it,” he said.
Orr leaves the program on solid footing after an 8-1 dual-meet season, a second-place finish in the Ivy championships, and an All-American performance by freshman Raunak Khosla in the 400-yard individual medley at the NCAA meet. Lennox said that Orr intentionally waited to announce his retirement after the season, and when he gathered the team to let everyone know of his plans, he insisted it was “not a big deal.”
“I’m content,” Orr said. “It was 40 years —  classes that I’ve had the privilege of getting to know. But it’s time to move on, do other stuff, and enjoy the balance of my life.”
This is an expanded version of a story from the May 15, 2019, issue.