COLUMBIA — When Jake Hoffmann's new coach told him that he could be part of building something special, he believed it.
Hoffmann just didn't know it would involve a hard hat.
When the prep swimming star from Sugar Land, Texas, took his recruiting trip to MU before the 2005 season, coach Brian Hoffer took him into the construction area where the school's new pool was being built.
The sprawling facility, which would become one of the nation's best, was a far cry from the old, rundown pool the team had used for years. In just a matter of minutes, Hoffmann saw where Missouri men's swimming was — and where it wanted to go.
"It motivated me to come here," Hoffmann said. "I wanted to be part of a program that was moving forward. We were going to start something."
The freshman class that Hoffmann would join did just that. Hoffmann's three years at Missouri have brought the swim program its best dual meet win-percentage in Hoffer's 17-year tenure and its first top-25 ranking. The work ethic of the class and its dedication to the team concept have helped create a winning culture.
In the past, the Tigers had struggled with consistency. Hoffer's athletes failed to adhere to the offseason dedication required to become an elite program. Getting an adequate amount of sleep, maintaining a healthy diet and training year-round weren't standard for the Tigers. The new pool, however, brought new expectations and new athletes —athletes that wanted to be a part of something new.
"I think in the back of their minds they wanted to be a part of that," Hoffer said. "But when you get here, just because you want to be a part of it doesn't mean you know how to do it."
They might not have known right away, but Hoffer's freshmen learned quickly.
Current senior captain Brad Hubbard said he had never seen a training attitude like the one his fellow freshmen helped to create back in 2005.
"We've got guys asking to make workouts harder," Hubbard said. "That's something I've never seen in swimming. I'm excited to come into work every day because someone's always challenging you. It's been that way since our freshmen year. I can remember Jake and I getting after each other all the time."
The program's evolution was evident early on in meets as well. The three senior captains cited the program's first dual meet victory over Texas A&M their freshmen year as a defining moment.
"They had to exhibition us in the past they were beating us so bad," Hubbard said. "But we came in and blew them out of the water. We had never been close to them, so that was our big turning point."
The most encouraging part of the meet for the program's future was that it was the freshman class that led the way for the Tigers. Hubbard, Hoffmann and fellow senior captain Bryan Difford all brought home victories against the Aggies.
The victory helped to vault the Tigers into the top-25 for the first time since Hoffer took control of the program. But over the course of the next two years, something was still missing. The 2005 class that helped orchestrate that upset were undoubtedly talented, but the team's leadership was still indicative of the old guard.
At many of the team's meets, most of the swimmers weren't very interested in events beside their own. By the time Hoffmann became an upperclassman and a captain, he had seen enough. During the team's dual meet invitational at Mizzou Aquatic Center last year, he did something about it.
"I just yelled, 'I better see everyone cheer for someone,'" Hoffmann said. "'When we've got a guy in the water, you gotta cheer for your teammates.'"
The captains say that from that moment on, the Tigers have never struggled in being a team.
"There hasn't been a louder team than us since then," Difford said. "I get comments about it from people."
"You won't see a guy sitting when we've got a guy in the water," Hubbard said. "It's amazing."
It's elements of the program like that team aspect that Hoffmann and the other seniors are most proud of establishing. No matter what their times, or how many dual meets the team wins, that kind of success will graduate with them in May. But it's the attitude change that has filtered down to the program's younger classes.
As this year's seniors helped vault the Tigers into the national picture, those classes have become more talented than ever.
"Bringing in people with the talent and instilling in them a work ethic that they've never seen before, the opportunity is endless," Hubbard said.
The belief in what their program could be, even when its future was a hole in the ground in the middle of a construction site, is what made that opportunity possible.
"You always have to have a group of guys that believe in it," Hoffer said. "That believe that it's not OK to be good; we want to be great. I think they finally grasped that concept, and this senior class is the one that allowed Missouri to be a place where when freshmen come in, they don't know otherwise."